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Royal Commission hears stories of abuse at ADF apprentices school -

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TONY EASTLEY: The child abuse Royal Commission has heard disturbing evidence that teenage boys were molested by their peers at an Army apprentices school in Victoria.

Former apprentices from the Balcombe School have been called to appear at a public hearing into the Australian Defence Force.

They've given evidence that they had nowhere to go for support at the time. And they weren't believed when they approached the Department of Veterans' Affairs, decades later.

Thomas Oriti reports.

And a warning: this story contains details you may find disturbing.

THOMAS ORITI: Since his early childhood growing up in Adelaide, Daryl James has had a passion for music.

And at the age of 15, he took his skills as a percussionist to the Australian Army, travelling to the Balcombe Army Apprentices School in Victoria in 1972.

DARYL JAMES: We lads of Class 27A were relegated to the lowest rung of the pecking order. And we were called "super-sprogs", meaning lower than "sprogs".

THOMAS ORITI: In the months that followed, he says, he was beaten and sexually abused multiple times by both senior apprentices and a civilian employee who worked in the school's laundry.

He described the abuse in graphic detail at today's hearing.

DARYL JAMES: I kept cleaning myself up until, finally, the bleeding stopped. I went back to my bedspace. I went back to sleep frozen... and very homesick. (Audibly upset)

THOMAS ORITI: Daryl James was one of four former Balcombe apprentices to give evidence this afternoon.

Another man, 'CJC', says he was abused there in 1971; and today he used poetry to express his anguish:

'CJC': I was once a boy full of life, and hope, and plans for my years ahead. But on several nights my life was turned on the floor near my guardian bed. I now have a wife, and a pair of great kids - grandkids, too, I must add. But I've failed them all. And I know it's because of the fun that my guardian had.

THOMAS ORITI: He asked his brother to read his statement on his behalf.

CJC STATEMENT(READ BY BROTHER): I was sexually abused on at least two occasions by a senior apprentice, who was the hut corporal. At the end of each abuse, the hut corporal said, "Keep your mouth shut and go to bed."

THOMAS ORITI: It was a similar experience for former apprentice mechanic David Sparreboom, who was sexually assaulted in his bed by his peers at the age of 16, in 1970.

He was offered a $50,000 payment from the Defence Abuse Response Taskforce in 2014. But he criticised how the Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA) handled the case.

DAVID SPARREBOOM: They seemed to be suspicious and negative with me, and again I felt second-rate. It was like they thought I had the gall to report something that I could not prove.

THOMAS ORITI: Daryl James took his criticisms of the department further:

DARYL JAMES: I believe there should be a royal commission into the discrepancies and inefficiencies that appear to exist within the DVA and its legislation.

THOMAS ORITI: The former apprentices were called to appear after days of evidence detailing sexual abuse at the naval base HMAS Leeuwin in Western Australia.

And a former governor of New South Wales, retired Rear Admiral Peter Sinclair, was appointed as executive officer there after a government investigation in 1971.

Today, Peter Sinclair told the hearing that he introduced changes, including the improved supervision of junior recruits.

But lawyers for the survivors said that the abuse continued. That came as a surprise to the witness.

PETER SINCLAIR: I find it very, very hard to accept that none of the junior recruits that were there during my time at Leeuwin were able to report, either in an informal or formal sense, to people in authority, or to their parents, or to the chaplains, or to their friends amongst the junior recruits these allegations of abuse that were carried out against them. I find that hard to accept.

THOMAS ORITI: Peter Sinclair then rejected suggestions from lawyer Ian Fehring that, as executive officer, he failed to change the culture at HMAS Leeuwin.

PETER SINCLAIR: For you to say that all of these actions that I took were unsuccessful I find a little bit insulting.

THOMAS ORITI: The HMAS Leeuwin component of this inquiry has now come to an end, but the royal commission will continue to investigate the Balcombe Army Apprentices School tomorrow.

And next week it'll focus on contemporary allegations of child sexual abuse within the Australian Defence Force.

TONY EASTLEY: Thomas Oriti.