LONELY PITCAIRN ISLAND WEATHERING A STORM

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By Tim Watkin

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (August 28, 2002 – New Zealand Herald)---Secrecy surrounds Pitcairn Island as completely as the Pacific Ocean. Like the boundless sea and sky, it's always been part of the way of life.

When Fletcher Christian first spied Pitcairn on the evening of January 15, 1790, secrecy was exactly what he wanted. Having led his now famous mutiny on the Bounty against the bullying Captain Bligh, he was looking for a place to hide beyond the reach of English law.

A mere 3.2 kilometers (1.92 miles) long by 1.6 kilometers (0.96 miles) wide, 500 kilometers (300 miles) from the nearest land, and incorrectly charted on maps of the day, Pitcairn was virtually invisible. The nine mutineers and 18 Polynesians torched their ship and disappeared.

Secrecy continued to serve their descendants well. Outsiders entranced by vague notions of swashbuckling adventure, an Eden-like Christian community and tropical idyll bought their postage stamps and curios.

But for the past 2 1/2 years, police have been investigating claims that the same secrecy was serving men on the island who were perpetrating a tradition of rape and sexual abuse. While the investigation is wrapped in its own layers of secrecy, Pitcairn public prosecutor Simon Moore has announced that charges will be laid; indications are before the end of the year.

In a bustling Parnell cafe, former Pitcairn Islanders Alex and Sarah (not their real names) have just broken this centuries-old tradition of secrecy. Through a two-hour interview, Sarah's voice has cracked with emotion and beads of sweat have appeared on Alex's forehead. A week later in a South Auckland office, a third Pitcairner, Mary (not her real name), will also speak out, constantly fiddling with a pen and shaking with agitation.

Until now, throughout the investigation, islanders have refused to speak to the media. But they have grown weary of waiting for their day in court and are angry at the way the authorities are treating them.

"There are a lot of Pitcairn families out there very sad and dejected and feeling hopeless about everything," Sarah says.

"One of the main reasons I came to this interview is that we were told by people on Pitcairn that they're sick of it now," says Alex. "They want the world to know what's happened rather than these little snippets which are all from the Governor's side. Now, we want to fight back."

Pitcairn is one of the most isolated places on earth; a chip of volcanic rock 5,300 kilometers (3,180 miles) west of New Zealand with still further to go before you reach Panama.

There is no running water, no airstrip and electricity only eight hours a day. To visit the island takes eight days by container ship from Auckland.

The population varies as people come and go, but has fallen from a peak of 233 in 1937 to around 43 today. Roughly 200 Pitcairners live in New Zealand and another 200 are scattered around the world, chasing a modern lifestyle or an education for their children.

Alex and Sarah came to Auckland in the 1990s for just those reasons. But here Alex's island life caught up with him. Police knocked on the door early in 2000 wanting to interview him about allegations of sexual offending made by women from Pitcairn.

The police and public prosecutor have consistently refused to confirm the number of complainants and accused and what the charges will be, but we know the investigation was sparked by two complaints late in 1999 to Kent policewoman Gail Cox who was on Pitcairn training an islander in community policing.

Pitcairn's Deputy Governor Karen Wolstenholme, sitting in the Governor's modest office in the British High Commission on a hill overlooking parliament, says diplomats quite properly know nothing of the investigation. But, she adds, "I know what those first allegations were and there is no way the Governor could have ignored those. No way."

There was also no way anyone could have foreseen the "multiple allegations" that followed. In the years since, police have traveled the globe conducting interviews and Moore has received "dozens of statements" as a result.

The island community once famed for its virtue and praised in countless Victorian sermons now lives under a cloud of vice.

That investigators have uncovered sexual misconduct -- at least some very serious -- can hardly be doubted, given the extent of their inquiries. But just how grave and widespread the offending has been divides even those who know the island well.

One outsider who spent several years on Pitcairn, but refused to have his name revealed, says Pitcairners live a life based on their mutineer/Tahitian heritage and claim the age of consent there is 12 (according to Pitcairn ordinances it is 15). While they travel and are aware of modern sexual mores, they have secretly continued a tradition of adultery and under-age sex, he says.

"It was ingrained, their way of life, and they tried to hide it. The grandmothers claim they had their turn and the next generation must endure it. The men controlled everything and immorality on the island was very high."

Worse, he heard complaints of sex abuse with children as young as 5 and says while he doesn't believe there was incest, "you'd come across uncles and aunts with nephews and nieces and that sort of thing."

The outsider says he told the islanders their behavior was unacceptable and was ostracized. He and his family needed counseling after leaving the island and he desperately wants to put Pitcairn behind him.

In contrast, Herb Ford, director of the Seventh Day Adventist-sponsored Pitcairn Island Study Center in San Francisco, says he knows there's been under-age sex on the island, "but if Pitcairn men are preying on young girls then I'm missing a lot. I don't think it would have been denied by silence, by these people who have considered themselves Christian people.

"I think we are talking about a few isolated cases, not a rule."

Referring to the outsider's claims, he adds: "What surprises me about his revelations is that only he has come forward with them. He's probably in the field of guessing."

One Seventh Day Adventist pastor, Rick Ferret, who served on the island from 1989 to 1992 with his wife and three preschool children, says: "We didn't perceive that the island was immersed in this kind of thing."

He was aware of adultery, "like anywhere," but never received reports of rape or under-age sex. Yet he wasn't surprised when the allegations were made. He stopped and started as he tried to explain what he knew.

"It was never obvious ... We never witnessed ... You may have had a hunch in the back of your mind, but nothing was overtly said. It's a close-knit community and there's a veneer of culture that's obvious and a deeper one that's hidden from most people.

"I'm sure there may be a lot of secrets. A bundle of secrets."

While it seems unlikely there could be such disturbing secrets among this small, remote community, Wolstenholme supports Ferret's observation.

"On the surface it's a village where everybody knows everyone's business, which is why I think this has become such a protracted investigation. Because as you dig deeper you find people don't actually know what's been going on."

Before he left for Pitcairn, Ferret visited an elderly pastor who had served on the island. He warned Ferret that after a while he would see "a different level of morality."

Alex finds it hard to talk about his past. The burly, middle-aged man says he did not have intercourse until he was at least 16, but does admit to having sex with under-age girls after that. It was 25 years ago. Teen sex was common. Even some 10-year-olds were sexually active.

"A lot of it was 12- and 13-year-olds together. The ones you grew up with. Put it like this, when we were young, I'm talking 5 or 6, we were playing with girls -- mothers and fathers and that. It's been going on for 200 years." Sarah says children on the island are sexualized much younger than in New Zealand.

"It was normal for Pitcairners. It shouldn't have been, but the whole society was built up like that."

Trent Christian, son of the Pitcairn mayor and now living on Norfolk Island, says he grew up thinking the age of consent was 12 or 13 and knows young people were sexually active. But he's surprised by accusations of adults abusing minors.

Mary says she left the island a virgin at age 13 and was unaware of friends having sex. "I'm not saying that under-age sex doesn't go on, just like it goes on here. In Otahuhu we've got 11-year-old prostitutes down here," she says. "We wanted the police to do something. They weren't interested. What can they do?"

Her brother had sex with an under-age girl when he was over 16, but thought it was consensual. You can't judge Pitcairners as if they live in Parnell or Pakuranga, she says.

"In Turkey you can marry at 11. Different countries have their own way of life."

Sarah says that, concerned for her daughter, she raised the subject with one man and was frozen out by the community. It was impossible for anyone to make a stand because there was no authority to turn to. She believes the British must share the blame for allowing Pitcairn's sexual culture to continue.

"The British knew what was going on. There were mothers at the age of 12, 50 years ago. Why did they not supply some information, some guidance?" When that point is relayed to Wolstenholme, she nods wearily.

"That's something I'm very conscious of," she concedes. But she will not be drawn on whether her predecessors should be held responsible for not intervening sooner. Ferret suggests the outside authorities -- church and state -- have fallen prey to Pitcairn's romantic myth. And its culture of secrets.

"No one wanted to see reality. It may have been their reasoning to think the better of everything rather than see the reality of something."

The question remains: just how dark are those secrets? It's hard to imagine Moore and the New Zealand and British police have spent years merely investigating teenage sex, even if some of those involved were under 16. While the law can't turn a blind eye to children as young as 10 having sex -- and some adults are likely to be prosecuted for under-age sex -- it hardly warrants the resources spent. The reasonable conclusion is that a range of charges will be laid, from the relatively minor to the extremely serious. But until Moore announces what those charges are, every Pitcairner feels guilty.

Alex says most islanders recognize their way of life was wrong and must change. He knows of at least one receiving sex counseling.

"Now I'm in New Zealand and I've lived here for years I see it [sex with minors] as totally wrong. I've said that [to police] right from the word go." But he's also angry, and it's an anger simmering throughout the Pitcairn community.

They're angry that their children are called rapists and their mothers are suffering depression; that men have suffered stress-related illnesses, including heart failure; and that even the women and children on the island may lose their home if the able-bodied men needed to work the longboats are imprisoned.

Because the community is so small and interdependent, the offenders in this case have hurt not only their victims; they have jeopardized a way of life. Islanders have become suspicious of each other. Support for the victims has been limited; some even blame them, putting the offending down to the way they acted and dressed.

The entire population is suffering for the perpetrators' sins.

Betty Christian, a 59-year-old, sixth-generation Pitcairner, wrote from the island this week: "Our very existence is at stake. We are like one family, and whatever decision is made, we are the ones who will suffer. Regardless of our differences and problems, none of our people want to see Pitcairn closed down and abandoned ... Whatever the outcome, all of us will be affected as we are related to both alleged victims and alleged perpetrators."

But without perpetrators to blame and after 2 1/2 years under investigation, the islanders have turned their anger on the authorities.

"Human rights have been violated in the way this process has taken place. We have been left in the dark," Betty Christian continues.

"I fronted up from the word go," says Alex, "yet my family's been pulled through the mud for 2 1/2 years."

"For more than two years now every Pitcairn person, whether innocent or guilty, has been involved in this thing and life has been bloody hell," says Sarah.

"We have been on tenterhooks all the time. Every day we expected someone at the door picking up Alex," she continues, her voice rising in distress. "Every day. Two and a half years of it."

Surely making a community wait 2 1/2 years for a trial is cruel and unusual punishment, adding tragedy to tragedy.

After visiting the island, Moore empathizes.

"I would be inhumane if I wasn't as conscious as anyone of the pressure of uncertainty that would be felt by any person or community in this situation, let alone one as isolated and widespread as Pitcairn."

Pitcairn public defender and Auckland barrister Paul Dacre is also concerned about the "unfair pressure" of delays and will try to have the case dismissed on those grounds.

Knowing the Pitcairners' suffering, Moore says he still cannot think of any way a competent investigation could have been completed faster. The cruel fact is that Pitcairn's isolation, unique law, and diaspora have conspired against swift justice. Consider: this is a Pitcairn crime with New Zealand lawyers under mostly English law.

For good reason, the police have named their investigation Operation Unique.

The Kent police visited the island twice and interviewed complainants and accused worldwide.

When they decided there was a case to be answered, Moore visited the island to judge whether a trial was in the public interest. Pitcairn law -- its own ordinances, with British law added where the ordinances are deficient -- is untested. There are no precedents, no appeal structures and no lawyers. Dacre was the first person ever appointed to the Pitcairn bar, just this year. What's more, there's no venue for a trial.

A New Zealand courtroom seems most likely, transformed temporarily by law into a portion of Pitcairn and linked with the island by satellite. This requires law changes in both New Zealand and Britain.

Most islanders, however, want the trial held on Pitcairn. As Dacre says, New Zealanders would find it strange being tried in a foreign court for a crime committed here before a judge who had never been to their country.

The final decision will be made by Pitcairn Governor Richard Fell, "in accordance with the advice of the chief justice," who is district court judge Charles Blackie.

Dacre is also concerned at the lack of legal advice the accused have received and the fact he was appointed months after Moore.

While a lawyer did accompany police to the island, Alex and Sarah, for example, say they haven't spoken to a lawyer during the entire investigation.

"That raises concerns as to the procedures adopted during the inquiry," Dacre says.

A speech given by Pitcairn Mayor Steve Christian in Fiji in June offered the first suggestion islanders intend to challenge the entire process legally.

"It is felt that it is an abuse of process that allegations put three years ago have still not been resolved," Christian said. "I have discussed with [Dacre] if the term 'abuse of process' is appropriate and he assures me it is not strong enough."

Dacre says what he knows of the process thus far is "disquieting." He confirms he will make an abuse of process application before the trial and is urging accused Pitcairners to contact him.

As these legal debates drag on, vital as they are, the islanders wait on a knife-edge -- victims and accused alike.

"They've been holding these people hostage month after month," says Ford. "Immediately the Deputy Governor comes out and says, 'We've got to be sure the process is right.' Balderdash. You've got to have closure."

Fulfilling Ford's prediction, Wolstenholme says: "It has to be done right. Maybe when it's all over and we're judged on it people will say we stumbled, but ... how would we be judged if we didn't do this properly and 20 years down the track we found that actually, instead of it going on for however many years it had gone on for 20 years longer and other people had suffered?"

Legal considerations aside, the time and effort going into proceedings is threatening the relationship between the islanders and those who govern them.

Dacre says, "The role of Britain is going to have to be looked at in the course of the trial."

Steve Christian's Fiji speech, to a UN conference on decolonization, was an unprecedented public attack on Britain. A 1999 British white paper promised "a new relationship built on the fundamental principles of self-determination," but Christian said, " ... we are not listened to when changes are made. [The island] council can come up with ideas, but when those ideas go through the system they are either changed or ignored.

"We need development," he added. "Must we hijack a yacht or be invaded like the Falklands to get attention?"

He offered a list of grievances: a jetty and breakwater project where only the jetty was built; a new museum offered as a bicentennial gift in 1990 that the British turned down; and a sealed road from the jetty, up the Hill of Difficulty to Adamstown, the island's only settlement.

Christian organization Youth With a Mission organized engineers to design a plan for the dangerously slipping road and Ford raised $125,000 for construction. After years of delay and fiddling by the British foreign office, the Department for International Development -- despite protests from the governor's office, says Wolstenholme -- indefinitely postponed the project, and all development, in the face of the sexual abuse allegations. Ford had to give the money back.

Mary expresses the islanders' frustration: "It's penalizing people who haven't committed any crime and says to them you're not important."

The latest focus for Pitcairners' anger is that while Britain has frozen development funds, it has found money to renovate the government buildings on the island for a possible trial.

The New Zealand contractor is adding what the British call a three-cell "remand facility" to the police station. Pitcairners call it a prison. And Pitcairn men, the very ones who may end up serving time inside, are building it.

"They are building their own prison, just like during the war when you had to dig your own grave," says Sarah, shaking her head. "What a feeling it must be."

"The point is," says Alex, "[the British] didn't have the money and didn't want to help out before. Now, all of a sudden in the past six months we've had more supply ships [delivering building materials] than in the past 10 years."

Tensions between the islanders and their administrators came to a head when, after the Fiji conference, Steve Christian came on to New Zealand for talks with Fell.

Christian wanted his lawyer with him and Fell refused. With neither willing to be dictated to by the other, the meeting was cancelled.

Wolstenholme says neither the police investigations nor his comments in Fiji would have been raised.

"The Governor wants to talk to the mayor about governance. I just don't see the need for anybody else to be involved."

Steve Christian saw it differently. In an email from Pitcairn, another islander quotes him as saying, "I'm not wise enough to discuss issues which I know very little about and don't fully understand."

In a letter to a UN official, Christian complains: "In my view the Governor's refusal to meet with me is yet another example of the pattern of high-handed behavior exhibited by the governor's office, and a lack of genuine commitment to dialogue and consultation."

Wolstenholme says these complaints have arisen only in recent months as the islanders' patience over the police investigation has begun to fray. She thinks some islanders are scared and lashing out.

Islanders say they have long been annoyed -- the ongoing investigation is just the last straw.

Whether it's a product of their isolation, rebellious history, or simply of 2 1/2 years in the glare of investigation, many Pitcairners feel keenly that they are not only being failed, but persecuted by the authorities. The British are finally getting their revenge on the mutineers, they grumble to each other.

"We wonder if that's not what the British are doing -- to evacuate the island because it's a thorn in their side," says Alex.

The white paper, however, gives the islanders a weapon. It compels Britain to ensure the island remains viable.

White paper or no, Alex says this investigation and its impact on the Pitcairners' way of life means they now expect more from Britain. If they have to live by the modern world's standards, they want its benefits as well.

"They've exposed us to the real world -- right, let's play real-world stuff now."

Wolstenholme says the Governor is keen for development to go ahead, and perhaps the one piece of good news for Pitcairners is that the modern world is looking to invest in Pitcairn. A Wellington consortium of six timber merchants and a tax judge called the Wellesley group is looking to invest NZ$ 50 million (US$ 23,340,000) to establish tourism on Pitcairn and its three neighboring islands. Spokesman Wayne Coffey says an announcement of their plans is imminent.

"We are definitely proceeding," he says.

Another New Zealander, Graham Wragg, has also been in contact with islanders regarding a tourist venture. The Governor is awaiting firm business proposals from both.

Alex has no doubt the island community will find a way of surviving.

"There's a lot of Pitcairn guys in New Zealand and if they're not sentenced, they will go to keep the island surviving. We're not going to let it down."

This determined Pitcairn spirit was on display only last week. Supplies arrived in atrocious conditions. "Rough seas but [we] got everything off before dark," says an understated email from the island.

The remarkable thing is that the supplies weren't even for the islanders -- they were for the buildings to be used in the legal proceedings that are clouding their lives. Yet they risked their lives in merciless seas, doing what survival has demanded they do for centuries.

As Wolstenholme says, "it's the psyche of the place."

For additional reports from The New Zealand Herald, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/ New Zealand Herald.

 

PITCAIRN ISLANDERS FIGHT BACK ON SEX ABUSE CLAIMS

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (August 24, 2002 - PINA Nius Online)---Pitcairn Islanders under investigation for sex crimes for 2 1/2 years are planning to challenge the case against them in court, the New Zealand Herald reported.

They say the delays are an "abuse of process" and are tearing the small and isolated community of the British dependency apart, the newspaper said.

Pitcairners have broken a centuries-old tradition of silence by speaking to the New Zealand Herald, saying the delay in the case coming to trial violates their human rights.

They describe a culture where children are sexually active from a young age, and tell how they have all been living under an assumption of guilt since the first allegations were made in 1999.

Those allegations turned into a worldwide investigation revealing what public prosecutor Simon Moore called "multiple allegations" of sexual offending.

Mr. Moore said last month that charges would be laid, but would not say who would be charged or what the charges would be until a trial venue was decided.

Lawyer Paul Dacre, representing some of the islanders, said the way the investigation and legal procedures had been handled was "disquieting."

He would make an abuse of process application before the trial requesting the case be dismissed, he told the New Zealand Herald.

"Every Pitcairn person, whether guilty or innocent, has been involved in this thing and life has been hell," one Pitcairn woman told the newspaper.

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org 

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