Child Sex Claims Haunt Remote Island

ByABC News

Nov. 14, 2002 -- It could be the ultimate whodunit. Fifty people live on the island, 12 may be suspected of engaging in child sex — and the future of all is in jeopardy.

They are the descendants of the sailors of the Bounty — the infamous British warship whose crew mutinied in 1789 and went ashore at Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific Ocean.

The last trial on the British protectorate was 105 years ago. Pitcairners are now dreading the prospect of another trial, which could tear the island community apart.

No charges have been filed yet, and the prosecutor has declined give details of the sex-abuse allegations. However, as many as 12 men reportedly are under suspicion. The prosecutor has said victims include toddlers as young as 3 as well as girls aged 7 and 10.

Like No Place on Earth

Pitcairn may be like no other place on Earth. The population is mostly made up of descendants of the Bounty mutineers and Polynesians who landed on the island a year later. Their national language is a mix of 18th-century English and Polynesian.

Located more than 3,000 miles east of New Zealand, Pitcairn is also extremely isolated. It takes at least eight days to get to the island from New Zealand by freighter. The island has no airport, and the surrounding waters are too choppy to land by seaplane. Pitcairn has only one satellite telephone, and the connection is often unreliable.

About three years ago, a British police officer visiting the island said she uncovered allegations of child sex there. Because of the difficulties in getting to Pitcairn Island, British authorities have proposed trying the suspects in New Zealand if charges are filed.

Residents are protesting though, because they fear a trial would necessarily involve the bulk of the island's population. The number of suspects is believed to be so large, they say, and the island's population is so small, that to remove them from the island for the minimum of two weeks required for the proceedings would collapse their fragile community.

"It puts everything we have including homes, lifestyle, etc., of risk that comes with abandonment," said Pitcairn Mayor Steve Christian by e-mail.

Christian said no one on the island had filed a complaint or asked for a trial. "We, the island, did not ask for this investigation," he said.

Pitcairners also resent what they see as interference by outsiders.

"People are very emotional here, as no one has cared about us at all," one Pitcairner woman wrote in an e-mail. She asked not to be identified.

With such a small community, "everyone knows what everyone else is up to," she said.

Culture of Sex

Word of possible sex abuse first came about in 1999, when British policewoman Gail Cox was sent to the island to train islanders in community policing. According to news reports and interviews with islanders, Cox allegedly discovered in the course of an 18-month investigation that Pitcairner men were having sex with underage girls.

Pitcairners and their defenders have been quick to rebuff the allegations.

Meralda Warren, who says she was Cox's trainee, told ABCNEWS by e-mail that Cox's "biggest ambition was to charge someone for a crime."

"Well she did," Warren wrote. "She had her kangaroo court."

Herbert Ford, director of the Pitcairn Islands Study Center in California, said Cox's allegations were obtained under questionable circumstances, such as informal chats across a kitchen table. "Those people who talked to her had no idea she was going to carry a police report to people in England," he said.

"People here aren't world-wise, they just say what's in their mind," said the Pitcairner who asked not to be identified. "People here are transparent, and don't expect people to use things they say against them."

Some observers and islanders admit there is some sex with minors on the island, but they attribute it to more of a cultural difference. One reason given for the underage sex is that Pitcairn is so remote that it has been isolated from accepted practices elsewhere.

"In the more isolated days when people were here I think people married earlier. But not 3-year-olds," said the Pitcairner woman.

Ford also attributed the practice to the islanders' heritage: They are descended from British sailors and Polynesians. "Nearly half of the people come out of Polynesian society, in which women seem to enjoy sexual pleasure at a very early age," he said.

Prosecutor Simon Moore told from Auckland, New Zealand, that he released details of the case earlier this month to dispel rumors that the charges he planned to lay were extremely minor and involved consensual offenses.

"I thought it was time to put a certain dimension to that kind of debate," he said.

But Moore said he would not release the precise details of the charges until it was determined where a potential trial would be held.

No Community Is an Island

Pitcairn's isolation — the essence of its existence — has turned out to be the source of its woes, not only logistically, but philosophically as well.

While it is a British dependency, islanders and their supporters complain they have been largely neglected by the crown. They say a trial will give the British Empire a way of asserting its will on one of its remaining properties.

"It is a colonial mentality that is at work," said Ford.

Pitcairners say not only was the prospect of a trial imposed on them, but the British high commissioner for the area assigned a judge, public defender and prosecutor without any of their input.

Pitcairn, as a British protectorate, falls under the jurisdiction of the British High Commission. The island does not have any native lawyers.

Paul Dacre, the public defender, says Pitcairners have evolved their own law, which is a unique combination of English common law and local law, which is based on New Zealand law.

Furthermore, he said, "Historically, it's been difficult to find what the position is on Pitcairn Island on the age of consent."

Under British law, the age of consent is 16.

Mayor Christian admits the Pitcairn lawbook is very limited, dealing mostly with property issues.

"At the start of this mess three years ago, Constable Gail Cox was quoting British laws which we had no idea of," he said.

Most Pitcairners and their supporters suspect the reason British authorities are insisting that any trial be held in New Zealand is financial.

Instead of removing the bulk of the population for a trial in New Zealand, British authorities could bring a boat complete with judges, courtrooms, and full amenities to the island, Ford said.

But Bryan Nicolson, a spokesman for the British High Commission in New Zealand's capital, Wellington, said there could be concerns about the complainants being in such proximity to the defendants in such a situation. He also said until the defendants were named, he would not be able to comment on the impact an offshore trial would have on the population.

Moore said he was also "incredibly conscious" of the islanders' fears of extinction. But he says he has spent time on the island, and received a "reasonably clear view about the relative strength of the opposing arguments." Some islanders told him they don't fear a trial, Moore said.

Ford also noted that Pitcairn Island has been the recent subject of developers' interests. In June, the New Zealand Herald reported a Wellington timber consortium was looking to invest nearly $25 million to establish tourism on Pitcairn and its three neighboring islands.

Lost Civilization Lost

The community on Pitcairn Island has only been in existence for a little more than two centuries, but in that time, a unique civilization has evolved.

Residents praise life on the island for its communal, life-on-the-frontier nature. Days are mainly spent growing food in their gardens and fishing in the ocean. They are also involved in creating handicrafts, which they trade with passing cruise ships for money and items from the developed world.

This idealized, utopian view of life has attracted Pitcairn Island share of defenders, among them enthusiasts for the Bounty, the South Seas, and Seventh-day Adventism, which has historical ties to the island.

But Sheils Carnehan, a New Zealander who taught on Pitcairn for two years, told Britain's The Independent that the truth was mind-numbingly ordinary. "It's like a small town in England," she said. "The only difference is you can't get away."

Another visitor told the newspaper he saw evidence of underage sex there. "I think the girls were conditioned to accept that it was a man's world and once they turned 12, they were eligible," said Neville Tosen, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor who recently spent two years there.

Other travelers told the newspaper that the island is claustrophobic, rife with petty arguments and long-running feuds.

The question surrounding Pitcairn Island now is whether it's a twisted, lawless pocket that needs to face justice, or one of the last victims of colonialism.

Islanders point out it's been three years since the allegations emerged, but a trial has yet to begin. Nevertheless, they see the death of their society on the horizon.

"Already with police, social workers, meetings and much general conversation must be in English," one Pitcairner said, according to a report Dacre prepared on islanders' grievances. Another said the stain of sex abuse claims had driven away the cruise ships with which they usually traded

"If this goes on much longer, the island is going to disappear forever," Ford said.