We stand beside our indigenous sisters
I heard this ABC Background Briefing Program while driving this morning. I arrived at my destination but couldn’t get out of the car, so riveted was I by the appalling treatment of these remarkable women who spoke out about a child abuser in their midst – and beyond that, by their phenomenal courage. It’s hard to believe what they have endured. If women like this are not supported for speaking out, then others won’t step forward and the scourge of child abuse will grow worse.
Agnes, Veronica and Joyce – my colleagues and I stand with you and honour you.
Listen here and read more below.
Women speak out about ‘cone of silence’ around child abuser Dootch Kennedy
Speaking out about child abuse is difficult, and often resisted. But after a prominent Aboriginal leader was jailed for the repeated sexual assault of a young girl—and despite an ongoing campaign to keep his critics quiet—some Aboriginal women are taking a stand, and calling on their leaders to do the same. Bronwyn Adcock reports.
Earlier this year, a prominent Aboriginal leader and activist from the Illawarra region in coastal New South Wales, was sentenced to 17 years’ jail for the repeated sexual assault of a young girl.
Roy Noel Kennedy, known as Dootch, pleaded guilty to four charges of sexual assault.
I was always fearful that coming forward and telling the truth would create backlash from my community.
VICTIM IMPACT STATEMENT
In the woman’s victim impact statement, which she read in the Wollongong District Court earlier this year, she described always feeling like she hated herself.
‘I struggle to live every day without feeling very anxious and lost,’ she said.
‘I think I feel this way because I have lost so much in my life. I was never able to be the little girl I wished I could have been.’
Kennedy’s assaults resulted in her having a baby at 15, another at 16, and then a miscarriage with twins when she was 17.
‘My miscarriage with twins was also very hard,’ she said.
‘Even though it was a forced pregnancy, they were still my children.’
The woman, also from the Aboriginal community, described how she never got to finish school, and how she now struggles with her mental health.
‘I feel like my mob don’t believe me, and talk about me when I am not there,’ she said.
‘I was always fearful that coming forward and telling the truth would create backlash from my community. Especially because in our community Dootch was seen in a positive light, and as an elder he has a lot of power and responsibility.’
Dootch Kennedy was one of the Illawarra’s most powerful and prominent Aboriginal leaders. He was a respected elder, the chair of the local Aboriginal Land Council, and the leader of the Sandon Point Tent Embassy.
On the day he was sentenced to 17 years in jail, two local Aboriginal women, Veronica Bird and Agnes Donovan, organised a small group to come along to court to show their support for the survivor.
However, a much larger group turned up at court to support Dootch.
‘They were getting right into our personal space and they were making comments, “We know where you live, we know who you are,”‘ says one woman who supported the survivor, who only wants to be known as Sue.
‘The supporters of the perpetrator were photographing us quite often with their mobile phones.’
Veronica Bird was targeted for verbal abuse, mainly about the fact that the Illawarra is not her country.
‘It was more about the fact that I don’t come from here, “you have no right” to be doing what I’m doing,’ she says.
‘He didn’t call me what he usually calls me—he did that later, when I went outside the courtroom. He always makes reference to me a baboon, a gorilla, those kinds of statements.
‘I’m not a traditional owner, and so therefore, “you had no right”? I had no right to be speaking out against Dootch or anyone else in relation to this matter.’
Inside the courtroom, the abuse continued, this time from Dootch Kennedy himself as he was led into the dock.
‘He was disgraceful,’ Veronica Bird says.
‘He came in and he saw his family and he saw us sitting there, and the victim, and he saw the amount of people that was supporting her.
‘Then he looked over at his family and said: “Did you see all the ass wipes sitting on that side of the courtroom?” And then he stuck his finger up, he was sticking his finger up, laughing—it was like a joke.’
Breaking the silence around child abuse
Outside the court, Veronica Bird held an impromptu press conference, where she dropped a bombshell.
‘The community has had a cone of silence around it for so long,’ she said.
‘I am only a newcomer to this community, and didn’t realise that there was this deep-seated secret that was being held by members of this community.’
The secret she was talking about was rumours that Dootch’s crimes were long talked about within the community, even as he rose in power and prominence as a leader.
Joyce Donovan, an elder in the Illawarra, says it was never a secret—his crimes had been talked about for ‘a long, long time’.
‘We knew because people say, whether you live on the north coast or the south coast, that person only has to tell one person, it might be a friend, and that spreads like wildfire,’ she says.
‘We knew, we knew what was happening and we probably know more than the courts know.’
Joyce Donovan has long been an outspoken advocate of breaking the silence around child abuse. She says her community is struggling to confront not just Dootch’s crimes, but those of others.
‘This happens in mainstream communities too,’ she says.
‘I think in our community it is just the taboo was on the subject then, you couldn’t speak about it, no one wanted to hear.
‘I have been to meetings where young women have stood up and cried and said we need to speak up, and elders say “you can’t”. I’ve seen those young women stand up and cry.’
Some women are now calling on their leaders to start taking a stand.
‘They don’t want to get involved, they don’t want to know about it, and yet there are these organisations out there that can make significant change, if they were to stand alongside Agnes Donovan and Veronica Bird, and my elders and all the other black women out there that are saying enough is enough, this won’t be tolerated anymore,’ Joyce Donovan says.
Paying a price for speaking out
The two women who rallied around the survivor at court, Veronica Bird and Agnes Donovan, are paying a price for speaking out. They say they’ve been abused on Facebook with photos of gorillas, monkeys, and bunches of bananas.
Veronica Bird says she wants to make sure that lessons are learned, from the experience of having Dootch Kennedy rise to such a position of power.
She describes events at a recent meeting of an Aboriginal organisation to discuss governance.
‘We were putting together documents, and to ensure that people sitting on our board were reputable people, and I said I want to ensure that whatever we do, we ensure we never allow someone like Dootch Kennedy to sit on that board,’ she says.
‘But you had someone sit there—because I mentioned his name—and say I don’t believe we should mention people’s names.
‘I said, you have got be kidding. This man, it’s public knowledge, this man is in jail for what he has done, but you don’t want me to mention his name? I mean, this was last Wednesday.’
Hear Bronwyn Adcock’s full investigation into the culture of silence around Dootch Kennedy’s crimes on Background Briefing