Sometimes the simplest of mistakes reveals far more of our preconceptions about human acts and motives, and about the complex relationships that make a human society, than we could have imagined. Such was the case with what journalist and lawyer Julie Szego dubs the ‘tainted trial’ of Farah Jama, a young Somali man who spent eighteen months in prison for a rape that almost certainly never happened.
Jama, who was accused of raping a woman found unconscious in a locked toilet cubicle in a Melbourne suburban nightclub in 2006, is the most notable Australian victim of what has been called the ‘CSI effect’: an uncritical regard for scientific techniques in the collection and analysis of evidence in criminal cases. His conviction relied solely on DNA testing, and almost nothing to corroborate it was cited at his trial. The fact that no one in the nightclub on the night in question remembered seeing a tall black man on a dance floor thronged with white faces, and that the club’s closed-circuit television tapes showed no such person entering or leaving the premises, apparently did not bother the jury or the trial judge. Nor did the fact that the woman had not even a hazy memory of the ordeal she was believed to have suffered.
Infamy comes packaged with a blurb declaring it to be an Australian western, and a testimonial from Malcolm Knox, who compares this evocation of the hellish convict colony of Van Diemen’s Land in the 1830s with the imaginative achievements of Martin Scorsese. Neither claim is quite right. Bartulin’s narrative style does have affinities with a certain sort of action movie: the reader is wrenched from short take to short take, with one clutch of characters momentarily left in peril while the plight of others is unveiled. This builds suspense and mostly works, but the relentless violence is more reminiscent of Peckinpah than Scorsese. And, although that does put Infamy in the realm of the western, the tale keeps drifting towards the mood and conventions of an earlier Hollywood genre, the swashbuckling adventure movies of the 1930s. This is The Wild Bunch meets Captain Blood.
Ever since Raymond Chandler decreed in The Simple Art of Murder (1950)that ‘Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid’, writers of hard-boiled crime fiction have queued up to take a shot at creating a hero who is less of a paragon than Chandler’s prescription and therefore supposedly more credible. Some, like James Ellroy, even abandon the project altogether, declaring the streets of the modern Western city to be so detestably mean that no one resembling Philip Marlowe could possibly be found on them.
Garry Disher’s World War II novel Past the Headlands (2001) was inspired in part by his discovery of the diary of an army surgeon in Sumatra, who wrote of how his best friend was trying to arrange passage on a ship or plane that could take them back to Australia before the advancing Japanese army arrived. But one morning the surgeon woke to find that his friend had departed during the night. Mateship in a time of adversity, that most vaunted of masculine Australian virtues, had turned out to be a sham. The elusiveness of real friendship and love, and the difficulty of discerning what is true and what is false in human conduct, are recurring themes in Disher’s writing, and he visits them again in his latest book, Bitter Wash Road.
Church leaders have rarely become national public figures, let alone objects of political contention, in Australia. Since Federation, the number who could be so described can be counted on fewer than the fingers of one hand. There is Ernest Burgmann, the Anglican prelate who earned the sobriquet ‘the red bishop’ for his espousal of left-wing causes during the Depression. Much better known is Daniel Mannix, the long-serving Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, whose interventions in controversies ranging from conscription campaigns during World War I to Cold War agitation over communist influence in the Labor movement implicated him in two of the ALP’s great splits. And now there is George Pell, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, a cardinal and a man who is capable, as Mannix was, of arousing both hero worship and intense fear and loathing.
Many people have heard of Gerald Ridsdale, defrocked Catholic priest of the diocese of Ballarat and a notorious convicted paedophile. But comparatively few people have heard of Ridsdale’s contemporary John Day. A priest in the same diocese, he too preyed upon many hundreds of children who came under his pastoral care. Ridsdale, who for a time served as Day’s curate in Sacred Heart parish, Mildura, is in prison; Day, however, officially remained a priest in good standing until his death in 1978 at the age of seventy-four. He was only temporarily removed from active ministry and never faced court for his crimes. This was not because they were never investigated, but because church and state colluded to suppress public knowledge of them.
Many people have heard of Gerald Ridsdale, defrocked Catholic priest of the diocese of Ballarat and a notorious convicted paedophile. But comparatively few people have heard of Ridsdale’s contemporary John Day. A priest in the same diocese, he too preyed upon many hundreds of children ...
Not the least portent of change in the Catholic Church since the Argentine Jesuit Jorge Bergoglio was elected as Pope Francis earlier this year has been mounting speculation that the new pontiff will disclose all documents in the Vatican archives concerning the most controversial of his twentieth-century predecessors, Eugenio Pacelli, who reigned as Pius XII from 1939 to 1958.