Recap: Faces of Innocents

New Zealand remains one of the most dangerous countries in the developed world in which to grow up, despite efforts from successive governments.

Thirteen Kiwi kids have died in suspicious circumstances so far this year – one of the worst years on record and much higher than the annual average of nine.

The project began years before it was published. The notes, which landed on my desk at the end of 2013, languished for months in my locker.

Whenever it was reported a child had died in suspicious circumstances, I added another line to the spreadsheet.

There was little real progress until Blair Ensor got involved. Management then shoulder-tapped other top journalists around the country and it was all go from July 2015.

Every second day, a child is admitted to hospital suffering from inflicted injuries, including burns, broken bones and head wounds – with Starship children’s hospital in Auckland seeing more cases of serious abuse than ever before.

It was one of the project’s original aims to assemble the first and only known database of each child to have died because of neglect, abuse, or maltreatment in New Zealand since 1992.

Many people older, smarter, and more experienced than I, said the task was simply too complex.

One source told me: “There is no one who is going to be able to help you. You are basically creating something that no one has succeeded in creating.”

Most commonly, they died at the hands of men. Almost three quarters of the killers were family members.

The killers were almost equally likely to be mothers or fathers, accounting for 31 per cent and 29 per cent of cases respectively, where the victim’s relationship with the killer was known. 

The benefit of collaboration, aside from engaging a diverse skill set and geographic spread, is that people outdo themselves to keep up with and push each other.

Digital tools and platforms have made it easier than ever for staff to work across newsrooms. It didn’t matter we were never in the same room. We kept in touch over Slack, Google Hangouts, Facebook, and, of course, phone and email.

Over the years, Stuff and Fairfax newspapers have covered almost all cases of child homicide in New Zealand. These stories are the most comprehensive source of information on the subject.

Police, victims’ families and friends, children’s advocates, the courts, academics, researchers, and other reporters, all contributed additional knowledge, for which we are very grateful.

We were stoked to see other media pick up on the content, Radio New Zealand in particular gave it a good run.

With the help of Fairfax journalists around the country, the project is ongoing.

Faces of Innocents is led by reporters Katie Kenny, Blair Ensor and project editor John Hartevelt. The team also featured developer John Harford, reporters Talia Shadwell, Florence Kerr, Sam Boyer, Stacey Kirk, and Andy Fyers, and visual journalists Mike Scott, Lawrence Smith and David Walker.

Behind the scenes behind the wall

Finally (and many reading this will know how warranted “finally” actually is), finally, I’ve published my story on the Carmelites.

It’s a story that began… well, I first knocked on the monastery door early last year. You can read about the conception of the feature in this post.

I’ve met with the sisters many times, and kept in touch with Sister Cushla over the phone and via email.

The Carmelites are amazing women; having chosen to relinquish the outside world, forever, and dedicate their lives to praying for us. They’re full of laughter and light and love. They radiate happiness. It was a joy to work with them.

And there was always plenty to talk about. Sister Cushla loves reading, and I’m currently part way through one of her recommendations: The Ear of the Heart (it’s very good).

When I passed my camera through the turntable to her, I eyed her suspiciously and said: “I know where you live.” She gave the DSLR a once over and replied, “Oh you don’t need to worry, I’ve taken a vow of poverty.”

She turned out to be a talented photographer:

Upstairs corridor, taken by Sister Cushla
Upstairs corridor, taken by Sister Cushla
The quadrangle, taken by Sister Cushla
The quadrangle, taken by Sister Cushla
The machine that makes the bread used in Holy Communion, taken by Sister Cushla
The machine that makes the bread used in Holy Communion, taken by Sister Cushla

I saw on Twitter someone comparing the story to a project done by the New York Times. They said Stuff’s interactive must have been done “with a small team on a small budget”. I’m not sure if this person realised the truth in their statement — in that the content was completed largely outside work hours by me-myself-and-I, and of course our developer Andy Ball.

It’s a humble project, but hopefully it gets its message across.

I insist, it’s not just a story about religion. It’s a story about happiness.

Along a main road in Christchurch, 15 minutes from the city’s centre, a block of land is enclosed by a high stone wall.

Most passersby wouldn’t know this is the Carmelite Monastery, home to 10 women — nuns — who have committed their lives to contemplative prayer and a deep relationship with God.

Shut off from the world, they pray for us.

For this story, Carmelite Sister Cushla borrowed our reporter’s camera to document scenes of the nuns’ daily life, offering the world a glimpse behind the wall.

Mother Dorothea Mary of Jesus is sorry to hear the Captain Cook Tavern has closed.

The former Otago scarfie studied social work and education, hung out at “the Cook”, and didn’t believe in God.

“In fact, I couldn’t bear Christians!” she says.

Today, she speaks from behind an iron grille, at the Carmel of Christ the King Monastery in Christchurch. She is dressed in the traditional habit of Carmel: brown and white, with a black veil. The black veil represents service until death, the lifelong promise a woman can make, usually six years after entering the Order.

This is a story of happiness. An examination of the human experience of cloistered nuns, and of the power of The Contemplative Life.

Mother Dorothea is the Christchurch Carmel prioress, the elected leader of the sisters. She has been “behind bars” since 1981, residing within the stone walls of the 2.5 hectare block which constitutes the monastery in Halswell.

Her junior, Sister Cushla of Mary Immaculate, entered in 1999, and is one of the younger sisters at the monastery.

With a beatific smile, Sister Cushla says the habits are actually quite practical. “You can hook it up and deliver cattle in these!”

She describes their daily routine; a timetable which includes more than six hours of prayer and spiritual readings, five hours of work, and about two hours of recreation. She admits it can be hard to adjust to the Carmelite lifestyle.

“If you haven’t got up at 5.30am for most of your life… then it’s not easy.”

To read the rest of this story and view Sister Cushla’s images, click here.