“A sense of unease and misgiving” – abuse and the Catholic Church on the Tiwi islands
“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.â
Twenty years ago a young man gave his evidence to Northern Territory Police investigating allegations that 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 ten or eleven years old and a primary school student at the St. Xavier Boys School at Nguiu was harrowing and graphic:
âIn or about 1985 I went toÂ Francis Xavier College for year 6.Â This assault occurredÂ approximately one month after I commenced year 6.Â Brother Hallett strippedÂ and walked naked down to the water. There were about three or fourÂ boys including myself that were near him. I saw the others beginÂ masturbating Brother Hallett and I became curious and went over toÂ see what was happeningâ.
âI remember at this time thatÂ Brother Hallett was staring at me. He then motioned to me and IÂ went over and masturbated him for a while. I remember that BrotherÂ Hallett never said anything he would just smile and lean back.â
âI went down to the beachÂ and I remember that Brother Hallett was with some of the same boysÂ as from the first incident.â
âBrother Hallett again wasÂ staring at me and I once again felt out of place if I did not join in.Â When I touched him he smiled and I masturbated him. I remember atÂ one stage a coastal plane came over and Brother Hallett ran up toÂ the Ute and put his clothes back on. It was at this point that IÂ became confused because I felt that if he was hiding what wasÂ happening then perhaps it wasnât the right thing to do.Â I recall that after theÂ coastal plane left Brother Hallett again stripped down and cameÂ back to the beach. Brother Hallett again looked at me and I knewÂ that he wanted me to continue masturbating him and so I did. IÂ specifically recall on this occasion that Brother Hallett ejaculatedÂ once.”
“They used to go up to him and sort of playÂ with him, wanking him, some of the kids used to suck him off. And IÂ was one of them. There was a lot of others kids too that sucked himÂ off and wanked him.â
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 fourteen years. The alleged offences were said to have occurred between 1989 and 2003. On 25 May 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 Northern Territory Court of Criminal Appeal.
That appeal was successful and Hallett’s convictions were quashed.
The allegations against Brother Hallett emerged in 1993.Â 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 sexually 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 …Â 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 …Â 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.Â Police and welfare workers investigated last December allegations of sexual abuse made by a teacher, but did not find any evidence of abuse.Â 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.Â “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.Â “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 – Â which in 2011 celebrated 100 years of mission to the Tiwi – to life on the islands was confirmed by the thenÂ Vicar-General of the Northern Territory 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.”
By 1999 the Tiwi Islands were in the grip of a suicide epidemic. As Heather Stewart reported on the ABC’s 7.30 Report from Darwin in August that year:
HEATHER STEWART: The Tiwi Islands, 80kms north of Darwin, are home to a proud and vibrant Aboriginal community. But despite this idyllic setting, the islands of Bathurst and Melville are the scene of a mysterious tragedy.
DR CHRIS HARRISON, RESIDENT MEDICAL PRACTITIONER: In the last few years on the Tiwi Islands there have been over 100 attempts at suicide. This equates to an overall incidence of approximately 1 in 16 to 1 in 20 people on the islands actually attempting some form of suicide.
Stewart spoke to Bernard Tipiloura, a deacon in the Catholic Church whose 19 year old nephew died committed suicide the year before. Bernard TipilouraÂ suspected that sexual abuse may have been a contributing factor in his nephew’s death. He told Stewart that his nephewÂ was:
” … very ashamed to live after what he has gone through in the school … we think that’s part of the European brother, you know, having sexual with these young people, because they are in their early 20s now. I think that’s part of it. And also when they get caught in no-man’s land, they can’t go the Europeans’ way or they can’t go our way and they end their life.
The Catholic Church was having none of that. Then Bishop Ted Collins told Stewart that:
That alleged abuse was quite a few years ago now, not just a couple of years ago.Â At the time, there was counselling that went on and I just wonder whether this is an excuse for the abuse of alcohol and smoking marijuana that’s going on …Â I think they’re trying to put the blame somewhere outside the people rather than acknowledge that it’s happening within the people. Maybe that’s what all that is.”
Whether the recently announced Federal Royal Commission into institutional abuse will uncover what happened on the Tiwi Islands remains to be seen.Â 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 Federal government won’t inspire much confidence that relevant issues will be appropriately and constructively addressed.
Trying to record reliable testimony from victims of sexual assault back in the mid to late-1990âs was hard enough. Doing it now would be nigh on impossible, a task was made all the more difficult by indications of abusive behaviour by some of the victims themselves and by others not the target of any investigation at the time.
If there is any lesson to be learned from the way the Nanette Rogers dossier and the Mutitjulu child sex allegations led to the Little Children Are Sacred Report and then to the NT Intervention, it is that when politicians get the opportunity to make a grand statement of principle in relation to evil of child sex abuse everyone usually loses – including the victims.
One view expressed by a local lawyer with long experience in sexual assault cases in the NT is telling.
“If what was proposed by the Federal inquiry was a single term of reference devoted to exploring the extent to which churches have been involved in deliberate cover-ups over many years I think my view would be a bit different. Applied to the Tiwi islands situation, that would enable evidence to be extracted from the Church which might reveal whether or not the Church had been in possession of incriminating information which was not made available to the Northern Territory Police and Director of Public Prosecutions at the time.
But as to the utility of some kind of roadshow in which adult Tiwi victims would âtell their storyâ there is the very real sense that the only ones to benefit would be the lawyers – and the media.
Following the NT Police investigations in Darwin in 1993 Brother Hallett moved voluntarily to a retreat and later to Brisbane’s Nudgee College, where he worked in the property and services department, a role that did not involve contact with students. Yesterday Crikey contacted Brother Hallett and the Christian Brother’s Professional Standards unit for information on Brother Hallett’s movements in the years since the Court cases discussed above but that office declined to provide any information, considering the matter closed.
Brother Hallett did not respond. Crikey understands that Brother Hallett is currently employed by a Church-related business in Queensland.