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‘Breaking point:’ Chaplain’s workplace horror

The Reverend Nikki Coleman told the royal commission that she was sexually abused by another chaplain. Picture: Supplied
The Reverend Nikki Coleman told the royal commission that she was sexually abused by another chaplain. Picture: Supplied

A church chaplain who was allegedly abused while serving in the air force has revealed horrific details of an allegedly toxic workplace culture where her cries for help were downplayed and she was forced to remain in proximity to her abuser even after her claims of abuse had been substantiated.

The Reverend Nikki Coleman, who served as a chaplain from 2017 until 2023, said the alleged abuse and toxic aftermath that followed her complaints pushed her to the brink of suicide, with her desperate family taking her to a hospital in fear for her life.

“Everybody has their breaking point and unfortunately I found mine,” she said.

Dr Coleman, a Uniting Church minister, told the Royal Commission Into Defence and Veteran Suicide hearing in Melbourne that her alleged abuser, a chaplain from another denomination, had bullied her, sexually abused her and threatened to have her dismissed for “trivial” matters.

But when she went to a senior chaplain for help in 2019, he allegedly advised her to “think very clearly” about whether she wanted to pursue a complaint and that she could manage the issue herself.

“At that point I was being assaulted and sexually harassed,” she said.

The Reverend Nikki Coleman told the royal commission that she was sexually abused by another chaplain. Picture: Supplied
The Reverend Nikki Coleman told the royal commission that she was sexually abused by another chaplain. Picture: Supplied

Dr Coleman moved to a different workplace and said she started writing out a detailed complaint, which she lodged in August 2020.

But through this, she said she was “ostracised” by her fellow air force chaplains.

“I had falsehoods spread about me by a senior chaplain,” she said.

“It was horrendous.”

Of the 12 complaints of unacceptable behaviour she lodged against her alleged abuser, 10 of them were substantiated.

But the outcomes of the investigation and any actions the air force may have taken against the alleged perpetrator have never been revealed to her, she claims.

“I can’t judge how seriously my complaints were taken if I don’t know what the outcomes are,” she said.

And after a majority of her claims were accepted, she was still forced to work in proximity to her alleged abuser, with both located in Canberra’s Russell Complex, a set of eight buildings.

In one harrowing incident, Dr Coleman revealed how she had received a text message that her alleged abuser was in the same building and on the same floor as her.

Russell Defence Complex in Canberra, housing Office of National Assessments, ASIO, DSD, DIO, and Army, Navy and Air Force offices.
The Russell Complex in Canberra, which houses the army, navy and air force offices. Picture: Supplied

In panic, she said she rushed to the bathroom, where she suffered a “gastro” explosion before returning to her desk “trembling”.

She said she then left the office to go to the psychiatric clinic where she was later driven home by a supervisor.

But Dr Coleman praised the culture in the army and navy chaplaincy branches, which she said had kept her alive as she went through her trauma.

She said her alleged abuser had since left the defence force, which she believes he did in order to avoid prosecution for her most serious allegations.

She argued he should not have been allowed to leave with such serious charges against him.

“I’m exceedingly disappointed in the senior leadership of ADF for making that decision (letting him leave),” she said.

Dr Coleman called for systemic cultural change in the ADF in how it handles bullying and sexual assault allegations.

“We need them (defence) to be able to name bullying and sexual harassment as a problem,” she said.

‘Incredibly damaging impacts’

In the morning session before Dr Coleman’s testimony, Judge Douglas Humphreys recommended an external review body independent of defence’s legal structures review ADF terminations, noting the massive psychological impact a termination could have on a member.

“It can have incredibly damaging impacts,” he said.

He also argued that military justice panels hearing the most serious cases should more closely reflect the form of civilian courts, with 12 jurors and a requirement for unanimity in judgments.