6 Mar 2018

'Nothing was done about the abuse' - RNZAF staffer

8:08 pm on 6 March 2018

A former Air Force staffer lived in constant fear of a Sergeant known as "Groper Roper", she says, and nothing was done despite numerous complaints.

Exterior of the Auckland High Court

Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

The woman is suing the Crown for damages at the High Court in Auckland, arguing the Air Force failed to act on complaints about the behaviour of Robert Richard Roper.

Roper was jailed for 13 years in 2014 for sexual offending against five girls in the 1970s and 1980s. His crimes include raping his daughter.

The woman's lawyer Graeme Little said Roper's misconduct - and complaints about it - was so widespread that the RNZAF were liable, and his client should have some punitive relief.

Giving evidence today, the woman - who has name suppression - said she was told to beware of Roper soon after she arrived as a new recruit at the RNZAF Base Whenuapai.

"I learnt that he was called 'Groper Roper', 'Sergeant Raper' and 'Rocky Roper', but mainly 'Groper Roper'.

She said Roper was continually touchy feely, and her life became "hell" under his charge.

"He would rub himself up behind me when I was in the tyre bay, gyrate himself against me, grab my bottom, breasts, upper thighs and he would corner me when I was trying to work on machinery. He would try to undo my bra straps, and touch me."

She said the more she told him to stop, the more he thought it was a joke.

"I learnt to live with this fear in my military career. It was military protocol that we did as we were ordered."

She broke down as she described how she was forced to drive him home after drinking, and he would lock the doors and try to put his hand up her skirt.

"I would try to get the RT (radio telephone) to inform base and he would grab it off me and threaten me not to say anything. I felt trapped and scared."

"Staff knew my fears of driving him alone. Often the boys would step in and drive for me knowing how distraught I was on my return from driving him alone."

"I was always fearful of being assaulted worse than I already had been, being raped or beaten up or murdered on that country road between Whenuapai and Hobsonville."

She also claimed Roper padlocked her in a small wire mesh cage for up to an hour while others were on lunch break.

"I vividly remember the terror and fear I felt when he would lock me in the tyre cage, the outcome if I didn't do as he said, the loud banging as he bashed the large iron tyre bar on the counters of the tyre bay. The feeling of him prodding me with the iron bar was horrific."

'People knew how upset I was about his behaviour.'

The woman told the court she told up to 10 others about Roper's behaviour, including her seniors.

In one instance a flight lieutenant wrote notes and appeared to make an official record of her account.

"He always said 'I will look into it.' But he never reported back to me and nothing ever came of it."

"Sergeant Roper was such a controlling man and yet nothing was done about the abuse within the section. Superiors knew and they all turned a blind eye to his behaviour.

She said military rule was so instilled in her it never occurred to her to go to civilian police.

The end of a career

"The behaviour was rife, it was the 'boys' club'. I couldn't understand why nothing was ever done about it. As a young girl I felt I had no option but to resign."

She told the court she fled the country and when she did return to New Zealand and attempted to re-enter the military in an office capacity, things had been too difficult and the memories of Roper came back.

She left the country again but continued to have problems with employment because of ongoing anxiety and depression.

She told the court she felt physically sick when she read of Roper's convictions when they came to light in 2014.

"I felt their pain. I felt incredibly guilty that no one took me seriously and my complaints were never actioned. The overwhelming guilt of how those children's lives could have been so different if I was only heard."

She said it was only when Roper was behind bars that she felt safe enough to contact New Zealand police.

Lawyer questions staffer's memory of events

Under cross examination, Roper's lawyer John Mather put to her that her memory of his conduct was "simply plain wrong".

"You've misrecalled those events in this 30 years ...Your recall is just dredging up all those workplace conducts that took place between [Motor Transport] members and you've visited all those on Sergeant Roper."

She denied she had lied and asserted he had done what she said he had done.

Crown lawyer Antonia Fisher QC is to cross examine the plaintiff tomorrow.

Roper was inside court during the proceedings behind a dark screen flanked by two security guards.

The hearing is set to to take eight days.

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