For Our Daughters

Tracey Barnett © October 2007
 Photo by Tracey Barnett

Sometimes we just get it wrong.

As readers, on a daily basis we watch a news story like the Rotorua police rape case of Louise Nicholas unfurl in scattered pieces over over months, even years.

Just about the time we are able to pull up into a bird’s eye view to survey the big picture, the next new, noisier instalment diverts our attention, blindering the insights we deserve.

In the thick of it, we argue over whether Clint Rickards is innocent, or if Wanganui Mayor Michael Laws’ declaration of “Don’t give me moral coppers—give me effective ones” is frightening, foul or fair.

Only now, far too late, do I realise why the entire national conversation about this case feels sorely off-target. We have missed the point.

Yes, these trials may be about a dirty bunch of cops that were allowed to abuse their position of power criminally. It is also about a system that may or may not have been tragically flawed, allowing impotent litigation to drag on for years, depending on your perspective.

But the pivotal piece that holds the most power for me is that most of us in the media, in the courts, and at dinner conversations—have forgotten one essential thing.

This story started with an innocent thirteen-year-old girl. Ultimately, it will end with another thirteen –year-old girl, Louise Nicholas’ daughter, and mine, and yours.

Louise Nicholas was first raped by a cop before she had ever begun menstruating. She was a young, scared girl boarding with her abuser and his family. It took her decades to grow into a woman sophisticated enough to understand the abuse of the institutionalised corruption she would have to fight long after that first rape at age thirteen.

For a moment, put aside whether Clint Rickards needs to be out on the street stripped of his new $50,000 government wheels, put aside whether John Dewar’s counter accusations will be upheld, and even put aside whether Louise Nicholas was telling the truth or not– to consider this.

One woman, Louise Nicholas, has been on the witness stand seven times through five trials and three depositions. Thousands of pre-trial hours have been spent on what her decision to speak out as a young girl has now unearthed decades later.

She has been called “the town bike” and a “media whore” by people who have never known her, though there has never been proof that she was sexually promiscuous in any way outside of the police rape incidences.

She has had the guts, the strength, the tenacity, and the tremendous resource of inner resolve to choose to fight this case through intermittent litigation on and off for the last 14 years of her life.

How would one person ever have had the strength to put herself through this if it was all a pack of lies?

Even if you discount her entire case, no one can ignore almost two dozen women who eventually came forward with similar stories of abuse uncovered as a result of the Operation Austin investigation in the years that followed. The handfuls of women victims who chose not to have to confront the cruel agitator of the courts or the media are today symbolic in just one.

Louise Nicholas lost the trials she always believed would rebalance justice. But she won something much bigger than her own experience. She won a different future for her daughter– one that was stolen from her past.

What I and many others in this country have forgotten amidst the combustible discourse is how to change the conversation. We forgot how to ask, what should be valued here?

There is a former dairy milker living quietly in the North Island with three daughters and a new baby son who embodies what is best about this country. She has fought —despite being stripped of personal power taken from her since she was a young teenager—against the police, against the courts, and against public opinion to do what she instinctually knew was right, to find justice.

She lost once, twice, three times, then four, and even today it appears that this fifth trial conviction will be contested.

Louise Nicholas, I hope your 12-year-old daughter has begun to understand the importance of the woman you have become. Tell her what you have done for her future. Tell her what you have done for the thousands of silent victims who are now a part of your singular voice.

Then this country can remember to say what we should have understood all along. Thank you.

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