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Countering Graham Richardson's Balgo claims

20 Comments
Brian McCoy |  27 August 2017

 

Early last year Graham Richardson wrote a piece in The Australian headed 'Alan Jones isn't racist, he wants Aboriginal kids to be safe'. He wrote about a trip he had once made to the 'extremely remote' Balgo community in the Kimberley, where, he said, he discovered the prevalence of child sexual assault.

BalgoHe returned to that topic earlier this month. In an article titled 'Richo takes on Noel Pearson over indigenous constitutional recognition', he wrote: 'My real failure was to ignore the horrendous tales of child sexual abuse at Balgo. I beat myself up every day over this. I had been too gutless to risk being labelled racist.'

What caught my attention in his original article was reference to the trip he had made as Federal Health Minister to remote Northern Territory and West Australian communities in late 1993. As part of that trip he visited Balgo. He wrote: 'At the town meeting I noticed that the only attendees were women and children and some very old men.'

Some 23 years ago I did not think I was then a very old man, but I was present at that community meeting. I was living at Balgo at the time and was the parish priest. It was Saturday 22 January 1994. His comments have drawn me back to my own notes and the weekly parish newsletter of that time.

My understanding is that Senator Graham Richardson flew in for a brief community meeting — after visiting a number of other Aboriginal communities — along with another ten people, including a journalist and photographer. It was summer and the weather had been very hot (in the 40s), school had not yet begun for the year and the meeting was on a Saturday afternoon. I was not surprised then that not many people attended and few had travelled in from three outlying communities.

The people of the region had never met Richardson before. Meetings planned for Saturday afternoons in the desert summer tend not to be taken too seriously unless they are extremely well prepared. The weekend store closes for the weekend at Saturday lunchtime. People weren't going to wait around in the heat for a meeting with someone they didn't know. It was not a long meeting. The visiting group flew in and out the same day.

Richardson wrote: 'When I inquired about where the men were I was told they were at home and drunk. The real shock was that the women could not leave the children at home with the men because sexual assault was so common.'

It is possible that someone had commented on men who had returned to the community drunk; it is also possible that someone raised concern about their children. However, I don't remember any public discussion about the absence of men or the sexual assault of children. What those present did raise with Richardson was the shortage of housing and the need for dental care.

 

"Richardson's repeated allegations of what people told him at that Balgo meeting concern me, not just because I don't believe they were said but also because they defame a particular Aboriginal community."

 

I first came to live in that community in 1973 and have been associated with it over many years since then. It was only in 2007, many years later, that I felt I could address some of the complex issues of child sexual abuse that the Northern Territory intervention was opening up for Aboriginal communities in the Kimberley. I published at that time an article entitled: 'Aboriginal child abuse: whom do you trust?'

One thing I learned is that community members find it very difficult to discuss publicly issues of shame involving others to whom they are closely related and with whom they closely live. It takes time to build up trust around sensitive and sexually taboo topics and rarely will this ever occur within community meetings, much less in the presence of people they don't know.

Richardson said, 'To my eternal shame I did nothing about this. Maybe I was intimidated by the prevailing culture of denial about child abuse in these communities. Maybe I was afraid of what the really nice people would say about it. Maybe I just didn't have the courage.' What I remember from that meeting is that Richardson promised much. It was his first visit to this community. He said he would follow up a number of things that were raised. He had been on national television promising more funding for Aboriginal health, but resigned as Federal Minister some nine weeks after his trip to Balgo.

Richardson's repeated allegations of what people told him at that Balgo meeting concern me, not just because I don't believe they were said but also because they defame a particular Aboriginal community and in a context of a 'prevailing culture of denial'. What he originally described as 'common' became, some months later, 'horrrendous tales' of child sexual assault. Did I miss something so important as this? Was I acting in denial of what I heard in 1994? I don't think so.

I am left wondering what the others in his travelling group remember of this meeting or whether what he heard on his long summer trip, after visiting other communities, became conflated. I simply do not believe such a topic of child sexual abuse could have been raised or was raised in public at that time.

He did not mention the location where the meeting occurred. It was a tin-roofed and shaded space which had once been the boys dormitory when the 'mission' moved to its present site in 1965. The dormitory was closed in 1974. Until then, boys and girls were removed from their families, with the boys being placed under the care of lay missionaries and the girls with religious sisters. It is ironic then that this place should be chosen as the site for the meeting, and hardly surprising that those gathered would make a request for better dental care and housing necessary for their own children to have a better life.

Those who came to that meeting in 1994 left with hope that a Federal Minister would keep his word and follow up on the issues they raised. They were not to know he would resign some nine weeks later and they would not see him again. They would be devastated to learn that all these years later, he has made these repeated claims of child sexual abuse in a media outlet which none of them would likely ever see.

 


Brian McCoyFr Brian McCoy SJ is the head of the Australian Jesuits. He first came to Balgo in 1973, was parish priest between 1992-2000 and completed his PhD, Holding Men: Kanyirninpa and the healh of Aboriginal Men, in 2004, based in that Kimberley region.

 



Comments

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Submitted comments

A good reputation is a valuable advantage in any setting. Political powerbrokers are perceived, usually accurately, as lacking candour and empathy. Graham Richardson was a political powerbroker par excellence. Thanks for this searingly honest account of that meeting.

Pam 29 August 2017

Thanks Brian for your candid account, based on your own experiences in remote Australia. I have always been skeptical about reports of sexual molestation in remote communities , made by visiting politicians and public servants. They fly in and out, rarely being there long enough to get the trust of the community, let alone learn about the true situation. Sadly alcohol and drug abuse is all too common in these communities . For that we bear the blame and the shame, as we introduced these substances to these people .Sadly the abuse of alcohol and drugs is a way of coping with the disintegration of their culture by our policies . I have powerful memories from when I passed through Curtin Springs (N.T.) with a school excursion, more than three decades ago, on 'pay day' .We witnessed the local indigenous men drinking at the 'pub' at 10 AM ! I was horrified, as were many of my students. Surely we can do better than just sending more so called experts to these communities and throwing heaps of money at the problem. There must be a better way.

Gavin 29 August 2017

Thanks for attempting to correct the record, Brian. Sadly, Mr Richardson's remarks just add to the denigration of whole communities that continues. In some ways, it feels like the build-up to the Northern Territory Intervention that was supposed to respond to a child abuse crisis. The hyperbolic self-serving account by a former politician is an example of cynical point-scoring at the expense of people's suffering. While there are numerous problems, including child abuse in many remote communities, this wholesale characterisation of them as dysfunctional is slanderous and unproductive. The former Minister did nothing to improve conditions at Balgo; he now uses the power of a major media platform to add to a chorus of negative claims and calls for draconian intervention.

Myrna 29 August 2017

All those in power need to read this to see that very, very, complex problems cannot be fixed by fly-in-fly out comments/solutions!

Leonie Lane 29 August 2017

I visited Balgo in the 90s. There was something creepy about it, hundreds of dead cows on the other side of the creek, people seemed anxious, cowed.

Kirsten garrett 29 August 2017

Thanks for this very important article. Can Eureka Street please ask Graham Richardson for a response?

Jan carter 29 August 2017

Thank you, Fr McCoy. Your measured and well-informed response should be a real antidote to the poison of political opportunism and Chinese whispers. It should be....

Joan Seymour 29 August 2017

How are these communities able to protect themselves from defamation. Is there a public place where lies can be published.?

Pat Howley 29 August 2017

Thank you Brian. I couldn't agree more that the only things it seems that many politicians are concerned about are things for which they can blame others. So telling that Mr Richardson seems to have had no such similar pangs of conscience doing absolutely nothing presumably, to ensure the severe issues of housing and dental care would be dealt with. And as you point out, these were the things he promised the community he would attend to. This is also the twist that mainstream media love to take -obviously happy to publish Mr Richardson. Recently our SA Sunday paper did a double page of beautiful photos of artists and their paintings of the APY Lands artists in SA - 2 Archibald finalists, one Wynne prize, one for the inaugural $100,000 landscape prize. The introductory paragraph? How this was good as it meant 'people were getting off Welfare'. My letter pointing out the inappropriateness of this emphasis and then quoting the (recently late) Yami Lester's reasons the APY people couldn't get work as in the past because the jobs and houses are given to white people. The letter was published with this entire section missing.

Michele Madigan 29 August 2017

Dear Fr Brian Thank you for your fine comments. Mr Richardson's silly story is but an expression of his and the countries guilt. The abuse of children in our society behind closed doors of suburbia is dangerously hidden, Aboriginal people are in the open where truth can shine. Blessings and peace

John Pettit 29 August 2017

Thank you Brian for this excellent and accurate piece about Balgo, which effectively counters Graham Richardson's unfortunately defamatory story which equally contributes to a view that many non-Aboriginal people readily accept. Over the years, whilst I was the Lajamanu School Principal I stayed for long periods at Balgo, knew many Warlpiri, Kukatja and Ngardi people there, and never heard anything to that effect. Quite definitely I would have if something to that effect was taking place. The same applies to you, as you were a highly ethical and trusted community member, as community members who spoke to me attested-they would have said something. I also visited Balgo for a prolonged period in the early 2000s and it was, by and large, a peaceful and harmonious community. Fly-in, fly-out people, including politicians like Richardson, who visit Aboriginal settlements go away with approx. 0% substantial knowledge of communities, or accurate ideas about them. As you know, it takes time. People who don't have any knowledge of Australian languages are prone to make very basic errors about what people are actually saying to them - misinterpretation may also have been the case here. I hope that thousands will read this corrective account. THANKYOU.

Christine Judith Nicholls 29 August 2017

Brian McCoy's book Holding Men changed my thinking. He is not a bleeding heart, not just a Catholic priest. He is a great friend of Aboriginal people and sees their pain, feels their pain as his own. His book recounts the experience of the people of Balgo and other communities in the south west Kimberley who were broken because the capacity to "look after" the next generation by the older generation was savaged by the Invasion. When the old can't "hold" the young, the young are damaged and the old are diminished. When Brian speaks we all should listen.

Mike Bowden 29 August 2017

"When police, Government officials or others come into Aboriginal communities and people experience their words and actions as ones of admonition, correction and criticism many simply walk away. They turn to those whom they can believe are the only ones they can trust, namely the members of their close and immediate families. This applies equally to all those who have experienced violence and abuse, and those who have been charged" (Fr Brian McCoy ... taken from your other article published in 2007). The key word in all of this is "trust". It is a word that holds so much -power, truth, mutuality, respect etc. etc., the list goes on and on. Once broken, the word 'trust' is changed forever ... it never ceases to astound me that non-aboriginal people constantly ask for generosity of spirit from our indigenous peoples. Non-aboriginal people assume that trust can be restored without having to give up something precious of themselves ... until that lesson is learnt, the toxic, death-dealing spiral for indigenous and other wounded people/s will not cease. I'm not an indigenous person, but I know deeply the truth of this lesson.

mary tehan 29 August 2017

Thank you Brian McCoy for this. What has been shouted loudly and displayed in headlines for so many years will take a lot of countering. So, please keep speaking up.

Janet 29 August 2017

"Searingly honest" are precisely the words for Fr Brian McCoy's so carefully written and researched comment from an event 23 years ago, Pam! (And thank you for your frequent comments in ES too!) Doubtless Brian's article can help Graham Richardson too, with his massive reputation as a politician from way back. I had been wondering why such persistent requests for an apology to the men of aboriginal communities are being made by matriarchal womenfolk in those same communities who, presumably, could see exactly what was going on. The whole Northern Territory Intervention seemed to be sprung on us in those dying days of the Howard Government. Perhaps it's just the time for this meaty discussion.

Kevin 29 August 2017

Child sexual abuse is the most evil crime because it impacts severely upon the child's future in society (due to the permanent dysfunction which results in despondency and loss of self-creativity). The government keeps making promises and delivers such bandaid schemes like the cashless welfare card which is treating the symptoms rather than the cause of the indigenous plight. Deprived of their true national identity; stripped of any meaningful sense of cultural ego, what else is left for the men of remote communities? Excess drinking and child abuse are the projections of how these men feel about themselves as citizens of Australia. The government can't see past its own agendas which should be to establish a Constitution that recognizes and holds the Indigenous peoples at the pinnacle of what it means to be called Australian.

Trish Martin 29 August 2017

When I visited Balgo in 1971, the main concerns of the tribal elders were: (1) the effects alcohol could have if it became part of the mission's life; and (2) the "story" being told by itinerant Black Panther followers about black and white relations - a narrative they considered alien to their experience since the arrival of the missionaries in the 1930s. In the '70s, the schoolchildren lived in dormitories in close proximity to their families. I was not aware of child abuse as an issue at the time.

John 29 August 2017

Thanks Kevin for your kind words. I know I derive just as much benefit from reading the "Submitted comments" as reading the articles. I also know that after reading some of my own comments the word "revision" pops into my head.

Pam 30 August 2017

Brian, I am saddened but not surprised by the misrepresentation of Aboriginal people and communities that you describe in your article. I worked with Aboriginal people on the West Coast and Far North of South Australia in statutory child protection for a decade. I was often perplexed by disturbing accounts in media about specific situations that I knew were either untrue or distorted to fit a particular view. Sexual abuse is a problem we all have to face as it is in every community. It is a travesty when individual communities are unfairly scapegoated and carry unwarranted shame. While working in child protection I met many men who made the choice not to drink alcohol and who were committed to keeping children safe and secure in their communities. Also children who are being, and who have been sexually abused need the truth to be told about their communities. I wonder if we have to accept and work deliberately to support minority groups who will never be 'good enough' and who will be unfairly scapegoated for political gain. Thank you Brian for your courage exposing this specific situation.

kenise 31 August 2017

Glad a friend of mine sent me this article Brian, and glad too that you wrote it! Blessings!

Marie Williams 02 September 2017

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