Monday, August 11, 2014

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“LOUISE NICHOLAS – MY STORY” by Louise Nicholas, with Philip Kitchin (revised edition - Random House, $39:99)

In the week that I am writing this review, the radio tells me that the police have released a report on police conduct during the investigation into the Crewe murders, which happened way back in 1970. Apparently (I’m relying on the radio here), the report confirms that police planted evidence, and that therefore police fully accept that Arthur Allan Thomas was wrongfully convicted of the murders. But it also asserts that police had good reason at the time to regard Thomas as a suspect. Reacting to this, one angry supporter of Thomas claimed that “the police still don’t get it”, and that, as Thomas has received a royal pardon, we must now consider him to be a completely innocent man, and no shadow of suspicion should be attached to him.
Far be it from me to comment on this complicated murder case, about which I know only what I have read in the newspapers. But I do have to dissent from the view that an official “pardon” removes all suspicion. A pardon can (and I am speaking in general terms here) simply be an acknowledgement that the state no longer concerns itself with a crime and is willing to forgive the person who was suspected of the crime. A pardon can even be issued to somebody who was rightfully convicted. In effect it can say “We still believe you did it, but we forgive you and we’re letting the matter go.” It isn’t a guarantee that the person being pardoned is free of all suspicion.
Why did the Thomas partisan claim otherwise? Partly, I theorise (of course I don’t know) because he, like so many people, wants to be assured that he can have absolute certainty about some matter that has been through the courts. And the more I consider how even the fairest trials are conducted, the more I come to the conclusion that absolute certainty simply isn’t possible. Please note that the standard offered to juries is that they consider a person to be innocent or guilty “beyond reasonable doubt”. Not beyond all doubt whatsoever, note, but only beyond reasonable doubt. This means that, even about a well-founded conviction or acquittal, there can be teensy-weensy, niggly-naggly doubts, upon which, of course, lawyers will play furiously.
Absolute certainty – absolute finality – about any case that comes before the courts is simply not possible. Only God knows the complete truth about anything.
So what does this have to do with the re-issue of book that first appeared seven years ago (in 2007)? Louise Nicholas, My Story is being re-issued with some revisions to the text and with a new foreword by Kim McGregor of Rape Prevention Education and a new introduction by Louise Nicholas. It is being re-issued in part as a tie-in with a television film which has just been made about Louise Nicholas. As its title says, Louise Nicholas, My Story is a story which gives a series of events as seen by one of the people involved. So it is, by its very confessional nature, a partisan work. On balance, and considering some of the circumstantial evidence involved, I did end up seeing things Louise Nicholas’s way. But the whole matter presents the usual difficulties that accompany attempts to establish the truth about historical sexual abuse claims.
Briefly, as she tells it, Nicholas’s story goes like this.
As a13-year-old, when she was still Louise Crawford, Nicholas was raped and otherwise sexually abused by one policeman. She was too embarrassed and too traumatised by the experience to tell anyone, and feared that her parents would blame her for what had happened, especially as the policemen in question was a respected member of her small community. Some years later, in Rotorua in the 1980s, when she was aged 16 and 17, she claims that she was repeatedly raped and abused by three policemen, Clint Rickards, Brad Shipton and Bob Schollum, who would visit her flat and intimidate her before coercing her into sex. On one occasion they raped her using a baton. Again, she felt that she had no recourse to justice, that her complaints would not be believed and that the police had too much public authority and respect for their word to be doubted. So she remained silent.
When she was twenty, she married Ross Nicholas, a good and supportive man, and began to raise a family. But she found, after she had had two children, that she was becoming severely depressed, the abuse she had suffered played on her mind, and for the first time she began to tell people about it. This led, in 1994, to the policeman who had first abused her coming to trial. Helping her prepare the case against him was Detective Inspector John Dewar, whom she regarded as her great ally in his attempts to find relevant evidence. But, encouraged by the researches of her co-author the journalist Philip Kitchin, she now believes that Dewar deliberately undermined her case by presenting in court hearsay evidence which would lead to the case being dismissed. Nicholas and Kitchin now believe that Dewar was corruptly protecting his police associates – and courts later came to the same conclusion. Dewar was later convicted of perverting the course of justice.
The case against Rickards, Schollum and Shipton took a lot longer to make. Nicholas’s accusations against the three policemen first became public in 2004 in a front-page Dominion-Post expose, written by Kitchin. The three men were tried in 2006. By this time Schollum and Shipton had left the force, but Rickards was Assistant Police Commissioner and was just one step away from becoming the country’s highest-ranking police officer.
Rickards, Schollum and Shipton were acquitted. Enough unsavoury information came out in the trial, however, to convince many people of their guilt, and there was much public outrage when, after the acquittals, it was made public that Schollum and Shipton were already serving jail sentences for their part in the pack-rape of another woman. Of course the jury weighing up Louise Nicholas’s accusations did not know this. Louise Nicholas was now feted as somebody who had taken a stand against “rape culture” and who was now encouraging other women to come forward and voice their complaints. The court of public opinion vindicated her.
Clearly, the two authors of this book believe the acquittals of Rickards, Schollum and Shipton were a travesty of justice. The first edition of this book came out within a year of the acquittals and is in large part a response to them. But the authors are constrained to speak within the laws of libel. There’s a note at the beginning of the book telling us that some names in the narrative have been changed because of suppression orders.
Personally, I do not believe that the three defendants’ acquittals establish their innocence definitively any more than that another man’s pardon clears him of all legitimate suspicion. Quite apart from this, however, Nicholas’s (and Kitchin’s) version of events does establish the existence of a macho and abusive culture within the police force. Other women have subsequently had their complaints, about abusive sexual behaviour by police, upheld by the courts. I note, too, that a good part of the defence case for Rickards, Schollum and Shipton hinged on the matter of consent. They did not deny that they had had group sex with a teenage girl, but they claimed that the sex was consensual. Implicitly, their version (or their defence lawyers’ version) of events was that Louise Nicholas was a willing party girl who later, as a married woman, had second thoughts about her youthful behaviour and therefore claimed, falsely, that she had been coerced. She was, in this version, perjuring herself. So here we have our old friends, the difficulties that accompany attempts to establish the truth about historical sexual abuse claims. Whose word are you going to believe? Given that there can be no surviving physical evidence, whose word seems more credible?
My own judgment, based on the many witnesses to a coercive police sub-culture, based on the other convictions of Schollum and Shipton, and based on Louise Nicholas’s own testimony, is that Nicholas is telling the truth about her experience. I would have to add, however, that regardless of whether they had attained “consent”, I regard serving police officers who have group sex with a teenage girl as sleazy bastards. Maybe this moral viewpoint would disqualify me from sitting on any jury considering the case, as law courts are there only to determine what is legal, not what is morally right.
I add that, as she appears in this book, Louise Nicholas is a remarkably level-headed and non-vindictive person. Her text is peppered with words of praise for the police force in general (her brother is a police officer) and especially for those police who really have supported her claims, provided her with evidence, and have subsequently cooperated in the commission of enquiry that was set up to investigate police behaviour. In 2013 she was happy to be photographed with Police Commissioner Peter Marshall as he helped her launch a brochure giving advice to victims of sexual abuse. I am amazed, too, that her youthful experiences didn’t put her off the male sex in general, but all the evidence is that she is a devoted wife and good mother to her four children.
After discussing these serious and depressing matters, it will probably seem frivolous or pedantic of me to comment on this book as a piece of writing, but here goes anyway: Louise Nicholas, My Story is a journalist’s book, often written in journalese and using some of the familiar tricks of the trade – such as opening on the trial with the verdicts about to come in and then going into flashback mode so that some spurious suspense can be generated. Alternate chapters are written by Louise Nicholas and by Philip Kitchin as she tells of her experiences and he tells of his investigations and how the media were handled. Pardon me, but I suspect (having some inkling of how books like this are written) that her testimony has been re-worked and re-written (“ghosted” in other words) by him, so similar do the two voices sound. I’m also irked that the only photographs in the photo section are happy shots of Louise and her family or recent shots of Louise and people helping her in various rape prevention campaigns. There are no shots of the defendants at the trials, perhaps because of the suppression orders???
But given that most readers will be interested only in the subject matter and not in the style, my criticisms will probably seem of little moment – so I’ll leave them at that.

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