Claims that Australia's most powerful Aboriginal leader is a serial rapist have sparked an agonised debate about a subject hitherto discussed only in whispers: the epidemic of sexual violence in Aboriginal communities.
Geoff Clark, chairman of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (Atsic), Australia's main indigenous organisation, has denied accusations of raping four women in the 1970s and 1980s after The Age newspaper in Melbourne last week took the unusual step of publishing its account of the alleged assaults.
Mr Clark, a former footballer and prize fighter with a colourful past, was cleared of raping one of the women after a magistrate decided last year there was not enough evidence for a jury to convict him. She, together with the other three, who live in different areas of Australia, gave The Age graphic descriptions of the alleged attacks.
While Mr Clark's supporters have condemned the newspaper for conducting a trial by media, a cloud hangs over his reputation. The affair has also drawn attention to the horrifying level of domestic violence and child abuse in Aboriginal towns and settlements – a topic that, because of racial sensitivities, has until now been virtually taboo.
A report commissioned by the Queensland government in 1999 concluded that violence against indigenous women and children was widespread. It found infants as young as 17 months were being sexually abused, and outlined a series of appalling cases, including the gang rape of a three-year-old girl.
Social workers say domestic violence is part of life for many Aboriginal women and girls, who rarely speak out, fearful of retribution for bringing shame on their families.
In April, The Independent on Sunday reported the case of a 25-year-old woman who bled to death from internal injuries in Katherine, in the Northern Territory, after her husband slashed her face with a broken bottle and penetrated her repeatedly with a sharp object. A group of people drinking in the couple's house that night did not intervene despite her screams.
Indigenous leaders have been accused of sweeping the issue under the carpet. John Herron, a former Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, said this week that when he raised the problem with the board of Atsic five years ago, "there was total denial".
Alienation, frustration and despair are blamed for brutalising Aboriginal men and creating a climate in which violence is normal. Sociologists point to the disempowerment of men in a traditionally male-centred society.
Lifting the veil of secrecy is proving divisive. An outspoken Aboriginal magistrate, Pat O'Shane, defended Mr Clark, saying many women fabricated rape charges and some brought violence upon themselves.
Her comments brought a furious response from prominent Aboriginal women, who warned that such statements could set back decades of progress. Ms O'Shane dismissed her critics as "bleeding-heart, bleating, middle-class feminists".
Evelyn Scott, the former chair of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, took the brave step of revealing that her four daughters were sexually assaulted as children by a family friend. She said she believed many of the problems facing young Aborigines could be traced back to childhood abuse.
Police have investigated three of the four rape allegations, one of which was dismissed at last year's committal hearing. The fourth was not reported. Police in Victoria, where the offences are alleged to have taken place, have no plans to reopen their investigations. Mr Clark has no plans to sue.Reuse content