Justin Taia (Photo supplied)

Justin Taia is 50 years old and a Black Power member. His criminal record has been described as “appalling” by one judge. It includes violent assaults on family members and a neighbour.

What that record doesn’t show is the gut-churning context — the story of how Justin Taia became that man. Connie Buchanan explains.

Warning: This piece contains details of sexual violence.

 

Justin Taia is a violent man. He has stomped on people, bashed them, and dealt out vicious hidings. He has at least 16 convictions for violence offences.

When he was sentenced in 2013, the judge said his record for violent assaults was the worst he’d seen. He described Justin as a dangerous person. A menace to society. Details from his criminal record supplied plenty of horrifying detail to back that up. How he knocked five teeth out of a man. Stomped on and punched his own mother. Choked his wife.

Tucked away in the news stories about his crimes and court cases were hints at other things. A comment from a lawyer that he was quick to anger. A note that his offending wasn’t alcohol or drug-induced. Reference to ongoing ACC counselling. Mention here and there of mental health issues. Childhood abuse. A line about the “painful aspects” of his past.

There was a general implied sense that life hadn’t been easy for Justin Taia. But there was no detail.

The most recent news story about him appeared 10 years ago. It featured a mug shot which showed a wild-haired, dead-eyed Māori man, tattooed with three stars next to his right eye, three dots next to his left. The write-up confirmed that a dangerous criminal had been convicted and put behind bars.

Then, last week, the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care released its report on the Catholic Church’s Order of the Brothers of St John of God. It detailed the systemic abuse of children and young people in two facilities run by the Order in Christchurch. Marylands School was a residential school for boys, and Hebron Trust provided emergency accommodation for young people — mainly teenagers.

Specifically, it found that the Order permitted, and then covered up, the abuse of young boys in the care of Brother Bernard McGrath and others.

Brother McGrath is acknowledged as one of the worst paedophile offenders in New Zealand and Australian history. He’s been convicted at five separate trials and is now imprisoned in Australia for multiple sexual crimes against children.

The report contains evidence from survivors of his abuse. Many are Māori who were homeless or vulnerable as children. They were handed over to Brother McGrath by the state. Some were also sent to Marylands and Hebron by family members who believed they were doing the best thing for them. At Hebron, some young people were also self-referred, or picked up by Brother McGrath on the street. For them, a bed at Hebron was supposed to be a warm, dry place to sleep.

Justin Taia pictured in 2008, aged 35. (Photo: Crime Stop)

We know now that this was far from the reality at both facilities. Some of those who gave evidence to the Royal Commission preferred to be anonymous. But in one witness statement, which carries some of the most vivid descriptions of abuse, there is a name: It’s Justin Taia.

It turns out that repeated rape by Brother McGrath is one of the “painful aspects” of his childhood.

Through the Royal Commission of Inquiry, Justin has managed to fill in the gaps of his own story. To provide the detail that helps explain why a young Māori boy from Ngāti Rangitāne might grow up to become a violent man consumed by wild, uncontrollable anger.

Some other victims of Brother McGrath died by suicide. Justin Taia survived and chose to speak. He’s living in Christchurch and gave E-Tangata permission to share his evidence to the inquiry. It contains details of sexual abuse.

This is his evidence:

“Brother McGrath ruined my life. I’m really angry about the abuse. I have sometimes taken that anger out on other people, which has made me end up in prison.

I have got tattoos all over my body, to try to kill the pain.

Child Welfare was involved with my family before I was born, because of domestic violence within the home. Despite Child Welfare being involved, nothing changed.

I was around 15 years old, basically living on the streets and hanging out with other street kids. I was abusing alcohol, drugs and solvents. It was during this time I first met Brother Bernard McGrath, who groomed and later abused me for several years.

He would come around and invite the street kids to his house owned by the St John of God Brothers, for food or a bed. He started getting really close to me, like a friend. After a while, he would also invite me to have community meals with the other brothers or staff.

I ended up living at Hebron Trust on and off from age 15 through to age 19. Social Welfare was involved in placing me at Hebron Trust and supervising me while I was there.

Over the next three or four years, Brother McGrath sexually assaulted me hundreds of times — mostly in the monastery sleeping quarters, but also in other places. He would do it whenever he could, at least every fortnight. He was totally opportunistic.

During these sexual assaults, Brother McGrath was demanding. He made me perform oral sex on him, and sometimes ordered me to have penetrative sex with him. He nearly always anally raped me during these assaults, standing on the bed behind me.

Most of the time, Brother McGrath put a scarf in my mouth and taped my mouth shut with duct tape before raping me, so I wouldn’t make any noise. He also handcuffed me to the bed and blindfolded me. After I was bound, gagged and trussed up, he became violent, sometimes choking me. I often thought I was going to die.

Before the first rape, and before many of the other ones, Brother McGrath put some sort of drug in my drink, which made me dizzy. He also gave me a lot of alcohol (beer, Jack Daniels and Coke) and pills, like Rivotril, as a bribe to get me to do what he wanted and to lower my inhibitions, or as a reward afterwards.

Brother McGrath told me not to tell anybody about the abuse. I was too scared of him to tell anyone, I thought he might kill me if I tried. Even if I told, who would believe a street kid? We were considered scum by the police. I don’t think the other street kids would have believed me either.

I was supposedly receiving drug and alcohol counselling from Brother McGrath, but he was actually giving me drugs and alcohol on a regular basis, in order to abuse me.

Brother McGrath presented himself as my advocate, mentor, counsellor and support person. He was my ‘responsible adult’ that handled communications and clothing grants from DSW social workers and communications from my appointed lawyer. He attended Family Group Conferences with me and encouraged the court to remand me in his custody to carry out community work. He was widely respected in the community, and this made me feel more alone because nobody would believe me if I tried to report the abuse to anyone.

I was trapped, totally dependent on Brother McGrath for accommodation, food and support. I had nowhere else to go and no one to turn to.

The abuse from Brother McGrath only stopped when I built up the courage to stand up to him by throwing a glass at his head in front of the other street kids, telling him to leave me alone and never touch me again.

In late 1992 or early 1993, when I was about 19 or 20, I reported the abuse. Because I spoke up, an investigation was carried out, and other Hebron residents came forward and went to the police about him abusing them.

Brother McGrath was eventually arrested and in December 1993, he pleaded guilty to abusing Hebron residents in 1991, as well as two former Marylands School students that had come forward as part of the investigation.

I have really vivid, horrible flashbacks to the abuse most days. Even though I try not to, I have to think about it. It’s like I am reliving the rapes all over again, every day. I hear voices sometimes too, which is really upsetting. My sleep used to be terrible too, because I always had nightmares about all the abuse. It has destroyed me and scarred me for life. It makes me sick. I use sleeping pills now.

I’m always anxious, on edge, paranoid and jumpy and have PTSD. I can’t handle being touched, which makes me have problems socialising and impacts how I have intimate relationships with women.

I joined Black Power while I was in prison and became a patched member, for about 15 years. I’ve been in and out of prison since 1992, mostly for short periods due to violent offending. When I am not in prison, I mostly live on the streets or with the gang. I don’t really have anyone in the community to support me. Both my parents are deceased, and I don’t have anything to do with my siblings. The abuse made me constantly angry, so I pushed people away.

I avoid all the food that I was groomed with too — things like KFC, fish & chips, chippies and chocolate.

I suffer from low self-esteem and depression. I have self-harmed and I have attempted suicide a number of times, mostly by overdosing.

I have difficulty with reading and writing. I never received a good education and I find it hard to hold down a job. I have qualifications in painting and decorating, and I’ve had some work as a musician in some pub bands. I’m not good with money and I find it hard to cope in the community.

I have been trying to give up alcohol and cannabis. When I drink, I get mean and wild, because I think about the abuse I suffered. I have had times where I have also abused harder drugs, like heroin, just because I am around people who do it.

I want to make this statement so that I can get it all out in the open. I hope that telling my story will help someone, and that it will set me free as it is still affecting me to this day.

I had some settlement money and a face-to-face apology from the Order. But nothing can replace what happened to me. It should’ve been Brother McGrath apologising to me — the damage was already done.”

In its report, the Royal Commission admits that the full extent of the abuse and harm at Marylands and Hebron will likely never be known. There’s not much in the way of institutional records, and it found many other barriers to full disclosure and reporting of what happened.

Even with these gaps in information, the Royal Commission says the nature and level of sexual abuse at these facilities is the most extreme it is aware of, either here in New Zealand or overseas.

Of the 537 boys who attended Marylands School, at least one in five reported abuse. Survivors say they were routinely raped and indecently assaulted. At Hebron Trust, no official records were kept of the children who came through. But one internal communication indicated 680 young people lived there in 1990 and 1991. Many of them were sent there by state agencies.

While hundreds of offences were committed by Brother McGrath, the Royal Commission is quite clear that this is not a story about “bad apples” in the system.

“It was the Catholic Church, and state systems and institutions that shamefully enabled the abuse and neglect, ignored it or covered it up,” the Royal Commission concludes.

This is a report about systemic, institutionalised abuse. The type of abuse that’s produced and maintained by many different people whose actions have been sanctioned by the society in which they operate.

Justin Taia may be a menace to society, but we shouldn’t forget he’s a product of it too. He was fed to the system as a child, and then returned to it as an adult who’d been smashed apart — a violent offender who is also a brutalised victim.

Read his evidence again. He hopes it will help someone. And that it will somehow set him free.

 

The Royal Commission of Inquiry’s final report into abuse at state and faith-based care facilities is due to be released in March next year. The inquiry covers 50 years, from 1950 to 1999. During this time, it’s estimated that about 655,000 children and young people were placed in care, and up to 250,000 may have been abused. Since 2019, the experiences of 2932 survivors have been shared with the inquiry — either directly, or by whānau members and support people. The Commission’s report into the Order of the Brothers of St John of God can be read here

This piece was made possible through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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