Journalists in the NT have never been much good at reporting child s-xual abuse on Aboriginal communities, even after the revelations of Crown prosecutor Nanette Rogers on Lateline, and the Anderson-Wild Little Children are Sacred report. Let alone beforehand.
From a 20-year internet search, at the level of national newspapers at least, there’s been only one story that has named names and made concrete allegations of child abuse on a Territory Aboriginal community. Co-written by Fairfax journalists Gay Alcorn and Chips Mackinolty, they printed a story in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald on 16 November 1993, which revealed the name of a Christian Brother, Brother John Hallet, principal at St Xavier’s boys school at the Aboriginal community of Nguiu on the Tiwi Islands accused of molesting “at least 40” Aboriginal children.
Neither journalist appeared to follow the story up. But, at the time, child protection workers, as well as Tiwi islanders, were furious when the good priest survived unscathed at a Christian Brothers retreat in Queensland.
The reason? The case collapsed in large part because Northern Territory police failed to use interpreters.
Gathering evidence in such cases is difficult at the best of times – and would have been much harder back then without courtroom procedures available to protect juvenile complainants or witnesses. The fact that police had questioned the kids in question – in English – led to an inevitable failure. There were criticisms at the time, as well, that the police staged “group interviews” at the Catholic school, rather than gathering information from individual kids. Tiwi kids’ grasp of English as a second language would have been marginal, at best, let alone in an area of such complexity as s-xual abuse.
A copper at the time was quoted as saying:
“There was no hard evidence from anyone that this had been occurring. We tried to talk with children, rumours were circulating, we tried to pick these things up but we didn’t,” Commander O’Brien said.
“Aboriginal children are traditionally shy. While we may have the statements from them, they would not necessarily be in a position or be willing to give evidence in court.”
With the shocking “taxis-for-s-x” allegations now flowing from Nhulunbuy in north east Arnhem Land, the lack of interpreters may come back to haunt the Federal-Territory child s-xual abuse taskforce investigating the claims. Not to mention the shadowy inquiries being mounted by the federal Crime Commission.
It’s hard to break the secrecy surrounding the investigations, but it is understood that police, local and federal, are still persisting in ignoring qualified interpreters, despite the availability of Yolngu matha speakers across the region. That this would be ignored by any half way competent defence lawyer would be beyond belief.