Twenty years ago a young man gave evidence to Northern Territory Police investigating allegations the principal of his school had systematically abused children on the Tiwi Islands just to the north of Darwin. Ten years later that evidence -- supported by his oral evidence in court and a further supporting affidavit -- was recalled in his application for compensation under the Northern Territory’s criminal compensation legislation. The evidence, which related to events when he was about 10 or 11 years old and a primary school student at the St Xavier Boys School at Nguiu, was harrowing and graphic:
"In or about 1985 I went to Francis Xavier College for year six. This assault occurred approximately one month after I commenced year six. Brother Hallett stripped and walked naked down to the water. There were about three or four boys including myself that were near him. I saw the others begin masturbating Brother Hallett and I became curious and went over to see what was happening. I remember at this time that Brother Hallett was staring at me. He then motioned to me and I went over and masturbated him for a while. I remember that Brother Hallett never said anything he would just smile and lean back ... "I went down to the beach and I remember that Brother Hallett was with some of the same boys as from the first incident. Brother Hallett again was staring at me and I once again felt out of place if I did not join in. When I touched him he smiled and I masturbated him. I remember at one stage a coastal plane came over and Brother Hallett ran up to the ute and put his clothes back on. It was at this point that I became confused because I felt that if he was hiding what was happening then perhaps it wasn't the right thing to do. I recall that after the coastal plane left Brother Hallett again stripped down and came back to the beach. Brother Hallett again looked at me and I knew that he wanted me to continue masturbating him and so I did. I specifically recall on this occasion that Brother Hallett ejaculated once ... "They used to go up to him and sort of play with him, wanking him, some of the kids used to suck him off. And I was one of them. There was a lot of others kids too that sucked him off and wanked him."
Dismissing the young man's application for compensation the magistrate concluded that:
"This court, albeit with a sense of unease and misgiving … must find that the applicant has not discharged the burden of proof incumbent upon him."
Eight years earlier Brother John Hallett had been found guilty by a Darwin jury of two counts of committing an act of gross indecency with a male, one count with the aggravating circumstance that the victim was under the age of 14 years. The alleged offences were said to have occurred between 1989 and 2003. On May 25, 1995 Hallett was sentenced to five years' jail on one count and three on the second, to be served concurrently and with a fixed non-parole period of two years. Five months later Hallett's appeal of his conviction was heard by three judges of the NT Court of Criminal Appeal. That appeal was successful and Hallett's convictions were quashed. The allegations against Brother Hallett emerged in 1993. As Chips Mackinolty and Gay Alcorn reported in the Fairfax press at the time:
At least 40 children on the Tiwi Islands, north of Darwin, have claimed they were s-xually abused by Brother Hallet over a period of three to four years while he was principal of St Xavier's Boys' School on Bathurst Island. The boys' school is next to a co-educational Catholic school … The Christian Brothers order has run the boys’ school at the community of Nguiu on Bathurst Island since 1977. There are 94 children now enrolled at the school. Commander Terry O’Brien, of the NT Police Crime Division … said that as part of their investigation police would examine instances where people might have failed to report suspected cases of child abuse. Under Northern Territory law, such reports are mandatory. Police and welfare workers investigated last December allegations of s-xual abuse made by a teacher, but did not find any evidence of abuse. Commander O’Brien said police resumed the investigation in July following another complaint. He said that language problems had made the initial police investigation difficult. "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."
The centrality of the Catholic Church -- which in 2011 celebrated 100 years of mission to the Tiwi -- to life on the islands was confirmed by the then Vicar-General of the NT Catholic Church, Father Tim Brennan, who said the majority of people on the islands were baptised Catholics:
"The church is part of their world. For the majority of people there, their whole life has been lived with the Catholic Church as part of their community."
Whether the recently announced federal royal commission into institutional abuse will uncover what happened on the Tiwi Islands remains to be seen. While any comprehensive review of past events and allegations would be widely seen as necessary and valuable, there are real concerns that including allegations of past institutional abuse in the as-yet vague endeavour proposed by the government won't inspire much confidence that relevant issues will be appropriately and constructively addressed. One view expressed by a local lawyer with long experience in s-xual assault cases in the NT is telling.