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Island of shame

Harbour at Pitcairn (Picture: Brad Schram)

By Kathy Marks

In 2004 the tiny island of Pitcairn in the Pacific was rocked by a court case that revealed a raft of incidents of sexual abuse. Four years on, how has the island coped with the fallout of the case?

It is Friday night at Big Fence, home of the former Pitcairn Island mayor, Steve Christian, and several dozen people are tucking into hamburgers and fish and chips.

The laughter and banter convey an impression of neighbourly harmony - unexpected in a community that only a few years ago was torn apart by widespread allegations of child abuse.

HISTORY OF PITCAIRN
First settled by Polynesians
1767: Island sighted by British ship
1789: Mutiny on the Bounty
1790: Mutineers arrive on Pitcairn
1800: Murders and illness leave only one man, nine women and a number of children alive
1808: Contact resumed with outside world
1838: Pitcairn becomes part of British Empire

Among diners at the cafe run by Steve and his wife, Olive, are some of the men convicted of child sex offences and their victims. Others seated at the tables, amid whitewashed walls and coconut frond lightshades, consider themselves sworn enemies. Yet somehow they manage to live side by side, and even to socialise, on a two mile-square rock in the middle of the Pacific.

Pitcairn, a British overseas territory settled by Fletcher Christian and his band of Bounty mutineers in 1790, is home to just 50 or so people, most of them related.

At trials on the island in 2004, six men were convicted of sexual abuse of young girls dating back 40 years. Three others were found guilty at court cases in New Zealand in 2006, with six in total receiving prison sentences.

The case opened up deep rifts in the tiny, close-knit community, where every family contained an offender or a victim, often both. The fall-out has been prolonged and agonising. Some of the women who testified have been ostracised by their families and other islanders.

Millions spent

Despite continuing splits, the community is moving on, and daily life has changed radically. This is partly a result of investment by Britain, which - having left Pitcairn alone for nearly two centuries - is belatedly focusing attention on the territory.

Neptune's Pool in Pitcairn
There is hope that eco-tourism can be successful

Millions of pounds have been spent on updating infrastructure and communications. The jetty and slipway have been rebuilt, and the Hill of Difficulty, a steep track leading from the landing stage up to the village, Adamstown, has been concreted. There are plans for a breakwater, which would create a safe harbour, and for a wind turbine scheme providing 24-hour electricity. Power, supplied by diesel generators, is currently rationed to ten hours a day.

A new school has been built, and the islanders have television for the first time. For the first time, too, they have an affordable telephone system, and, consequently, feel less isolated. They are still waiting for a regular boat service connecting Pitcairn with the nearest airport, 300 miles away in French Polynesia.

Changing life

Britain, meanwhile, is trying to reinvigorate the economy, by promoting the island as an eco-tourism destination. It hopes that new jobs, together with better transport links, will lure expatriates home from New Zealand, thereby boosting the population. A few have already returned, including one victim, Jacqui Christian, who has given media interviews.

Barrels collect rainwater from guttering
Life on the island requires a great deal of hard work

Among outsiders on the island are a British diplomat, a New Zealand police officer, several prison officers and two social workers. The latter are monitoring the eight or so children, as well as offenders who received community service orders or have completed their jail sentences.

Life has changed in other ways. Before the court case, key jobs - including driving the longboats and operating heavy machinery - were reserved for Steve Christian's relatives and allies. Now anyone can request training for such jobs, and Jacqui Christian crews on the longboats.

Small businesses, such as Steve and Olive's cafe, have sprung up, aided by British loans. Olive's brother, Dave Brown, has set up a bakery, while another islander, Carol Warren, offers takeaway meals including fish balls and boiled goat meat.

Through such activities, small bridges have been built. Olive, a staunch opponent of the legal process, has welcomed Jacqui's mother, Betty, a prosecution witness, at her new beauty salon. Islanders divided by the abuse case are working together on a committee reviewing Pitcairn's system of government.

Comfortable prison

Yet relations remain strained, and sensitivities are such that locals are reluctant to talk to the media. They still feel bitter about trials conducted under an international media spotlight, and they resent the fact that their community is now indelibly associated with sexual abuse.

Meanwhile, for Randy Christian and Brian Young, the remaining inmates of Her Majesty's Prison Pitcairn, daily life begins at 7am, when they are unlocked and, after cleaning their cells, are escorted out to undertake maintenance work around the island.

The prison - a comfortable, modern building with spacious cells and a wraparound veranda - was originally occupied by five men. Randy's father, Steve, and younger brother, Shawn, are out on probation, while Brian's brother, Terry, was recently released into home detention. Olive's father, Len Brown, who is elderly, served his two-year sentence at home.

The church
Many families had a victim and an offender involved in the case

Randy and Brian are expected to be free by Christmas, after spending barely two years behind bars. Like the others, they received lenient sentences.

It is perhaps not surprising that some of their victims wonder whether the long and expensive legal process was worthwhile.

But, there is little doubt that the case has changed Pitcairn forever.

Kathy Marks is The Independent's Asia-Pacific correspondent, and the author of Trouble in Paradise: Uncovering Decades of Sexual Abuse on Britain's Most Remote Island, published by Harper Perennial.


Here is a selection of your comments.

"They resent the fact that their community is now indelibly associated with sexual abuse."

As I understand it, a prevalent reaction on the island to some of the details of what went on was "this is our culture". Of course, I can't say for certain that a more publically soul-searching response would have got the community more sympathy from the outside world. However, if you are unabashed about what your parent country sees as child abuse, you can't be entirely surprised if that's the image others hold of you.
Liz, London, UK

This is possibly an illustration of both the best and worst of colonialism; we devastated a community by imposing our views and values to somewhere that is frankly nothing to do with us. Now we are trying to buy our way out of our guilt by updating their infrastructure and providing resources. The latter is of at least some benefit.
Andy, London

I will never understand why all kinds of sexual abuse, or any other acts of cruelty towards children for that matter, are punished so leniently. In my opinion, deliberate harming of children is always done for personal gratification - in one form or another - and against all that is good and natural in human nature. Any kind of cruelty towards children should be punished severely - and where sexual abuse is concerned, prolonged terms of punishment should be the accepted norm in ALL societies. The punishments dealt out on Pitcairn are a shameful, disgusting affront to the concept of human decency and - yet again - a betrayal of children everywhere.
Jean Booth, Hague, Netherlands

I don't mean to be disrespectful to the victims here, but how can this island be labelled as an "eco-tourism destination". How are the tourists to get there on a sail boat? I did a quick measure on Google Earth, it is around 9,100 miles from London to Pitcairn. I don't imagine for a second that there is even a direct flight.
Colin, Cumbernauld

Although life seems to have changed for the better in some ways in Pitcairn, there has never once been an indication of any kind of remorse from anyone on the island regarding the child sexual abuse that went on. Nor has there been any indication that the islanders actually believe that what happened was fundamentally unacceptable.

Sex with minors on a small island with very few people is one thing, and I can understand the notion at least, that if this is endemic and part of the culture, that girls over 13 may engage willingly in sex with men. However, from reports on the BBC, it is clear that what happened in Pitcairn was nothing more than the violent rape of children by much older men, forming a ring of abuse designed to bring pleasure and control to the male islanders who perpetrated it. It's unforgivable, and Pitcairn should be shut down, the criminals sent to proper jail so they can see how unacceptable other criminals find paedophilia.
Hananh Cranston, Bath


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