Partying in prison stripes, Pitcairn men enjoy their freedom ahead of verdicts

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On a grassy slope on the edge of the world generations of Pitcairners lie buried in haphazard rows. Some have crumbling monuments to men long dead, but the names still make women on the Pacific island shudder.

On a grassy slope on the edge of the world generations of Pitcairners lie buried in haphazard rows. Some have crumbling monuments to men long dead, but the names still make women on the Pacific island shudder.

A few yards away is a grove of banana trees where Randy Christian, one of the current crop of young Pitcairners, allegedly pinned down a 10-year-old girl so a friend could rape her. She claims the pair gagged her, stuffing a shirt into her mouth so her screams could not be heard by her parents, who were in a nearby shed. Then they swapped positions and it was Christian's turn to rape the child on the red volcanic earth.

She told no one about the alleged assault and, had she done so, it is unlikely any action would have ensued. For such is life for young girls on Pitcairn, it seems, and so has it long been - back to the era of the Bounty mutineers who settled here.

Whether the cycle of abuse can be broken depends on three New Zealand judges who will deliver verdicts on Randy Christian and six others in a courtroom in Adamstown on Sunday.

So far, there is little sign of any such acknowledgement, or of remorse. Last Friday, the seven defendants converged on Big Fence - the family home of Randy Christian's father, Steve, who is mayor of Pitcairn and an alleged serial child rapist - for an evening of drinking. Amid much laughter and banter, they took photographs of each other dressed in prison-style uniforms decorated with arrows.

The men are charged with a litany of offences dating back 40 years, including raping and sexually abusing children as young as five. One has already pleaded guilty, and another has made limited admissions. Others, if convicted, could join them in a new six-cell prison that all of them helped to build last year.

Sentencing is scheduled for Thursday. But it will not spell the end of the agony. While seven women gave heartrending testimony at the trial, they conveyed only a portion of the reality of life in the British dependent territory. The wider picture includes another six Pitcairn men, now living in Australia and New Zealand and expected to go on trial in Auckland next year, charged with offences as appalling as those outlined here in recent weeks.

It also includes an additional 17 men named as abusers during the lengthy investigation by officers from Kent Police. Some were not charged because their alleged victims did not wish to pursue them or were reluctant to testify.

The islanders, most of whom have not stepped inside the courthouse, insist that all the alleged incidents involved consensual sex and the girls suffered no ill-effects. One middle-aged woman describes her daughter as a "silly idiot" for complaining that she was raped at 12 by a man in his thirties.

"It seems it's something that's been going on right through the ages," one defendant, Dave Brown, told police. "It didn't seem wrong."

One alleged victim told the court: "It just seemed to be the normal way of life back on Pitcairn, how the girls are treated. Men could do what they want with them. They seem to be a rule unto themselves."

Pitcairn, with 47 inhabitants, is a place like no other. Adultery is as prevalent as the sea breeze. Genetic parentage is often unclear. Sex between adult men and girls barely out of puberty is condoned, yet a story about cruelty to a dog is still being retold in horrified tones years later.

When the inquiry began in 2000, it was the girls who were blamed for speaking out. Many withdrew their complaints after being subjected to pressure from their families.

A victim would occasionally protest, but she would not be believed, and might be thrashed for bringing trouble on her family. There are suggestions that parents pushed daughters in the direction of influential men.

So the girls understood it was pointless to complain. One later related that, after her first sexual encounter, she realised she had lost her virginity but had never been kissed.