The name Nobbs is carved deep in the heart of Norfolk Island. There are innumerable Nobbs buried under mossy tombstones in the historic cemetery, inscribed on the war memorial, recorded in the annals of the island’s commerce, religion and civic service.
The pioneer of the clan, George Hunn Nobbs, an Irishman who claimed to be the illegitimate son of the Marquis of Hastings, arrived there in 1856 as the pastor, schoolmaster and doctor of a shipload of refugees from Pitcairn Island, descendants of the Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian women.
A century and a half later, the descendants of Nobbs and his wife Sarah (granddaughter of the swashbuckling leader of the mutiny, Fletcher Christian) are among the largest and most influential of the “founding father” families which still dominate most aspects of life on this self-governing island territory whose symbol is the eponymous pine tree.
There are 24 of them in the flimsy phone book, among the 1,800 other residents. They run shops in the tourist drag of the main settlement, Burnt Pine; they own farmland and tourist accommodation; they are prominent in the church and service organisations; one, Ron Nobbs, is Chief Minister in the island’s nine-member Parliament.
And one has just brought the deepest disgrace imaginable to his family and his ancestral island home. Stephen Enoch Nobbs, fifth-generation descendant of Norfolk Island’s pioneers, deacon of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, prominent businessman and pillar of the community, has become the first islander to be charged with, and convicted of, sex crimes against children.
Aged 68, a white-haired, ruddy faced grandfather, Nobbs listened impassively in the Norfolk Island courthouse last month as the verdict of a magistrate, 1,800 kilometres away in Canberra, was read to him: guilty of six charges of indecency against two girls, aged then between 7 and 13, in assaults dating back 20 years. He will have to wait until November to learn his sentence the maximum is five years’ jail.
Elsewhere in the courthouse, a handsome greystone building constructed in 1882 as a military barracks, a great cheer went up from the crowd of Nobbs’s victims, their families and supporters who hugged each other and wept in relief at the end of their ordeal. “The message is we don’t have to put up with this any more,” said one woman.
Pedophilia is a terrible crime, anywhere, any time, but in a closed and insular little community like Norfolk Island, where everyone knows everyone else and many are bound by ties of kinship going back generations, it raises issues that do not have to be confronted in the anonymity of big cities.
“Until now,” says Donald Christian-Reynolds, another descendant of Fletcher Christian and co-founder of a new victims’ support group , “no-one acknowledged that sexual abuse took place here. It was something you didn’t talk about. But now women are coming out of the woodwork saying `It happened to me, too’.”
In the aftermath of the historic verdict, questions are being asked, too, about the failure of the Seventh Day Adventist Church which plays a central role in the lives of many island families to respond to complaints about Nobbs going back many years, and to adequately support and counsel the women whom he abused.
To the 37,000 tourists who flock there every year, Norfolk Island promises a relaxing time in “paradise,” a word that crops up in the travel brochures. A self-governing tax haven, only eight kilometres by five, it boasts sandy coves, a picturesque golf course, remnants of a rainforest and some of the most handsome Georgian architecture in the Southern Hemisphere. And history.
Discovered by Captain Cook in 1774, the island was used first as a grim ghetto for Australia’s worst convicts (“a place of the extremist punishment short of death,” decreed Governor Ralph Darling) then settled by descendants of the Bounty mutineers who had exhausted the resources of their first landfall on remote Pitcairn Island. By then, the survivors had put behind them their debauched and barbaric past and taken to religion.
Within 20 years of settling on Pitcairn Island 14 of the 15 men were dead, mostly murdered in fights over “ownership” of the Tahitian women, and the astonished British sealing skipper who discovered the colony found the lone male survivor, John Adams, happily ensconced in a harem of nine women, surrounded by 25 children who all called him father.
Religion is still an important part of life on Norfolk Island, and the Seventh Day Adventists an American evangelical church which established a foothold on the island in 1891 when a missionary ship arrived and converted the Rev Alfred Nobbs from Anglicanism are one of the larger denominations. Adventists are well-known for their welfare work, and prominent in the business community.
The Nobbs family is still a pillar of the church, and “Steve” Nobbs, a married man with children, is still a regular at Saturday services. A successful businessman and former president of Rotary, with a tour operation, holiday flats and land-holdings, Nobbs was the senior deacon, and a leading fund-raiser for the Seventh Day Adventists.
Which may partly explain why when, seven or eight years ago, a young woman who had been holidaying on the island accused Nobbs of having attempted to rape her in the shed where he keeps a boat used for fishing trips, her complaint was greeted with disbelief, and no action was taken beyond asking Nobbs for his account of the incident. “She is over 18 and what we do is no-one else’s business,” a member of her family claims he said.
How far this complaint was pressed at that time is not clear. One of the woman’s irate relatives, a resident of the island, did make a written complaint to the church in which he protested: “All those abused by Mr Nobbs are not troublemakers in our church and community who should be silenced, but victims of crime whose voices need to be heard.” However, church elders persuaded the family not to take it to the police, and nothing was done.
Questioned about this, Ralph Weslake, senior elder of the church (and, incidentally, an employee of Nobbs), confirmed that the complaint of attempted rape had been made: “But Steve denied it, and anyway the girl is dead now so what can you do?” Of another allegation, he said: “What’s in it? A touch on the breast? If that’s illegal we should all be in jail.”
Asked why the church had not called in the police then to properly investigate, he said: “We like to keep things like that within the church.”
Two years ago another case surfaced, this time involving the daughter of a man who had been a lifelong friend of Nobbs. His daughter, he said, had plucked up courage to tell him about an incident when she was six years old and Nobbs had molested her while she was on holiday. Again, the father, a member of the congregation, was persuaded not to pursue it.
And then, last Christmas, a group of women were talking together and decided to share a secret they, too, had been victims of Nobbs’s attentions. Eventually three of them (a charge involving the third woman was dismissed) decided to go to the police, and by a stroke of good fortune found that one of the ACT officers assigned to Norfolk Island, Special Constable Rachelle Heath, had been trained in handling complaints of sexual assault.
This time Nobbs would not be able to use his influence to escape justice.
Only in a place like Norfolk Island would a scandal such as the charging of such a senior and respected citizen with pedophilia not be reported. Especially since only once before in the island’s recent history had a sex crime of any sort been prosecuted.
On that occasion, in 1993, the offence was common law rape (Norfolk Island has its rather antiquated criminal code, the so-called Green Book). An all-male jury was empanelled, and the woman was cross-examined on her previous sexual history, long prohibited in Australian jurisdictions. The man was acquitted, the woman was forced to leave the island and that was the last time anyone complained of sexual assault.
Tom Lloyd, owner, editor and chief reporter of the local newspaper, says he steers clear of controversial issues such as criminal cases, particularly since 1980 when his offices were burnt down in a still unsolved arson attack, apparently revenge for a story someone did not like.
Merval Hoare, another long-time resident and author of the definitive history of Norfolk Island, has another take on it: “They wouldn’t report the case because it might affect tourism people come here because it’s supposed to be the safest place in the world.” Indeed, local residents ostentatiously leave the keys in their cars when they park.
Whatever the reason, the only information people had about the charges against Nobbs until the hearing began in June was by way of word of mouth, or “dem tull” as they say in the unique local lingo, an exotic hybrid of 18th-century English and Tahitian. Inevitably, the story was exaggerated and embellished and the family, the church congregation, the community and the island divided into hostile camps.
But when the court convened for the trial, before Ron Cahill, the chief magistrate of the Australian Capital Territory who also acts as head of the Bench on Norfolk Island, only about a dozen curious residents mostly relatives of the victims and members of the church congregation turned up to listen as the sordid story unfolded.
The first witness, a girl of 14, gave evidence by video link from an adjoining office another first for Norfolk Island. Supported by her brother, crying occasionally and sipping water, she described four occasions dating back to when she was seven years old when Nobbs had molested her, at her home and at his holiday apartments.
The girl’s mother backed her evidence, testifying that when she discovered what had happened, in February, she had sent Nobbs back the Bible he had given the girl as a birthday present with a note saying, “I am absolutely devastated with what you have done to our daughter.” When she confronted Nobbs he had told her to tell her daughter to keep her mouth shut and he was “getting help”.
The second victim, now a woman in her early 30s, told of assaults by Nobbs nearly 20 years ago, including one occasion when he had grasped her breasts outside the church after a service. When she remonstrated, he had said: “That’s why God put them there.”
In a theme that will be familiar to many victims of sexual assault, the woman said she had kept quiet about it until now “because I thought at the time that it was my fault”.
On oath, Nobbs testified that he had never touched the girls inappropriately, although he did concede he told one of the mothers “—- is out to get all the information he can get. Don’t let your two girls near him”, which prompted this exchange with the prosecutor, Adrian Robertson, the assistant ACT Director of Public Prosecutions:Q: You got away with it for over 10 years, did you not? Until …A :That’s rubbish.Q: … finally someone had the guts to go to the police about you.
The scars from this case will be a long time healing. Although both his victims are thankful for the verdict and relieved that it is all over, there is no professional counselling available on the island, something which concerns Norfolk’s health minister, Geoff Gardiner.
“It has highlighted the need for some of these services even in an idyllic setting like Norfolk Island where you would never expect it,” he says. “People think this is a green, pleasant place where you can leave your keys in the car … you would never expect something like this to occur.”
Gardiner estimates that because of the extended family relationships involved between 60 and 90 people have been affected by the case. He has arranged for social workers to fly in from the mainland, but is anxious to establish a more permanent service to encourage other women who may have been assaulted “to feel safe about coming out and talking about it”.
Others are concerned that the conviction of Nobbs may be just the tip of the iceberg of a long-repressed tradition of sexual abuse. Merval Hoare, for one, believes that it is “a patriarchal society where these things have been kept private and hushed up”.
A clergyman familiar with the island and its problems says: “You are talking about a small, closed community. Sexual abuse has been prevalent across a number of families, and it goes right back to their origins. It is part of the culture.
“These women have been very brave in pressing these issues within the church and the wider community, and sending a message that this is no longer acceptable. The subtext to the paradise which it is advertised as being is that there have been significant amounts of pain.”
For the Seventh Day Adventist Church, struggling to cope with news of the convictions, there is also the issue of how abuse by such a senior member of the congregation could have been allowed to go on for so long, despite complaints against Nobbs going back almost a decade.
Pastor Malcolm Allen is president of the Greater Sydney Conference of the church, the governing body of the Norfolk Island Assembly. He has reviewed the files and believes the church acted “fairly and responsibly” when the first complaints were made: “We can only act on facts, not rumours.”
He says that as soon as the latest allegations surfaced, Nobbs had been asked to stand down as deacon pending the result of the case. It was a “horrific thing”, but “we don’t have a problem with this. We don’t condone abuse, particularly child abuse, and we have not covered it up. In my administration [he was appointed three years ago] I believe we have acted honourably”.
As for the disgraced Stephen Nobbs, his conduct was “unbecoming and unethical” and it would be left to the local congregation to “discipline” him.
To whatever fate the church, and the magistrate, determine will be added the community’s wrath. Already there are stories that his farm fences have been cut, and men who have known him all their lives have turned their backs, rather than help him with his boat.
Paradise can be a bleak and unforgiving place for those who transgress its rules.
Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Thursday 14 September 2000
Section: News And Features
Sub section: Insight
Word count: 2541
Classification: Crime/Child Abuse Neglect/Sexual Abuse
Geographic area: Norfolk Island
Photography: by Ben Hills
1. Norfolk Island, the popular image;
2. The Nobbs holiday apartment building;
3. Donald Christian-Reynolds.
4. Stephen Nobbs … asked to stand down as a church deacon.