Select Committee on Health Third Report



39. "The history of child migration in Australia is in many ways a history of cruelty, lies and deceit."[38] So state the authors of a recent book on the subject. The evidence we have received bears out the truth of this comment.

40. It is fair to say that the sending agencies appear genuinely to have believed that they were acting in the best interests of the children. Canon Fisher of the Catholic Child Welfare Council told us:

    "I think the bottom line of the professional decisions that were made at the time is still the bottom line that we use today, whether it is in the child's best interests, and I rest my case there."[39]

Official assurances to this effect were given to Parliament when legislation enabling child migration was debated. During the passage of the Children Bill in 1948, the Lord Chancellor assured the House of Lords that "the Home Office intends to secure that children shall not be emigrated unless there is absolute satisfaction that proper arrangements have been made for the care and upbringing of each child".[40]

41. These words could hardly be further from the reality encountered by many child migrants. We heard of many examples of questionable practice used to expedite the process of migration. Some of the children involved regard themselves as having been "stolen".[41] "Deception was the name of the game" suggests one former child migrant.[42] The written evidence we have received contains many first-hand accounts of apparent deception. To persuade them to volunteer for migration, glamorous stories of life in Australia were told to children far too young to make rational decisions for themselves on such a momentous matter. The Child Migrants' Trust stated that:

    "After being told fanciful tales of travel to the 'Land of Milk and Honey' where children ride to school on horseback and pick up fruit on the side of the road, child migrants were sent to Australia without passports, social histories or even the most basic documentation about their identities."[43]

There was a lack of parental consent. A former child migrant from Northern Ireland wrote:

    "I was very sad and angry knowing that I was one of the boys who was leaving, I was scared. My mother was never told what was going on."[44]

We have received many examples of children wrongly being told that their parents were dead.[45] One child whose mother eventually died in 1974 was told in 1949, "you are an orphan, your parents have died, and you have no family; you may as well go, there's nothing left for you here."[46] The Child Migrants' Trust say that "some parents were led to believe that their children were being cared for by families in Britain when, in fact, they had been sent to institutions overseas".[47]

42. It is alleged that documents, including birth records, age changes and details of family status, were sometimes forged. When we questioned sending agencies about these allegations, Barnardo's, the Catholic Child Welfare Council and the Children's Society told us there was no evidence of deliberate falsification of records.[48] A former child migrant we met in Melbourne, and from whom we have received written evidence, has told us that:

    "It is now a matter of public record that this organisation [the Catholic Church] and its agencies deceived us and deceived our parents. It is also a matter of public record that they contravened the immigration laws of Australia. For their own ulterior motives they took the law into their own hands believing that they knew what was best for us and for our parents. 87% of all children from Catholic agencies came to Australia without the consent of their parents. 96% of those sent had one or both parents alive ... Canon Flint, the Superintendent of the [Father Hudson's] Home claimed that the children had been orphaned. This is patently untrue."[49]

43. To enable child migrants to make a completely new start it was often seen as advantageous to cut all family ties and to make available birth certificates only in the shortened format which omitted details about parents. This practice has caused many difficulties for former child migrants who wish to trace their families. It has also contributed to feelings of being without roots which many people have found very damaging.

44. It was the policy on arrival in Australia to separate brothers and sisters. At Fairbridge Farm Schools brothers and sisters were sent to different 'cottages', although these were often close by. When the Child Migrants' Trust gave oral evidence to us they brought with them three former child migrants. One, Mr John Hennessey, told us of his first experience in Australia:

    "Where it hit me particularly was when they dragged the brothers and sisters from one another, I can still hear the screams today."[50]

45. Although it is difficult to know motivation, nevertheless the level of deception, the deliberate giving of wrong information or withholding of information, the policies of separating siblings, all make it very hard to accept that everything was done simply for the benefit of the children. It indicates an abuse of power and a disregard for the feelings of the mothers and children, and it was certainly felt as such by many former child migrants. We have seen evidence that as they get older, their resentment and grief grows rather than diminishes. Those who have become parents feel the enormity of it when they see their own children grow up, and feel reduced by their inability to supply a history and full identity even to their own offspring.

46. "England deserted us children in the most cruelist fashion in our biggest hour of need."[51] This is a comment from a former child migrant who, along with most of those sent to Australia, ended up in a large institution. A former child migrant we met in Perth had earlier written to us listing numerous mental, physical and sexual outrages against him, particularly at Bindoon, an institution run by the Christian Brothers in Western Australia. He wrote: "I am reminded of these experiences everyday of my life, however hard I try, I simply cannot forget".[52]

47. Our trip to Australia enabled us to hear about life at these large institutions. We are appalled at the apparent lack of proper monitoring and inspection. On arrival in Australia children became the responsibility of the authorities there as 'wards of the state'. The prime responsibility for the neglect of checking procedures rests with the state governments concerned. But the sending agencies might have been expected to have investigated more thoroughly the conditions in which children were living. In written evidence the Christian Brothers Ex-Residents' Services have admitted:

    "We have no explanation, and there is clearly no excuse, for the apparent failure to monitor the child migrants when they were in care. A statement made by the counsellors at CBERS appears uncontestable, 'there was clearly a breach of guardianship duties in sending the children in the way they were sent and in not monitoring their health and welfare sufficiently'. Furthermore, 'there was a failure to care for them to contemporary standards'."[53]

48. We have reflected very carefully on what it must have been like for young, frightened and vulnerable children in an alien environment, thousands of miles from home. As one former child migrant put it: "no one ran away as you had nowhere to run to".[54] This comment came from an ex-resident of a Fairbridge Farm School, an institution which he described as being "worse than a prison".[55] Fairbridge Farm Schools have been likened to tough boarding schools and a number of former child migrants we met were grateful for their time there. One active Old Fairbridgian described it as being like a "military regime" and declared that it had not done him any harm at all. But this was not everyone's view, and we also heard much criticism of life in Fairbridge institutions.[56]

49. The worst cases of criminal abuse in Australia appear to have occurred in institutions run by agencies of the Catholic Church, in particular the Christian Brothers (especially the 'Boys' Town' at Bindoon, north of Perth, although we heard grim stories about Clontarf, Tardun and Castledare as well) and the Sisters of Mercy (especially the orphanage at Neerkol in Queensland, and also Goodwood Orphanage in South Australia).[57] The Sisters of Mercy were frequently described to us as the "Sisters without mercy", just as the Christian Brothers were often described as the "Christian buggers".

50. During our visit to Australia we questioned representatives of the Christian Brothers about allegations of abuse in their institutions. They told us that the institutions were regularly inspected by the Child Welfare Department and by local doctors, but that it was difficult now to say how rigorous those inspections were. Bindoon was described by the Christian Brothers as a "quasi-Borstal" containing boys with problematic behaviour or who were less capable academically. Delinquent behaviour led to punishment and physical abuse which, the Brothers acknowledged, sometimes "went over the top". Some of us handled a leather implement made by a former child migrant which was a replica of what he had been compelled to stitch as a boy, knowing it would be used on himself or other boys. It consisted of four layers of thick leather stitched together with a steel weight at the end, but with a pocket left unstitched on one side into which was inserted a hacksaw blade. The Christian Brothers said that they were not aware of any evidence of paedophile rings operating in their institutions. However, the weight of personal testimony, contained in the written submissions we have received and given to us orally, leaves us in no doubt that there was widespread and systematic sexual and physical abuse of the boys at Bindoon, and at other Christian Brothers establishments.

51. It is hard to convey the sheer weight of the testimony we have received. It is impossible to resist the conclusion that some of what was done there was of a quite exceptional depravity, so that terms like 'sexual abuse' are too weak to convey it. For example, those of us who heard the account of a man who as a boy was a particular favourite of some Christian Brothers at Tardun who competed as to who could rape him 100 times first, his account of being in terrible pain, bleeding, and bewildered, trying to beat his own eyes so they would cease to be blue as the Brothers liked his blue eyes, or being forced to masturbate animals, or being held upside down over a well and threatened in case he ever told, will never forget it. But if it were one account it could perhaps be dismissed as exceptional—unfortunately adult after adult described their suffering as children. We heard of being told that "whatever a priest did was the Will of God, but if a boy told what a priest did he would commit a mortal sin". As well as such depravity, which was not suffered to the same extent by all, the boys were treated as slave labour. At Bindoon they actually constructed a large building, which one witness has described as having boys' blood embedded in it. We heard of "man's work with a boy's body". We heard many accounts of poor food and boys raiding pig bins, of being badly clothed and unshod.

52. We also met representatives of the Christian Brothers Ex-Residents' Services. In written evidence, CBERS stated that to date 235 men and their families had used their service:

    "Nearly all of these men have referred themselves although a few of them were referred by the Christian Brothers when they went to them for assistance. Some are referred by the Child Migrants' Trust."[58]

It is not clear how many of the people were former child migrants, since native Australians were also resident in Christian Brothers' institutions. CBERS representatives told us that they estimated that 80 to 90% of the 235 men they had dealt with had been sexually abused and that 100% had been physically abused. In their written evidence they modified this figure, saying that it:

    "applies to our clients receiving counselling rather than to all our clients. It is likely that this amounts to about 30% of our clientele."[59]

53. Brother Barry M Coldrey, himself a Christian Brother and the author of several studies of abuse within Catholic institutions in Australia,[60] wrote to us to comment that in Christian Brothers' boys' homes "at times savage physical abuse and fairly widespread sexual abuse occurred", although he regarded the evidence as to the existence of sex rings in Western Australia as inconclusive.[61] In the light of the meetings we had with former child migrants in Australia and the written evidence we have received, it is hard for us not to agree with the verdict of the Child Migrants' Trust that the situation in Christian Brothers institutions in Western Australia was a "nightmare for some child migrants" and "almost the full realisation of a paedophile's dream".[62]

54. In July 1993 the Christian Brothers issued a public apology for the abuses that they admitted had taken place at their child-care institutions. Although they added that "the extent of the abuse appears to have been exaggerated in some quarters", shame and regret were expressed. In their memorandum to us, the Brothers caution against seeing former child migrants "only as 'victims', and [assuming that] all have been equally scarred by the experiences of their childhood", but they add that

    "there is abundant evidence to suggest that the lives of many former child migrants have had more than their fair share of suffering and struggle, and that these can be seen as the effects of trauma in early life. These traumas were not of their making. The governments and agencies responsible for the child migration scheme and the institutions that received child migrants, have a moral responsibility to concern themselves with the welfare of former child migrants insofar as their welfare has been affected by their experiences."[63]

55. We acknowledge that some efforts have been made over recent years by the Christian Brothers to face up to the reality of institutionalised abuse at their establishments and to deal with its human consequences. We also noted that when giving evidence to us in Perth, the Christian Brothers were very insistent that the abuses were not known to those who controlled these institutions. We cannot accept this. We believe that there is more to learn about the circumstances of child migrants at Christian Brothers institutions (and possibly some other Catholic institutions) in Australia, and that in some cases criminal investigation may be called for.

56. Unfortunately Western Australia has an absolute Statute of Limitations of six years, which means that it is impossible for the necessary legal actions to be taken. We regret that when some former child migrants attempted to bring legal action in a different State, the Christian Brothers used every legal avenue towards getting the action transferred to Western Australia where it would inevitably have been dismissed, and there was eventually an out-of-Court settlement which gave the litigants only a small sum each. We also noted that in response to our questioning the Christian Brothers challenged our use of the term 'widespread' in connection with abuse. They admitted that they still retain the statue of Brother Keaney (who is referred to in some of our published evidence) although it is now in a less dominant place. Brother Keaney was the Superintendent of Bindoon at the time that most of the reported abuse took place, and was feared and loathed by many of the former child migrants we talked to.

57. Many female child migrants also suffered severe abuse. Several of the girls in the Catholic Orphanages told us of severe floggings with "thick leather straps". One described being stripped naked at 15 in front of 50 other girls and savagely flogged, suffering unbearable pain and humiliation. We were told of hair being shaved, of severe punishments for bedwetting, and so on. We were also told that there were sometimes welfare inspections, but, again, that they never saw the inspector alone—the nuns were always there. One witness described how the nuns did not eat the crust of their bread—"they would throw the crusts on the floor in front of us and we would all scavenge for them".

58. Careful thought will need to be given as to the best form of redress which should be offered by the Christian Brothers and all other agencies to former child migrants who suffered abuse in their institutions, since it has been made clear to us that many former residents of those institutions, very understandably, want nothing more to do with the agencies.

59. We heard evidence of sometimes severe ill-treatment in other religious organisations, for instance at Dhurringile (run by the Presbyterian Church of Victoria), even to the extent of one of our eyewitnesses expressing relief that he was now terminally ill.

38   Bean and Melville, p 111. Back

39   Q 219. Back

40   Quoted in CM 143, para 13. Back

41   See, for example, CM 47 and CM 82. Back

42   CM 32. Back

43   CM 13A. Back

44   CM 38. Back

45   See, for example, CM 16, CM 27, CM 49, CM 94 and CM 100. Back

46   CM 23. Back

47   CM 13A. Back

48   Q 244-48. Back

49   CM 224. Back

50   Q88. Back

51   CM 36. Back

52   CM 47. Back

53   CM 248. Back

54   CM 19. Back

55   Ibid. Back

56   See, for example, CM 205. Back

57   For Neerkol see, for example, CM 224. Back

58   Ibid Back

59   Ibid Back

60   See CM 192 and 192A. Back

61   CM 192A. Back

62   CM 13A. Back

63   CM 125. Back

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