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Long History Of Child Abuse Haunts Island 'Paradise'

Apr 28, 2009 (Fresh Air)

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British journalist Kathy Marks' new book, Lost Paradise, is a nonfiction account of the child abuse sex scandal that rocked a remote British island.

Located in the South Pacific, Pitcairn Island is home to the descendants of Fletcher Christian and the crew of the Bounty, which fled there in 1789 after seizing their ship from Capt. William Bligh (a story made famous in the novel and movie Mutiny On The Bounty).

In 2000, police investigating the rape allegations of a 15-year-old girl uncovered a trail of child abuse dating back at least three generations. Scarcely any of Pitcairn's 47 inhabitants were untainted by the allegations, and barely a girl growing up on the island had escaped abuse. Yet most islanders — including the mothers — had looked the other way.

Marks, who was one of six international journalists who traveled to the island for the trials in 2004, describes Pitcairn as a "male dominated society where men were doing exactly what they pleased."

"Everyone who lived on Pitcairn over the years, over the generations, knew exactly what was going on," Marks tells Dave Davies.

Marks says that many of the adult women on the island had been victims themselves, and they felt they had no other option than to deny the allegations.

"If you are the mother of a girl who's being abused, what can you do?" she says. "There's no one to complain to. The people in authority are doing it as well. Your own husband and brother are doing it."

Marks describes the trials of the abusers as "one of the most unusual trials in British criminal history." The outside lawyers and judges wore long black gowns — a striking contrast to the defendants, who arrived at court in shorts and T-shirts.

In the end, 10 men went through the court system and nine were found guilty or pleaded guilty. But Marks describes the sentences as "rather ludicrously short" — though several men were sentenced to prison terms, all but one of the defendants have been released from jail.

Marks says the culture of Pitcairn seems to have changed since the trial — if only because the British government has taken a renewed interest in developing the island and making it self-sufficient.

"In a material sense, a lot of the infrastructure has been upgraded ... They have now got television, including CNN ... So they are not so isolated," she says.

And many of the women on the island are now privately coming to terms with the extent of the abuse. But, Marks adds, there is still a very strong sense of communal denial: "It's ingrained in the mentality of the men in Pitcairn that this is an OK thing to do."

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Lost Paradise: From Mutiny on the Bounty to a Modern-Day Legacy of Sexual Mayhem, the Dark Secrets of Pitcairn Island Revealed
Kathy Marks
Free Press
Hardcover, 352 pages
List Price: $26.95

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