Sex abuse trial may devastate Pacific islanders

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 October, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 October, 2002, 12:00am

The impending trial of a group of men from Pitcairn Island, the most far-flung relic of the British Empire, could lead to the extinction of the tiny South Pacific community.

New Zealand's parliament will this week debate a bill which would allow a series of sex abuse charges against several of the men of Pitcairn to be heard under British legal jurisdiction in New Zealand, probably Auckland.

The trial cannot be held on Pitcairn because it is so remote. Lying half-way between Peru and New Zealand, it has no airstrip or harbour. Supply ships visit a few times a year and the islanders use traditional long-boats powered by outboard motors to transfer cargo. New Zealand has been chosen due to its traditional links with Pitcairn and because the British High Commissioner in Wellington, Richard Fell, doubles as Pitcairn's Governor. The legislation will go before the New Zealand cabinet today and will then be introduced to parliament.

Once the law has been passed, and a venue for the trial decided on, charges will be formally laid.

The allegations came to light three years ago, when a 15-year-old girl alleged she had been raped by a visiting New Zealander. Once she came forward, other girls and young women revealed similar accounts of alleged sexual abuse.

Eighteen months ago police from Britain joined detectives from New Zealand to investigate the claims.

The Auckland-based public prosecutor for Pitcairn, Simon Moore, has refused to divulge the nature of the offences or how many men are involved, but it is believed charges will be brought against 10 to 20 men - some of whom now live in New Zealand.

With a population of about 44, any convictions would have a devastating effect on Pitcairn, which is inhabited by descendants of the Bounty mutineers.

Under the proposed law, any islander found guilty of the offences would be imprisoned in New Zealand, more than 5,300km away. With a dwindling population, no job opportunities and a miniscule income from the sale of postage stamps and wooden carvings to passing cruise ships, Pitcairn is struggling to survive in the 21st century.

The removal of a large number of the island's men could be the last straw, and would bring a flood of negative publicity to an island once seen as the epitome of the romantic South Seas hideaway.

Those who know Pitcairn say the impending trial may bring to light decades of systematic sexual abuse of the island's girls by older men, some of whom, allegedly, regard the age of consent as 12.

In an interview with the New Zealand Herald in August, one Pitcairn woman, identified as Sarah, said Britain must share some of the blame for the island's sexual culture.

'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?'

Sixth-generation Pitcairner Betty Christian, 59, acknowledged the impact the trial, or trials, would have on the island. '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.'

The final decision on where the trial will take place will be taken by Mr Fell, on the advice of the Chief Justice for Pitcairn, New Zealand judge Charles Blackie.

Bryan Nicolson, a spokesman for the British High Commission in Wellington, said: 'We would be jumping the gun in saying New Zealand is definitely the location for the trial, but clearly there is a certain amount of logic pointing to it as a prime contender.'

That would go against the wishes of many islanders, who want the trial held on Pitcairn.

In August, 14 of the island's 17 women petitioned New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark to have the case heard on Pitcairn. Their letter read: 'Please give Pitcairners the right to face their problems like any country - in their own homeland. Is New Zealand trying to ignore the wishes of a people 3,000 miles away and hold a trial for people England has ignored for 200 years?'