James McCabe is on a mission to protect abused Cambodian kids
All heart: Investigator James McCabe with his daughter Samantha. Photo: Ben Rushton
The photographs that James McCabe is flicking through on his computer screen make uncomfortable viewing: a tiny woman sobbing in the arms of another, a sombre McCabe interviewing a witness, the damaged body of a murdered two-month-old baby girl and, even more chilling, a dirty brick wall on which hangs a rusty scythe.
The wall and scythe are also featured in a sketch McCabe pulls from a folder on his desk - a crime scene sketch. The scythe is a grisly piece of evidence. Only hours earlier, McCabe was at the scene of a crime in provincial Cambodia that has shaken him.
I hear it over and over that it's better to have a bad husband than no husband.
A man comes home intoxicated. He has a confrontation with his wife, who is lying on a bed with their two-month-old baby. The man grabs the baby girl by her feet and throws her across the room at the wall. She is impaled on a scythe. The man flees. Somehow, the mother finds her way to a small local hospital. She is told there is nothing they can do to help her. ''The child died in the mother's arms on the way home in a tuk-tuk,'' McCabe says.
A CPU investigator at work.
The files on the desk in the investigator's dim Phnom Penh office identify the two-month-old Sihanoukville girl's awful story as Case No.39. In less than four months heading a ground-breaking new unit investigating more than 40 cases of child rape and/or murder in five Cambodian provinces, McCabe has seen the worst depravities of human behaviour.
But the work of the highly decorated former Victorian police officer and his Child Protection Unit (CPU) team has brought profound benefits - and not just for the deeply traumatised victims and their families. For McCabe himself, it has offered a new path forward after his own traumas.
McCabe's illustrious career ran from heading a taskforce targeting underworld crime on the hard streets of Melbourne's west, to a secondment with the National Crime Authority (the NCA, now the Australian Crime Commission), during which he spent time in Sydney and south-east Asia investigating Asian organised crime and drug trafficking.
He received a string of commendations from Victoria Police, the Victorian Department of Justice and the NCA for bravery and courage, performance and leadership. But McCabe's downfall was as dramatic as some of the dangerous undercover work he had undertaken. In 2004, a NSW Police Integrity Commission investigation accused McCabe of corruption, claiming that, in 2002, he had been involved in a sting operation to steal drugs and money from drug dealers.
McCabe returned to Australia from Cambodia where he had settled and, in 2008, after a long legal process, he pleaded guilty in the Sydney District Court to robbery in company. He was sentenced to nearly four years' jail, serving just over a year. ''As far as I'm concerned, it's in the past. You'd never let a mistake define the person who you are,'' McCabe says.
His boss, Scott Neeson, agrees. Adelaide-raised, Phnom Penh-based Neeson, the founder of the acclaimed Cambodian Children's Fund (CCF), believes McCabe, 45, was the only person qualified to head the investigation unit, a CCF initiative.
Through his work with CCF, based in Phnom Penh's most destitute area, Steung Meanchey, Neeson had seen the multiplicity of problems with the country's existing system.
''Locals make up 98 per cent of cases of sexual abuses against children, but most organisations are going after foreign paedophiles,'' Neeson says.
A United Nations study released in September reported that more than 20 per cent of men in Cambodia had admitted to committing rape, while experts believe up to two-thirds of victims are minors, yet, according to Neeson, there is an ''absurdly low'' rate of reporting of such crimes and only 1 per cent of those who rape or murder a child are arrested. Even fewer than that are convicted.
In a country where police have to provide their own vehicles and pay for basics such as petrol and phone cards themselves - and police stations might be huts without computers or scanners - parents of child victims wanting an investigation must pay for it. Most choose an informal settlement instead in which the perpetrator pays a fine that is then split between police and parents.
For impoverished families, settlements can have negative repercussions. ''If they're sending someone's primary income earner to jail they can make themselves some serious enemies,'' Neeson says.
In cases where fathers and stepfathers are the offenders, a mother's priority is often maintaining the relationship and an income. ''I hear it over and over again that it's better to have a bad husband than no husband; a husband is of more value than a child in terms of survival.''
In Cambodia, most rapes are of girls - Neeson believes the stigma of homosexuality is the reason attacks on boys are rare - and in a culture that prizes virginity, the crime can bring great shame on a family.
A settlement can be made quietly so few people in a community learn about the crime. Neeson recalls one case in which a medical examination had found that a young rape victim's hymen was still intact. ''I found this out because the mother was going around the village showing everyone that her daughter was still intact and she was still a virgin … it was a sign of real pride.''
By early 2006 McCabe had given Neeson a substantial document outlining how the CPU should work, but it wasn't until six years later that the funding part of the equation was resolved with the emergence of a third high-achieving Australian.
In April 2012, within hours of seeing Neeson profiled on ABC's Australian Story, Perth-based property developer Paul Blackburne had emailed Neeson to say he wanted to give him $1 million.
Blackburne, now 37, had first visited Cambodia during a 48-nation, five-year trip around the world in his 20s and decided it was the country that most needed assistance. ''I said to myself when I was a broke backpacker that if I ever make money one day, this is where I'm going to come and start spending it.''
Early on, Neeson told the developer that he wanted McCabe to run the unit that his money would allow to come into being.
''It comes back to everybody deserves a second chance,'' Blackburne says. ''Jim made one serious error of judgment 10 years ago and he's paid his price. Scott said, 'Jim is one of the most trustworthy, hard-working, honest, caring guys you could have.' And his qualifications were just so unique, they were perfect for what we were trying to achieve.
''He's got a huge amount of respect here amongst the Cambodian government; his contact and networks are fantastic. He speaks Khmer, the Khmer people love him.''
The CPU's relationship with Cambodian police is central to its operations. There are 15 CPU staff - McCabe and former Australian Federal Police officer Alan Lemon, plus 13 Cambodians - but each investigation is conducted alongside local police who get vital training in the process.
''It's not that Cambodia's a terrible, terrible place - this is a global problem - it's just that they need some assistance with the resources and the methodologies,'' McCabe says.
''I'm in a country where you can't ring 000 for an ambulance to come and you have to deal with whatever life throws you as best as you can.
''That might mean picking someone up and putting them on the back of a motorbike and riding to the nearest assistance, which could be a little room where a doctor has no real training and they look at the victim and go, 'There's nothing we can do, you'd better go home and start calling the monks.'''
McCabe has travelled 12,000 kilometres over some of the country's worst roads to reach the scenes of such awful crimes. ''If anyone wants to donate a helicopter … ''
He's ever conscious that his work is funded by donor money and expenses are kept to a minimum and documented meticulously - he'll pay about $15 a night for a bed when he's on the road. ''That's all we need. As long as there's not too many roaches in it!''
The CPU is now the first port of call for local authorities dealing with the most difficult and egregious crimes against children. The unit's holistic approach ranges from rigorous crime scene investigation and evidence documentation, to surveillance of suspects and the videotaping of a child's evidence so she is not required to come face to face with her molester, which typically is the case under Cambodia's inquisitorial system of justice.
Seriously injured children are taken to the capital to receive the best medical treatment possible. Victims' families are given emergency food packages and cash, legal representation, and ongoing assistance. ''The most important part is to let the mothers and daughters know that, if it's reported, CCF will ensure that they're not worse off,'' Neeson says. ''If a stepfather goes to jail we'll make sure that the family doesn't go hungry. We will help them restart their lives.'' In some cases that means the victim and her family are relocated to the CCF community at Steung Meanchey.
There is no relocation though for some victims, like the two-month-old baby in Sihanoukville or a nine-year-old, Case No.17, in the province of Kampot. In the early hours one recent morning, a man snatched the little girl from the thatched hut where she was sleeping and carried her to a rice field. He violently raped and beat her. After strangling her, he carried her naked body a kilometre, redressed her in men's clothing he had taken from a line, removed her gold earrings, then laid her out in front of a house.
''That's signature stuff, that's serial, we were very concerned with that type of behaviour. You wouldn't normally go and do this as your first offence,'' says McCabe, turning to his computer and pulling up a photograph of the mild-faced offender, now in custody. The man gave investigators little information other than that he'd been drinking on the night of the crime. A shot of the dead child's battered, purple face fills the screen. ''You don't need to see the rest of it,'' says McCabe quickly, switching to an image of CPU investigators handing over an emergency food package.
His new role is tougher than anything he has confronted previously. ''I think having had children gives you more motivation and does affect you more. I try to treat each child victim as though it was my child, God forbid,'' says McCabe, who, with his Cambodian wife, has three young children.
Earlier this morning, after returning from Sihanoukville, the first thing he did was go home and cuddle them.
Neeson, Blackburne and McCabe are thrilled with what the CPU has achieved in four months of operation: 38 men - 93 per cent of cases so far - are now in jail awaiting trial (the father of the two-month-old baby is one of the few who has not yet been caught). From January 1 the CPU program will expand into another 10 provinces and the team believes it offers a model that could be replicated in other developing countries.
McCabe thinks about his old career sometimes, but not for long. ''I wouldn't change what I'm doing now. It's probably some of the most rewarding work I've done.''
He talks of a little girl he calls ''The Angry Bird Girl'', Case No.34. He took a photograph of her lying on the dirty floor of a provincial hospital a few hours after she had been raped. Another photograph, taken in a Phnom Penh hospital a few days later, shows her in a clean bed, smiling, and cuddling an Angry Bird soft toy.
''She told me she wanted to go home and when I asked her why, she said, 'To catch the man and make him eat cow shit.' Seeing that little girl's spirit return is reward enough.''