THE WELFARE OF FORMER BRITISH CHILD MIGRANTS
39. "The history of child migration in Australia
is in many ways a history of cruelty, lies and deceit."
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
"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."
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".
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
"Deception was the name of the game" suggests one former
child migrant. 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
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."
We have received many examples of children wrongly
being told that their parents were dead.
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."
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".
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. 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."
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."
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."
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
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
"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'."
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".
This comment came from an ex-resident of a Fairbridge Farm School,
an institution which he described as being "worse than a
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.
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).
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 exceptionalunfortunately 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
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."
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
"applies to our clients
receiving counselling rather than to all our clients. It is likely
that this amounts to about 30% of our clientele."
53. Brother Barry M Coldrey, himself a Christian
Brother and the author of several studies of abuse within Catholic
institutions in Australia,
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.
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".
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."
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 alonethe
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
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
38 Bean and Melville, p 111. Back
Q 219. Back
Quoted in CM 143, para 13. Back
See, for example, CM 47 and CM 82. Back
CM 32. Back
CM 13A. Back
CM 38. Back
See, for example, CM 16, CM 27, CM 49, CM 94 and CM 100. Back
CM 23. Back
CM 13A. Back
Q 244-48. Back
CM 224. Back
CM 36. Back
CM 47. Back
CM 248. Back
CM 19. Back
See, for example, CM 205. Back
For Neerkol see, for example, CM 224. Back
See CM 192 and 192A. Back
CM 192A. Back
CM 13A. Back
CM 125. Back