Andrew Forrest to buy New Norcia farmland as monastery seeks to pay for sexual abuse claims

Australian Broadcasting Corporation - ABC [Sydney, Australia]

December 6, 2021

By Claire Moodie

Billionaire businessman Andrew Forrest is poised to snap up prime farmland surrounding Australia’s only monastic town of New Norcia, 130 kilometres north of Perth in WA.

Key points:

  • The historic townsite north of Perth is not part of the sale
  • It’s the first time the land is being sold in 175 years
  • The property is touted as some of the best farming land in the state

In a deal subject to approval by the Catholic Church, Mr Forrest’s Tattarang company is set to buy the 7,975 hectares of farmland surrounding the historic townsite that was established by Benedictine monks as part of an Aboriginal mission in 1847.

It will be the first time the land, near the banks of the Moore River, has changed hands since then.

The remaining small community of monks at New Norcia made the “difficult decision” earlier this year to sell the land to pay for historical sexual abuse claims by Aboriginal people who attended the mission’s orphanages until the mid-1970s.

The sale price has not been disclosed, but the farmland is thought to be worth around $40 million.

Tattarang said it would form part of its Harvest Road agrifood business that includes the Harvey Beef brand.

The company’s chief investment officer, John Hartman, said Harvest Road was committed to protecting the iconic property.

“We pay tribute to the outstanding stewardship of the Benedictine community that has preserved the exceptional productivity of the land for almost two centuries,” Mr Hartman said in a statement.

“We know that this is an iconic place with an unbroken 175-year agricultural legacy that has helped support generations of regional farming communities.

“We are committed to investing in New Norcia’s future and we look forward to working with surrounding shires to create new value for local communities and unlock long-term jobs.”

New Norcia stays silent

The Abbot of New Norcia, John Herbert, declined to comment on the prospective sale of the farmland.

In September, he confirmed to the ABC that the community had so far made payments totalling more than $10 million to survivors of historical child sexual abuse.

It is understood there are currently 20 outstanding historical child sexual abuse cases.

The sale does not include the New Norcia townsite.

Deal divides survivors of alleged abuse

The prospective sale has so far drawn a mixed response from First Nations people connected to the mission’s orphanages.

Kevin Barron, who from the late 1950s went to St Mary’s, New Norcia’s institution for Aboriginal boys, welcomed the news as a step towards survivors of alleged abuse being compensated.

Mr Barron said he worked on the farmland as a boy, picking olives and wild radishes.

“I don’t care who buys it,” he said.

“But a lot of people will be grateful that at least they can be paid out for the abuse they suffered.”

Elvis Moody, whose father Eric also attended the boys home, said he was disappointed that the land had not been returned to the local Yued people.

He said he hoped Mr Forrest would “respect the traditional custodians of the land in any decisions that are made regarding the use of the property”.

“The best outcome in the interests of the Yued people and their descendants is for the land to be used for preservation and protection of natural species, not agriculture, and open to the public for recreation and Yued people for ceremonies,” he said.

‘The memories will never go’

Ballardong-Noongar woman Dallas Phillips attended St Joseph’s girls home at New Norcia and said she was disappointed that there was no mention of working with Aboriginal people in Tattarang’s media release about the purchase.

“They must not forget that it was blackfellas that did all the clearing of that land,” she said.

“It was our mob who did all that work.

“It was unpaid labour, they were used … to make that land prime today.

“They might sell the land but the memories will never go.”