Abuse Trials Divide the Community of Pitcairn
The longboat slices through the surf, laden with islanders returning from a day’s trading with a container ship still visible on the horizon. It heads for the Bounty Bay wharf, where the all-terrain vehicle belonging to Steve Christian, the former mayor, is parked in the most prominent spot. The boat arrives, disgorging Christian, his son and four other men.
Twenty-four hours earlier, in a plain wooden courthouse here, the six men had been found guilty of serious crimes against children. Today, life is back to normal.
The extraordinary set of trials that ended with prison terms for four of the men was supposed to purge this tiny South Pacific island of its dark secrets, and place it on a healthier footing for the future. But if anything, attitudes have hardened, with most residents claiming that their fellow islanders are victims of a miscarriage of justice.
There is little acceptance of the uncomfortable truths exposed by the case, including a decades-old culture of adult men preying on young girls. And there is scant remorse among those found guilty.
The four given prison terms late last month have yet to set foot in the imposing new detention center that they helped build last year. They remain free on bail, living in the community, until at least February, when a New Zealand court will rule on a challenge to Britain’s authority over the island.
A day after Christian was sentenced to three years in jail for five rapes, the British governor of Pitcairn signed a law allowing him to oust Christian as mayor. Christian, who has run the island like a personal fiefdom, was reportedly speechless with rage.
But removal of his formal authority has not affected Christian’s standing in a community where he has been an influential leader since his teens. His rich tones still ring out over the crackly two-way radio system that connects Pitcairn’s 17 households.
In their weatherboard houses overlooking the Pacific, the descendants of Fletcher Christian and the Bounty mutineers murmur angrily about victimization by British colonial rulers.
In the general store, which is open three hours a week, selling a limited range of goods, Carol Warren offers her version of the events that placed Pitcairn under the international spotlight. Warren, whose husband, Jay, was the only defendant acquitted, claims that the women who testified about childhoods blighted by sexual abuse were culpable.
“I saw these girls every day, and I know what they were like,” she says, leaning across the counter conspiratorially. Referring to children who were as young as 10 when they were gang-raped, she says: “They threw themselves at the men. They were so provocative. You can’t blame men for being men, particularly when girls are acting like that.”
Rather than heal rifts, the trials have accentuated divisions within an interrelated society of 47 residents. In one camp are the hard-liners, made up of the defendants and their families, plus hangers-on hungry for a share of Christian’s power base. They congregate for Friday night drinking sessions at Big Fence, the former mayor’s rambling home.
In the other camp is a minority of islanders willing to accept that the prosecution was a painful necessity. They are shocked by the community’s lack of penitence, and some deplore the lenient sentences that could see Christian released after nine months.
The dissidents, who are derided and belittled by the others, include newcomers who have married Pitcairners or moved to the island, attracted by its remote beauty.
They have found themselves excluded from the longboats, from access to the best jobs, and even from acquiring tractor licenses.
Wayne Feu, a Cook Islander married to Carol Warren’s daughter, Charlene, attributes Pitcairn’s shrinking population to the long-term culture of abuse. Most of the victims now live elsewhere.
“I’m pleased that the men have been put on notice that they’ll be punished if they behave like this,” said Feu, who has a 2-year-old daughter.
In the wake of the trials, outsiders like Feu and British administrators hope that new blood will be attracted to Pitcairn.
At least two former victims of abuse are planning to return with their families. But as the island looks to the future, it’s still gripped by the past.