Head of Navy Orders Inquiry after Sexual Abuse Allegations

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Liam Goggin

Partner, Head of Abuse Claims

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TW: themes of sexual abuse

In October 2022, it was reported that the head of the Royal Navy, Adm. Sir Ben Key, had ordered an inquiry into allegations of sexual abuse within the submarine service. The decision to launch this investigation follows an article from the Daily Mail which provided first-hand accounts of sexual, emotional and physical abuse towards female members of the submarine service.

According to the Daily Mail, this abuse has taken place for over a decade since women were first allowed to join the submarine service in 2011. Adm. Sir Ben Key has said that he is “deeply disturbed” to hear of the allegations made and has said they are “abhorrent” in nature.

In this article, we’ve explored the allegations which prompted the new inquiry, what’s been done, as well as outlining what you can do if you’ve been affected.

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What Allegations were Made against Male Personnel? 

Many of the instances of abuse outlined in the Daily Mail’s whistleblowing article were courageously revealed by former lieutenant Sophie Brook, one of the first women to join the submarine service. Despite it being a dream of Sophie’s to join the Royal Navy, she described her experience as an ongoing “campaign of sexual bullying.”

In all of the allegations put forward by Sophie, the presence of power dynamics is an ongoing theme, and it is now referred to as a “whitewash”. Sophie described how senior officers would regularly make sexualised gestures and commands towards female personnel who were within their line of command. As of 2023’s articles, the former lieutenant has complained of delays and accused the Navy of trying to ‘scapegoat’ one senior officer, in the hopes of protecting the rest of the service.

According to the first article in the Daily Mail, as well as the inappropriate sexual comments, Sophie and her female colleagues had to endure, they were also witness to conversations amongst male staff surrounding what was referred to as the “crush depth rape list”. This highly disturbing list ranked the order in which female personnel would be forced to have sex with male staff members if there was a catastrophic event on board.

Sophie also told the Daily Mail how the verbal abuse would progress to sexual assault on numerous occasions. She described how she was once woken up in the middle of the night by a “large-set” senior officer who had climbed into her bed and was trying to forcibly kiss her.

Although Sophie’s experiences are horrifying, they’re unfortunately not isolated. Another whistle blower who spoke to the Daily Mail explained her time on Royal Navy warships as similar to being in a “parallel universe” where sexual harassment was normalised.

 

What Allegations were Made against Male Personnel? 

Many of the instances of abuse outlined in the Daily Mail’s whistleblowing article were courageously revealed by former lieutenant Sophie Brook, one of the first women to join the submarine service. Despite it being a dream of Sophie’s to join the Royal Navy, she described her experience as an ongoing “campaign of sexual bullying.”

In all of the allegations put forward by Sophie, the presence of power dynamics is an ongoing theme, and it is now referred to as a “whitewash”. Sophie described how senior officers would regularly make sexualised gestures and commands towards female personnel who were within their line of command. As of 2023’s articles, the former lieutenant has complained of delays and accused the Navy of trying to ‘scapegoat’ one senior officer, in the hopes of protecting the rest of the service.

According to the first article in the Daily Mail, as well as the inappropriate sexual comments, Sophie and her female colleagues had to endure, they were also witness to conversations amongst male staff surrounding what was referred to as the “crush depth rape list”. This highly disturbing list ranked the order in which female personnel would be forced to have sex with male staff members if there was a catastrophic event on board.

Sophie also told the Daily Mail how the verbal abuse would progress to sexual assault on numerous occasions. She described how she was once woken up in the middle of the night by a “large-set” senior officer who had climbed into her bed and was trying to forcibly kiss her.

Although Sophie’s experiences are horrifying, they’re unfortunately not isolated. Another whistle blower who spoke to the Daily Mail explained her time on Royal Navy warships as similar to being in a “parallel universe” where sexual harassment was normalised.

 

What Happened when Sexual Abuse was Reported?

Reporting sexual abuse in any scenario takes a large amount of courage, but in an environment as confined as a submarine, it can feel almost impossible.

Former lieutenant Sophie told the Daily Mail that there was no HR or union representation while she was on patrol. For the time that Sophie was on board, senior officers were thought of as “God” and you couldn’t report them as they controlled everything.

Sophie described her despair as she said: “given it was senior officers doing it, there was no point in trying to do anything.”

It’s not surprising that Sophie felt she couldn’t report her experience. Female personnel who stood up for themselves were often referred to as “dangerous women” and were ostracised. For some, this meant they couldn’t complete important training as other crew members were told not to help them.

When Sophie did make the decision to report what she’d been through to a superior, she was told that if she pursued further action it would generate “press interest”. Sophie didn’t want to be at the centre of any media attention, so she withdrew her comments – a decision she still regrets.

According to the Director of the Centre for Military Justice, Emma Norton, only about 10 percent of women who go through serious bullying or sexual harassment in the submarine service make a formal complaint. This is largely because they have “no faith that they’ll get any kind of justice or fair hearing.”

There is also an element of pressure on women who enter into the armed forces to “prove” that they’re capable of working in traditionally male-dominated areas. Sophie spoke about the shame she felt about coming forward as her own mission was to show that “women could work harmoniously alongside men.”

Clearly, more needs to be done to ensure that female personnel who make the decision to report any form of abuse are supported and that perpetrators are held to account, regardless of rank or seniority. We hope that the new inquiry will be a step in the right direction towards an effective zero tolerance approach.

Sadly, as of October 2023, Sophie has withdrawn her support of the inquiry due to the delays in the process, and that she fears the inquiry’s findings will be a ‘whitewash’. She will no longer co-operate with it, and has said; “Having battled for women in the service for close on 11 years now, ultimately ruining my career, dreams, reputation and bringing me to the point of suicide, the time has come for me to give up and move forward with my life.”

'It has been a huge ordeal speaking out and it now feels like it might have all been for nothing,' she said. 

Though this is the sad reality for a number of female victims who come forward, this should not stop you in still seeking justice. Our Military Claims Solicitors can help you get support and compensation if you’ve experienced abuse, bullying or harassment whilst serving in the British Armed Forces.

 

Compensation for Bullying and Harassment Claims

The Ministry of Defence (MOD) have a duty of care to people serving in the military, but sadly we know cases of bullying and harassment are still common within the British Armed Forces. It was reported in 2021 that almost two thirds of women serving in the military had experienced bullying, harassment or discrimination during their career.

Unfortunately, the processes in place for dealing with bullying and harassment in the Armed Forces often fail to bring justice for the people who’ve spoken up. A report revealed in 2020, that 89% of Armed Forces personnel subjected to harassment or bullying didn’t make a complaint because they believed nothing would be done or it would negatively impact their career.

If you’ve experienced bullying or harassment while serving in the British Armed Forces, you shouldn’t have to suffer in silence. We could help you make a claim. Get in touch with our dedicated Military Claims Solicitors for advice.

 

What can I do if I’ve Been Sexually Harassed or Bullied in the Armed Forces?

If you’ve experienced any kind of abuse while serving in the armed forces, whether it’s emotional, physical or sexual, we’d encourage reporting this internally in the first instance if you can.  

You could also be entitled to make a claim for compensation.

We know the thought of taking legal action can feel daunting, especially if you’re still serving. Our Military Claims Team and Abuse Law Solicitors are experienced in these types of claims and will tailor their service to your individual needs and preferences, so you feel supported throughout.

If you decide to instruct one of our solicitors, we could help you to either:

To find out more about how our specialist Military Claims and Abuse Law Solicitors could help you, call us on 0808 239 0244. We can help you every step of the way.

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Profile picture of Liam Goggin

Liam Goggin

Partner, Head of Abuse Claims

Areas of Expertise:
Abuse Claims

Liam works as the Head of the Department in Abuse Claims at Simpson Millar.

In this role, he oversees a team of experienced abuse lawyers and is a part of our Leadership Team. His primary focus is on Child Abuse Claims, and he handles cases against schools, local authorities, religious and charitable organisations, private companies, and notably cases for individuals who have been criminally convicted of offences.

References

The Guardian. (2021, July 25). Two-thirds of women in UK military report bullying and sexual abuse. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/jul/25/two-thirds-of-women-in-uk-military-report-bullying-and-sexual-abuse

UK Parliament. (2022). Women in the Armed Forces: From Recruitment to Civilian Life. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5802/cmselect/cmdfence/154/15407.htm

UK Government. (n.d.). Defence publishes its zero-tolerance approach to sexual offences. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/defence-publishes-its-zero-tolerance-approach-to-sexual-offences

Sky News. (2023, October 25). Tweet. https://twitter.com/SkyNews/status/1586295661158440961

Daily Mail. (n.d.). Royal Navy probe into misogyny, bullying, and sexual harassment on submarines branded a whitewash. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11917663/Royal-Navy-probe-misogyny-bullying-sexual-harassment-submarines-branded-whitewash.html

Daily Mail. (n.d.). Royal Navy submarine whistleblower shares male crewmates subjected to sexual harassment. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11366813/Royal-Navy-submarine-whistleblower-shares-male-crewmates-subjected-sexual-harassment.html

The Guardian. (2022, October 28). Royal Navy chief orders investigation into abhorrent allegations of bullying, misogyny, and sexual harassment. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/oct/28/royal-navy-chief-orders-investigation-into-abhorrent-allegations-of-bullying-misogyny-and-sexual-harassment

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