The credibility of senior legal officials prosecuting a notorious sex abuse case on Pitcairn Island hung in the balance yesterday after photographs were published of them wearing false breasts and a red tinsel wig.
The pictures were taken on a charter boat transporting the officials home to New Zealand from the tiny South Pacific island, a British dependent territory, where they had charged nine men with rape and indecent assault offences.
The officials included Simon Moore, an Auckland lawyer appointed Pitcairn public prosecutor for the case by British authorities. Mr Moore said yesterday that the boat's captain had pressed them to don the costume as part of a ship ritual, and it would have been impolite to refuse. "It was a couple of minutes of light-heartedness in the middle of the ocean."
Paul Dacre, the lawyer for the nine men, said he would discuss with his clients whether to take legal action. Islanders have already complained about the lawyers' conduct. Mr Dacre described the situation as "complex and unusual".
Mr Moore and his deputy, Christine Gordon, and Gray Cameron, a barrister who has been appointed as the presiding magistrate, travelled to Pitcairn in April. The decision to charge the nine men, one-fifth of the population, was taken after a lengthy investigation into claims of sexual abuse of women and girls on the island stretching back decades.
A total of 14 people have been charged with sex crimes on Pitcairn, a volcanic rock halfway between New Zealand and Peru which was settled by Fletcher Christian and his fellow Bounty mutineers in 1790.
In the context of the rape allegations, the lawyers' behaviour seems astonishing. It is not clear who released the photographs, which were apparently taken by the boat's crew. The precise nature of the "ritual" has not been clarified. Seafarers are familiar with a costumed ritual often performed when a ship crosses the Equator. But the significance of the wig and false breasts is a mystery.
Pitcairn, among the most isolated spots in the world, requires a week-long voyage from New Zealand. Even then, visitors have to wait offshore for islanders to ferry them in.
Mr Moore, who as Auckland's Crown solicitor has prosecuted some of New Zealand's most high-profile criminal cases, apologised. He said he took part "in the spirit of the moment" while passengers and crew were enjoying pre-dinner drinks on the deck of the boat, the MV Braveheart.
A crew member fetched the costume from below deck, he said. "The captain pressed others to wear the wig and plastic breasts which, for the crew, had assumed something of a ritual with charter parties ... Magistrate Cameron, Ms Gordon and I put the wig and plastic breasts on for a brief period of time."
A Pitcairn resident, Marelda Warren, said she found the behaviour and photographs offensive. "It's degrading to women, to everyone, to what the prosecutors represent. They are adults and they could easily have said no."
The British high commission in Wellington, which administers Pitcairn, said it had taken legal advice and did not believe the photographs compromised the prosecution.