by Hannes Wessels
I probably wouldn’t be getting involved in this sorry saga were it not for the fact that Dr John Pridgeon, is one of my closest, oldest and dearest friends who I hold in the highest regard. John’s late brother Geoff, a doctor too, was also a good friend and hugely respected physician. On his untimely death in June 2017, mourners of all races and religions came from across Zimbabwe in numbers unseen in recent memory to bid this good man goodbye. The parents, Kallah and Bill, were much loved, highly respected members of the Bulawayo community.
In 1988 John’s brother Russell, also a medical doctor, left to go to Australia where he continued to practise. Patrick O’Dea, another, personal friend and popular former member of the Bulawayo community, followed. Unbeknown to most, Patrick, never one to hold back when there’s something happening, may even be the holder of a world record, having survived four separate landmine blasts in the course of the Rhodesian war. A tough guy with a great sense of humour and nary an enemy in the world when he left.
Some seven years ago Russell was approached by Professor Freda Briggs, Australia’s pre-eminent expert on child abuse, a well-known activist for children’s rights and the recipient of the ‘Order of Australia’ for her life’s work protecting children from abusive adults. Freda knew of Russell’s previous involvement in the protection of child victims and the story she told was a ghastly one. She asked him for help in supporting the protective mother of two children who had suffered the most gruesome injuries, allegedly, at the hands of the biological father and others known to the father.
These shocking assaults had been reported 40 times by 13 adults but astonishingly, the Family Court, promptly handed the children back to their father and the abuse continued. The court also imposed a gag order, prohibiting the publication of any information about the case and the people involved.
As is the wont of good men, Russell and Patrick responded immediately to Freda’s call. Frustrated by the silence, in a bid to get media interest they formed a political party, ‘The Australian Anti-Paedophile Party’, with the sole aim of exposing the malfeasance of the Family Court under Parliamentary Privilege. To little avail. The press looked the other way. Meanwhile, the mother of the two children, desperate to protect them from ongoing abuse, collected them from school and became a fugitive. Thirteen days later she phoned Russell asking for help transporting her to a place of safety and he promptly agreed.
“I obliged without hesitation,” says Russell. “If these children did not get help, they would be returned for ongoing sexual abuse.” Subsequently other people became involved and they were hidden from their abusers for four years. In April 2018, the mother was arrested, jailed and the children were returned to their father.
Russell then intervened on a professional basis in support of the mother’s bail application and in this process addressed letters to the State Ministers of Child Safety and Police as well as the Federal Attorney General. In these missives, he explained quite clearly, in what was tantamount to a voluntary written confession, his past involvement with the case, detailed the terrible injuries sustained by the victims and begged their intervention. These urgent requests to stop the father regaining full custody were ignored. For the children the nightmare continues to this day.
The response came five months later in the form of the Australian Federal Police when Russell and Patrick were arrested by 28 police officers in a massively publicised arrest in which they were portrayed to the world as beastly child abusers.
The Police then supplied misleading information to an unquestioning media alleging that Russell was:
- The king-pin of a national and international child kidnapping ring, involving 1-200 children. Involving 30-40 child kidnappers.
- That he financed the child kidnapping with his own money.
- That he was paid to kidnap/steal/abduct/traffic children.
- That he had bought a yacht with the intent of trafficking children to foreign countries.
The timing of the press release was perfectly calculated to present the courageous and caring people who had risked so much to protect the children from years of ongoing rape as criminals who harmed children. After a week in custody Russell and Patrick were released on stringent bail conditions including the wearing of GPS-linked anklets. They have to report to a police station every day. Russell’s license to practice medicine has been revoked by the New South Wales Medical Council rendering him unable to earn and legal bills have reduced him to penury. They have been charged with conspiring to defeat justice, child stealing, dealing with money or property that is the proceeds of a crime, stalking. (recently dropped). The police officer who failed to investigate the original allegations of child abuse remains involved in the prosecuting of Russell and Patrick. Those accused in the detailed reports are untroubled by the law.
The Committal Hearing to test the validity of the 10 charges was set down for October 8th 2019, a full year after their arrest but was summarily cancelled on October 2nd as the Australian Federal Police claimed they had not had enough time to prepare the docket. This, some 18 months after the apprehension of the kids makes little sense but the court acquiesced.
The problems now confronting the authorities are onerous; they appear to have insufficient evidence to sustain convictions of the two men and even if they do it is certain to be nullified by two Federal statutes that make stopping child abuse mandatory by any person who so much as suspects paedophilic activity. They also have to find a way of prosecuting the child protectors, knowing the facts of the abuse suffered by the children, without becoming accomplices in the commission of these crimes. Spreading the net wider, the evidence in open court, will expose the malfeasance and nonfeasance of the many public servants who were entrusted to keep these children safe and utterly failed to do so. It seems they have been unable to find answers to these questions; the hearing was postponed to April 2020 and has been postponed again. Russell and Patrick live on in limbo waiting for the truth to prevail.
Having lived in Africa all my life, and being witness to the consistent abuse of power visited upon good people by bad people in positions of authority, this miserable saga comes as a sad reminder that we here are not alone in the struggle to structure a society imbued with a common decency where justice and fairness prevails. The ‘Deep State’ appears alive and well in Australia.