This time a year ago, the nation’s political leaders met to consider Aboriginal law and justice issues. The meeting had been called by the new Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, following, among other things, the sensational reporting by the ABC’s Lateline and others of the allegations of rampant s-xual abuse of children made by the NT Crown Prosecutor Nanette Rogers.

The determinations of the nation’s leaders at that meeting have largely sunk without a trace, apart from the investigation launched by the NT Government and conducted by Rex Wild, QC, and Pat Anderson, whose final report was handed down last week.

Yesterday, Crikey looked at the myth, exploded by the inquiry by thorough consultation and investigation, that Aboriginal men were responsible for the majority of s-xual abuse of children in their communities.

Today, Crikey looks at the Little Children Are Sacred report’s treatment of the issues of traditional Aboriginal law and culture and child s-xual abuse in the NT. Much has been said about these issues over recent years — most of which was ill-informed and shed more light on the prejudices and ignorance of the commentator or politician than on the issues.

Wild and Anderson met these issues head-on:

The Inquiry is well aware of the media and political attention surrounding the issue of s-xual abuse of Aboriginal children. Using the consultations and submissions received by the Inquiry, it is important to first dispel some of the myths that have been prominent in various media reports and other comments on the issue.

Three of their five myth-busting exercises are devoted to the controversies surrounding Aboriginal law and culture and the repeated assertions that their misuse was at the root of much, if not all, child s-xual abuse in the NT.

Firstly they dispel the myth that there is a causal relationship between Aboriginal customary law and child s-xual abuse:

… this myth has gained popularity in recent times (e.g. Kimm 2004; Kearney & Wilson 2006; Nowra 2007). It is a dangerous myth as it reinforces prejudice and ignorance, masks the complex nature of child sexual abuse and provokes a hostile reaction from Aboriginal people.

…the general effect of this misrepresentation … has been that the voices of Aboriginal women and men have been negated by powerful media and political forces. This has hampered the important development of systems, structures and methods that have a genuine chance of reducing violence and child s-xual abuse. The Inquiry rejects this myth and notes that it is rejected by many other authoritative sources.

Next the report examines the notion that traditional Aboriginal law is used to excuse s-xual abuse and violence by Aboriginal men:

The Inquiry was unable to find any case where Aboriginal law has been used and accepted as a defence (in that it would exonerate an accused from any criminal responsibility) for an offence of violence against a woman or a child.
… the Gordon Inquiry in Western Australia found no actual criminal cases in that state where legal argument on behalf of men charged with family violence or child sexual abuse has been put to the court to the effect their behaviour was sanctioned under Aboriginal law (Gordon et al. 2002).
The Law Council of Australia has stated that there is “no evidence that [Australian] courts have permitted manipulation of “cultural background” or “customary law”.

The report also considered the proposition that Aboriginal abusers were protected by Aboriginal kinship obligations or cultural beliefs and norms and that this contributed to the under-reporting of abuse cases. During the extensive consultations with Aboriginal communities across the NT:

… it became clear to the Inquiry that child s-xual abuse was not a highly visible problem and one of which many people were still unaware. That is, many people did not know what “s-xual abuse” was and were confused about what constituted “s-xual abuse”. … Further, many of those who did suspect s-xual abuse was occurring were unsure how to deal with it.

… in many cases where the s-xual abuse was obvious, the local people had notified the police or the local health centre. The reasons why other cases were not reported were varied and complex. They included fear and distrust of the police, the criminal justice system and other government agencies; shame and embarrassment; language and communication barriers; lack of knowledge about legal rights and services available, and lack of appropriate services for Aboriginal victims.

Wild and Anderson have done their job well. The NT Government will make a whole-of-government response in six weeks. The Commonwealth still appears to be wringing its hands and trying how to respond in a way that doesn’t involve admitting it made a few wrong calls and was responsible, in no small part, for promulgating the myths that Wild and Anderson have so deftly busted.

As for the press and the commentariat – well, I suspect that they are still looking for a poor victim to shift the blame onto.

Peter Fray

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