GALLERY: 2012’s big stories

PRIME Minister Julia Gillard bowed to the inevitable on November 12 when she announced a royal commission on the way that organisations across the nation have dealt with allegations of child sex abuse. 

It will be the most comprehensive inquiry into child sexual abuse in Australia’s history, with a nationwide royal commission to investigate churches, charities, state governments, schools, community organisations and even the police.

Following fresh allegations in the Newcastle Herald the week before about systemic abuses and cover-ups by the Catholic Church in NSW, federal cabinet agreed to establish a commission that would look at the sexual abuse of children inside institutions and the frequent and deliberate failure to do anything about it.

‘‘Any instance of child abuse is a vile and evil thing,’’ the Prime Minister said.

‘‘There have been too many adults who have averted their eyes to this evil.

‘‘There has been a systematic failure to respond to it and to protect children.’’

News of the federal royal commission prompted tears of relief and fervent but solemn praise from hundreds of Hunter people whose lives were affected by sexual abuse and by subsequent cover-ups and callous responses from those who should have protected them and punished their original tormentors.

Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox, the Hunter police officer whose call for a royal commission into the alleged cover-ups in NSW in early November revived the issue, was elated.

‘‘I’m thrilled to bits,’’ he said. ‘‘My wife’s in tears. She’s been on the phone to some family members of victims and they’ve just been crying.’’

Anthony Stevens, a brother-in-law of the late John Pirona, said the royal commission ‘‘was a great [step] forward for the people who suffered at the hands of these creeps’’.

Pirona took his own life in July after saying he could no longer deal with the memories of his abuse, as a child, by a notorious paedophile priest. 

Pirona’s death triggered the Herald’s Shine The Light campaign, which called for a royal commission into child sexual abuse at the hands of the clergy.

The Newcastle Herald and in particular journalist Joanne McCarthy had reported for many years on the sexual abuse that had been inflicted upon children over the past 60 years.

In August the Herald ran McCarthy’s comment piece in which she wrote: ‘‘There will be a royal commission into the Catholic Church’s handling of child sex abuse because there must be.’’

‘‘And with that statement we took on the responsibility, which victims and their families have shouldered for years, largely on their own, and against the might of the church, to achieve justice,’’ McCarthy later wrote.

On September 16, the Herald held a meeting to support victims of clergy child sex abuse, their families and survivors.

On November 9, NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell announced a Special Commission of Inquiry would examine whether senior police interfered with investigations of child sex abuse by Catholic clergy in the Hunter, and whether church officials covered up the crimes.

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NATHAN Tinkler, the mining magnate who rescued the Newcastle Knights and Newcastle Jets from financial insecurity, endured mounting speculation about his financial position, after companies linked to the mining magnate were involved in more than 20 legal disputes over unpaid debts.

BRW magazine said in September that Tinkler’s wealth had dropped to $400million from a figure of $1.13billion at the same time last year.

During the year Tinkler, who has moved to Singapore, failed in an ambitious $5.3billion bid to buy listed miner Whitehaven Coal, for $5.20 a share. 

Tinkler owns 21per cent of Whitehaven Coal, a stake which has lost more than 40per cent of its value since an April merger with Aston Resources and his private Boardwalk Resources.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Tinkler’s Whitehaven shares – worth $1.18billion in April – were valued at $657million on August 25, which equated to losing $4million a day.

Companies associated with Tinkler were confronted with several demands to pay debts. In August the Herald reported that since May, three companies had successfully taken legal action to recoup  debts owed by Bolkm,  the construction arm of development company Buildev, which has Tinkler as its major stakeholder.

Dozens of businesses were chasing Bolkm, as well as Tinkler’s racing company Patinack Farm, for outstanding debts of more than $1million.

His Mulsanne Resources failed in August to pay a promised $28million to take up shares in listed junior coal explorer Blackwood Corporation.

On September 3, Tinkler failed to make an 11th-hour payment to construction giant Mirvac for a block of industrial land in Mayfield West. Mirvac arm Domain Steel River pursued Tinkler after he failed to come up with an estimated $17million for the Steel River land parcel he initially wanted for access to a coal-loader project proposed for the former steelworks site at Mayfield.

The case was set down for a hearing but the parties completed negotiations to complete the contract.

Also in September, the state government served a letter of demand on Tinkler’s Hunter Sports Group, seeking immediate payment of more than $1.2million for rent of Hunter Stadium under a one-year access agreement put in place last year. The parties agreed on the $883,000 debt but Hunter Sports Group disputed another $400,000 related to a bill from the state government for re-turfing the stadium.

HSG said it would pay a $500,000 instalment on October 31 but missed that deadline.

The following day, after being contacted by the government, HSG deposited $300,000 and agreed to settle the outstanding amount by November 21, but no money was deposited.

On December 7, it was reported that the NSW government has launched legal action recover almost $600,000 in unpaid stadium rent.

On December 13, the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) moved to liquidate eight companies linked to Tinkler, including the Hunter’s flagship sports teams and their parent company, Hunter Sports Group. The ATO was seeking more than $3.19million in unpaid tax from Tinkler’s sports group, including $2.5million from the Knights and Jets.

Hunter Sports Group had a deadline to provide the club with an audited financial statement on December 15, but sought a two-month extension, until February 15.

Newcastle Knights Members Club chairman Nick Dan indicated the club board would not agree to any such deferral unless HSG signed a legal document that prolongs a $20million surety – a key component of Tinkler’s takeover offer that reverts to $10.3million on January 1.

HSG will now present its review of 2012 financial operations on January 21 and, in return, will extend the $20million bank guarantee until January 31.

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THE announcement was finally made on December 13; Newcastle’s rail line would be cut at Wickham as part of a $120million state government project aimed at reviving the city’s struggling centre.

Heavy rail services will end at a new Wickham interchange west of Stewart Avenue, with frequent buses to replace train services to Newcastle.

The rail corridor will remain as a public space, with eight new links across it to be created to connect the inner city to the waterfront.

NSW Planning and Infrastructure Minister Brad Hazzard said the removal of the city’s ‘‘Berlin Wall’’ would trigger a wave of private investment.

‘‘There’s no doubt that the bulldozers and cranes will be arriving in Newcastle within the next 12 to 18 months,’’ he said.

The heavy rail tracks will be covered over rather than ripped up, as part of changes that will take between three and five years to implement.

The $120million will come from Hunter Infrastructure and Investment Fund and its Restart NSW fund.

The O’Farrell government will ask the federal government to contribute another $100million to the project.

Government development agency Landcom also began work immediately on plans for redeveloping the city centre properties it owns with the GPT Group.

Landcom chief executive Sean O’Toole said its redevelopment could be worth about $600million.

The government’s vision includes Hunter Street Mall reinvigorated into a retail, entertainment and residential destination and the West End to become the city’s future commercial hub and transport interchange.

There will be an upgrade to the city’s largest square, Wheeler Place, equipping it for a range of events and linking it to Honeysuckle.

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IT started at 3.55am on January 31, when tree loppers moved in under the cover of darkness with police escort to cut down the 14 Hills weeping fig trees.

More than 60 police officers, including 15 from the Sydney-based public order and riot squad, dozens of security guards and council compliance officers were on hand when the event – dubbed Operation Beanstalk – became a protest scene.

Tearful, angry, chanting members and supporters of the Save Our Figs group arrived and confronted authorities, crashing into the steel fences.

Despite the rain and protests, the chainsaws started at 5.50am and continued through the week.

After standing for more than 80 years, two years of often-bitter debate, 22 Newcastle City Council meetings, two court cases, two death threats, 16 arrests and $1.6million-plus of ratepayers’ money being spent, the final fig fell on February 7.

Persistent questions of whether the trees posed significant risk of injury or death had been countered with strong emotions from residents, who said the trees were iconic and should be saved.

On Fig Friday, October 7, 2011, when tree-lopping contractors first arrived in Laman Street, demonstrators prevented all but a few branches from falling.

The next month, when tree loppers were poised in the canopy to resume their work, Save Our Figs won a last-minute court injunction.

The Herald reported that for every council vote to remove or retain the trees, there was another vote, or rescission motion, or legal opinion, that overturned the previous decision.

An internal Newcastle City Council review of the saga recommended that council management should not consult the community or allow elected councillors to make decisions on future public safety issues of ‘‘major community significance’’.

Newcastle councillors voted in July to approve $1.8million plans to redesign Laman Street and replant figs.

The designs include two rows of Hills fig trees, planted in underground root vaults and spaced to allow canopies to grow.

The decision took the official bill for Laman Street past $3million.

Meanwhile, all but one person arrested during figs protests have escaped criminal records after the courts found their behaviour stemmed from high emotions motivated to do the right thing for the community.

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WANGI locals Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen carried the pride of a nation on their shoulders when they sailed to gold in the 49er class off Weymouth at the London Olympic Games, the first Lake Macquarie yachtsmen to win an Olympic gold medal.

The pair held such a commanding lead heading into the final race of the 49er-class race that all they needed to do was contest the event and avoid disqualification to claim gold.

Dobell Drive was painted green and gold with residents and store owners hanging balloons and signs in support of their home-grown heroes.

Even the Wangi RSL Club sign was altered slightly to say ‘‘Nathan and Goobs’’ Gold instead of the usual XXXX kind.

Other Hunter representatives at the Olympics were bronze-medallist basketballers Suzy Batkovic and Jenni Screen, swimmers Thomas Fraser-Holmes and silver medallist Angie Bainbridge, hockey midfielder and bronze medallist Simon Orchard, triathlete Brendan Sexton, water polo ace Richie Campbell, discus thrower Benn Harradine and pistol shooter Daniel Repacholi.

❏ Hunter athletes also combined to win four medals at the London Paralympics.

Nelson Bay’s Taylor Corry received a silver medal in the S14 100metre backstroke final and Merewether wheelchair athlete Christie Dawes was third in the T54 5000metre race.

Newcastle’s Prue Watt took bronze in the S13 50metre freestyle final, while Gillieston Heights 13-year-old Maddi Elliott secured bronze in the S8 400metre freestyle final.

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THE state’s most wanted man Malcolm John Naden was captured in the Barrington range after nearly seven years on the run at 2.30am on March 22.

Police from Strike Force Durkin had mapped tracks and houses all over the dense bushland and rolling hills of Barrington Tops and gathered covert intelligence about his movements.

After intelligence indicated a person was inside Ken Rumbel’s Rawdon Vale house on March 21, officers worked quickly to get to the property west of Gloucester.

Starting several kilometres away, they inched towards the house before they were confident they had its perimeter surrounded.

Naden was captured without a shot being fired.

One officer hurt his wrist while Naden suffered some superficial wounds to his leg on his 2466th night on the run.

In November, the former abattoir worker formally waived his right to a committal hearing on charges of murdering Kristy Scholes and his cousin Lateesha Nolan in 2005, meaning he will go straight to trial.

Naden will appear before the NSW Supreme Court on February 1, in relation to the two charges.

He is also charged with two counts of aggravated indecent assault on a 12-year-old girl and the attempted murder of a police officer in Nowendoc in December, 2011, as well as 11 counts of break, enter and steal, two charges of breaking into a house or building and stealing items worth less than $15,000, and another charge of entering a dwelling with intent to steal an item worth less than $60,000.

LOCAL council elections were held in September, with Newcastle’s John Tate, Lake Macquarie’s Greg Piper and Port Stephens’s Bob Westbury all choosing not to seek another term in the position, while Cessnock mayor Alison Davey failed to win back the job.

Tate stepped down after 31 years in council, 13 as lord mayor.

He was replaced by Liberal millionaire developer Jeff McCloy, who won 44per cent of primary votes cast on polling day, annihilating the contenders with pre-poll and postal votes still to be counted.

McCloy said working to remove the heavy rail line was at the top of his agenda.

Piper, an independent, stepped down after eight years as mayor and 21 years as a councillor.

He was replaced by the ALP’s Jodie Harrison, the council’s first female mayor and youngest leader.

The 44-year-old was also the city’s first Labor mayor in 19 years.

In Cessnock, Bob Pynsent was Alison Davey’s successor.

The contest to become Port Stephens first directly elected mayor was excruciatingly close, with former mayor Bruce MacKenzie emerging as winner over council adversary Geoff Dingle.

Primary votes were unable to give either candidate a winning margin, forcing a preference count that allowed MacKenzie to claim the poll with an 884-vote margin.

Maitland mayor Peter Blackmore was returned to the top job with more than 50per cent of the vote.

The independent Blackmore entered his fourth consecutive mayoral term as the only Lower Hunter mayor to return to the chamber.

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A FLOOD of heroin was behind a surge in the number of armed robberies in the Hunter.

In November, the figure for 2012 was at 125 and set to fall just shy of 140 businesses, a 66per cent increase on last year (84) and a worrying sign of things to come for the Hunter’s thousands of customer service staff and business owners.

The 2012 armed robbery rate had already eclipsed last year’s tally by July 27, passed the 100 mark in early September and had been growing at a rate of 12 a month. The number of armed robberies for the year is set to break a 10-year record.

A spike in violent crime saw the Hunter register 136 hold-ups in 2003 and 162 in 2002, according to figures provided by the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.

A shortage of heroin triggered the surge in armed robberies in 2002, with drug experts telling the Newcastle Herald at the time that skyrocketing heroin prices were causing cash-strapped addicts to turn to violent crime to pay for their habit.

The figure gradually declined after 2003, before falling to as low as 64 during 2010.

But as a flood of heroin hit Hunter streets again this year, the armed robbery rate soared.

Hunter police were called in to investigate 40 armed hold-ups in 60 days during January and February, as heroin replaced methamphetamine as the addicts’ drug of choice.

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SINGLETON was in mourning after a school bus crash that claimed the life of nine-year-old Harry Dunn.

The St Catherine’s Catholic College student died after a collision between a Hunter Valley Buses bus and a prime-mover at the intersection of Church and Kelso streets, about 3.50pm on September 10.

Harry’s brother, Luke, and Jacob Simpson, both 7, were also injured and were flown to John Hunter Children’s Hospital in a critical condition.

The tragedy prompted calls to make seatbelts on school buses mandatory and focused attention on heavy vehicle traffic that crosses Singleton using narrow suburban streets.

Singleton Council councillors unanimously supported a report recommending a staged plan to improve the narrow intersection where the crash occurred.

Bigger stop signs are already in place and possible future actions include widening Kelso Street and investigating alternative heavy vehicle routes.

New deputy mayor Godfrey Adamthwaite said the long-term aim was to remove heavy traffic completely from the town by continuing to work for a by-pass.

Harry’s parents, Dean and Sarah Dunn, told mourners at their son’s funeral that they would never forget their ‘‘nine-year-old gentleman’’.

‘‘It was a privilege to be Harry’s parents for those nine and-a-half years. He was here for such a short time, but his star burned so bright in that time. He touched so many lives.’’

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DUDLEY civil engineer Jon Hines was twice attacked by a tiger shark as he surfed at the remote Western Australian break Red Bluff on August 28.

The 34-year-old suffered bite wounds to his abdomen and right arm, as he fought off the shark with his bare hands before being rescued.

Doctors closed the wounds using 174 external stitches and more than 400 internal stitches to his stomach, as well as 96 external stitches and a further 300 internal stitches.

He underwent more than two months of intensive rehabilitation at Perth before flying home.

There will be another operation in about 11 months, after doctors decided to reattach severed ligaments only to allow them to strengthen before looking at the tendon and muscle damage.

Hines is hoping he will get a significant amount of movement back, but only after about four years of constant work.

He has returned to work part-time and is moving on.

‘‘I feel like I have won – I have fought a shark and I have won.’’

It followed the January 18 attack on Glen ‘‘Lenny’’ Folkard, who was surfing at Redhead Beach.

The 3.1metre bull shark latched on to Folkard’s right upper thigh and pulled him under the water. The 35-year-old father of three was taken to John Hunter Hospital where he was treated by an ‘‘incredible’’ trauma team and battled through six operations and weeks of skin grafts and redressings.

He said fellow surfer Nathan Visscher put his own life in danger to help him and paid tribute to the two off-duty paramedics and a nurse, who happened to be on the beach.

‘‘There was a point there when I rolled off the surfboard on to the sand after the attack, on to my back, looking up at the sky going: ‘I’m still here. I’m alive’,’’ he said.

‘‘That was a significant turn in, I think, my whole life. That was a real moment.’’

Folkard, who owns Downunder Tattoo on the Pacific Highway at Charlestown, said in February he had not ruled out getting ‘‘shark bait’’ inked on his body.

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DART Energy set up for its pilot coal-seam gas project at Fullerton Cove, but was ordered by a court not to begin drilling until a decision is made on whether it first has to carry out an environmental impact study.

Dart Energy’s exploration program would see pilot wells drilled in the area, north of Newcastle.

The program was endorsed by the Department of Trade and Investment and the federal Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities approved it in June.

Counsel for the Fullerton Cove Residents Action Group Ian Hemmings told Justice Rachel Pepper the Department of Trade had issued in March guidelines for the mining industry to consider when preparing a review of environmental factors or an environmental impact statement.

But ‘‘absurdly’’ the department was now arguing its own guidelines were not relevant to the assessment of projects such as Dart’s, he said.

Environmental Defenders Office representing the Fullerton Cove Residents Action Group sought an injunction preventing further work at the site, saying an environmental impact study should be done before any drilling activity started.

The group – which protested at the site – also wants the effects on shore birds, amphibian species and groundwater considered.

The Land and Environment court is yet to make its final determination.

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CONCERNS relating to dust hung in the air over discussions about Newcastle’s proposed fourth coal terminal.

The Coal Terminal Action Group (CTAG) this month distributed 15,000 leaflets to homes affected by the project, designed to put pressure on Newcastle MP Tim Owen and Port Stephens MP Craig Baumann.

About 4000 Hunter residents have already written to the government opposing the project.

NSW Health has also expressed concern, with the department’s submission on the project saying air pollution in coal-affected suburbs already exceeded national standards.

The Herald reported on December 5 that CTAG would begin the following week monitoring air quality along the Hunter coal corridor to assess levels of particle pollution.

The group, which represents 16 Hunter-based environment groups, raised funds to buy industry-standard air quality monitoring equipment.

The group said they would install equipment at 10 locations between Newcastle port and Rutherford.

An estimated 32,000 people live within 500metres of the rail corridor in the Newcastle Statistical District. About 23,000 children attend school in the area.

‘‘Communities in the Hunter Valley are increasingly worried about coal dust and its health impacts, especially with new coal mines and terminals,’’ Coal Terminal Action Group spokesman James Whelan said.

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A FISHING trip claimed the lives of three young Lake Macquarie anglers, presumed washed into the waves.

Ben Winn, 20, of Windale,  and Trey Adamson, 18, of Gateshead were last seen on Friday June 15 and were presumed to have gone fishing the next day at Flat Rock with Adamson’s girlfriend Niranda Blair, 18, of Edgeworth.

 Niranda Blair’s body was discovered on Ghosties Beach, Frazer Park, on June 17.

Ben Winn’s body was found south of Caves Beach on June 30, a few hours after his family and friends gathered at Flat Rock to pay him tribute and release three doves.

Police and authorities ran a full-scale search for almost a week. There were divers and jetskis that joined in the search with helicopters and shore patrols.

However, they were unable to find  Adamson.

But, while authorities were forced to scale back their efforts, family members continually returned to seek clues and maintained a vigil for their missing loved ones.

Adamson is still missing.

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HIGH-RANKING member of the Maitland Gladiators motorcycle club, Frank Van Der Kroft, was shot multiple times in the chest and stomach in broad daylight on July 22.

The 56-year-old, believed to be the branch president, flagged down a passing driver and was taken to Cessnock Hospital with multiple gunshot wounds at about 1.50pm.

More than a dozen Gladiators members, dressed in full club colours, arrived at the hospital a short time later.

Specialist police established a crime scene at North Rothbury, where a lone black motorcycle stood on the side of Wine Country Drive, and another at Majors Lane, Keinbah, where a burnt-out silver sedan was found.

Hunter Valley police established Strike Force Nevarda to investigate the shooting.

It operated out of Central Hunter local area command at the Maitland police station because of the locality of witnesses and the Gladiators clubhouse in Horseshoe Bend.

The club’s former sergeant-at-arms Grant Welsh was arrested in late October and did not enter pleas to 22 charges, including the attempted murder of Van Der Kroft.

A police statement tendered to Newcastle Local Court said Welsh was allegedly stripped of his colours and expelled from the gang after incidents late last year and early this year that led to several violent clashes between him and gang members.

He was bashed at Hunter Valley Brewery on June 16, with Welsh allegedly threatening payback against all Gladiators present.

Welsh has been refused bail, with the case adjourned to this month.

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RELATIVE newcomers to the region’s dining scene, Restaurant Mason, in Newcastle, and Subo, in Newcastle West, were both feted with chef’s hats in September’s Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide awards.

The two restaurants were among eight Hunter Region restaurants that received a nod in the awards. 

Other hatted establishments were Bacchus, Newcastle, Muse, Pokolbin, Muse Kitchen, Pokolbin, Bistro Molines, Mount View, Zest, Nelson Bay, and restaurant deux, Newcastle. 

Restaurant deux has since merged with le petit deux, also in Newcastle.

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