by Alan Gill
Migrant children sent from Britain to Australia might have expected a better life in ‘the lucky country’. Some did indeed find it, but for others the journey led to misery – at the hands, especially, of Catholic religious. Alan Gill, formerly the Sydney Morning Herald’s religion writer, is the author of Orphans of the Empire.
CATHOLIC child migration to Australia began in the late 1930s and involved – either as senders or receivers – the Christian Brothers, Sisters of Mercy and Sisters of Nazareth. The Good Shepherd Sisters were also involved, but in a subsidiary role, which seems to have been confined to looking after "bad girls" – teenage girls, both British and Australian, transferred from other institutions as uncontrollable. Many of them were employed without pay in convent laundries in conditions which have been criticised as "Dickensian".
In July 1897, the English Catholic newspaper, the Universe, criticised the British Government for promoting child emigration to Canada, calling the trade "transportation and exile" and a "dubious means of combating destitution". It was a surprisingly modern view, expressed at a time when official opinion was very much in favour of the traffic.
The paper said that the "tearing apart of brothers and sisters" (most institutions then practised sexual segregation) was "unnatural"; it called the breaking up of families through emigration a "typically Protestant" response to the problem of poverty.
The reference to a "Protestant" response is interesting. It would appear that the paper’s high-mindedness was, in fact, motivated by a desire to get back at Thomas Barnardo, an evangelical Protestant, who had been accused of "poaching" Roman Catholic children, and transporting them to Canada, where they would be "raised as Protestants". (Soon afterwards Barnardo began a similar traffic to Australia.)
There is no doubt that children were transferred to boost numbers of the faithful in newly-settled areas – certainly in Canada’s case. According to Philip Bean and Joy Melville, writers of the book and film Lost Children of the Empire, "Ontario wanted as many non-Catholics as possible to settle there, conscious of Catholic expansion in adjacent Quebec. Quebec, eyeing the influx, called in turn for child Catholics."
Correspondence from and to the religious orders suggests a denominational numbers game was also played in Australia. The key player was Brother Aloysius (Louis) Conlon, sometimes described as the "father" of Catholic child migration.
Conlon, a charismatic figure with something of the talents of a showman, was at that time principal of the Christian Brothers’ agricultural school and orphanage at Tardun, Western Australia. He was also a member of the order’s provincial council. In July 1938, he wrote to the Prime Minister of Ireland, inviting Eire to participate in, and to provide financial assistance towards, the emigration of Catholic children to Australia. Conlon had earlier personally visited Ireland to promote his ideas, but apparently did not gain an interview with the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Eamon de Valera.
In an interview published in the Irish Independent, under the heading "Christian Brothers make colonists", he said the Brothers were already taking out "destitute boys from England" to be settled on a recently secured "big tract of land in Western Australia". (This was, in fact, the notorious Boys’ Town, Bindoon – the institution whose abuses chiefly led to the present payout by the religious order.)
The article might have been written for a tourist brochure. "The boys are specially picked for their suitability to the life", it went on, "and when they land in Australia they are given five years’ training on this big farm run by the Christian Brothers.
"When they are skilled and competent to set up for themselves, they are given a grant of 500 acres, supplied with stock and implements, to run their new possession and be launched as colonists." (There was broadly such a scheme, but it never got off the ground. Only one person received, and subsequently lost, his grant.)
Unfortunately for Br Conlon, the Government of Eire did not share his enthusiasm. A letter to Conlon from the Cabinet Secretary, dated 17 August 1938, stated: "With reference to the proposal which you recently made to the Taoiseach in regard to a scheme for state-aided emigration of Catholic children from this country to Australia, I have to inform you that the scheme is not approved."
The terseness of the reply is a little surprising, given the strong connection between the religious order (known in most countries as the Irish Christian Brothers) and Ireland. Almost certainly it was based on the personal views of de Valera, who opposed child migration, and indeed migration in general, as a solution to the new state’s problems. His supposed "prejudice" in this matter was aired in a gossip column in the Irish Independent, which criticised his stance.
In April 1946, the Coadjutor Archbishop of Melbourne, Justin Simonds, went to Europe with the express purpose of fostering Catholic immigration. It was explained that his tour was in response to a humanitarian need; inevitably some saw it as a sectarian exercise.
Simonds, the first Australian to become a Catholic archbishop, was eminently suitable for this mission. In Rome he impressed the Vatican Under-Secretary of State, Mgr Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Pope Paul VI. In Britain he teamed up with Br Conlon, who was undertaking yet another child-seeking mission.
The two men drew up a plan for child migration, which Conlon presented over lunch to the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Griffin. Protestant clergy criticised the exercise – though some were doing the same – as "touting for boys".
Conlon returned solo to Australia. On the Asturias, bringing him home – with the first post-war party of child migrants bound for West Australia – he wrote to a colleague that his activities were "entirely prompted by a desire to make our migration scheme a big factor in building up the Church in Australia".
Before leaving Melbourne for Europe, Archbishop Simonds sent a letter to all the bishops of Australia giving an account of his intentions. A copy was sent to the superior-general of the Christian Brothers in Dublin, whose assistant, Br W.M. McCarthy, wrote to a colleague: "This letter reveals a scheme much more comprehensive than bringing out a few hundred migrant children (i.e. the pre-war efforts of Conlon) . . . . The object is to increase the Catholic population in Australia as well as to save Catholic children from losing their holy faith and from being drawn into the Protestant current that will flow into Australia. . . . I am sure that any opposition to this scheme . . . would not only be unwise but wrong. It is a scheme with which all Catholics should and will sympathise."
A feature of the new scheme was that capital building works would be subsidised by the Government. Correspondence between ecclesiastical bodies mentions the benefits that would accrue. Put crudely, it would appear that the religious orders hoped to get new buildings, which would serve their long-term interests, in return for the inconvenience of looking after child migrants from the United Kingdom. (In the case of the Christian Brothers, the children themselves were to be the labourers.)
The safari of Dr Simonds was raised at the Western District Synod of the New South Wales Methodist Church, which passed a resolution in November 1946 expressing "alarm at the apparent partiality shown to the Roman Catholic Church in the selection of immigrants". The synod secretary claimed that the Federal Immigration Minister, Arthur Calwell, had reneged on a promise to give "similar help to Protestants".
Dr Simonds’s journey also came to the notice of Sir Frederick Stewart, MP for Parramatta (NSW) and a staunch Protestant, who asked if Mr Calwell was aware of the activities of this man who was "on the continent of Europe recruiting child migrants for Australia". Sir Frederick also asked: "Does the minister not believe that it is highly desirable that the selection of migrants should be strictly free from sectarian significance?"
Calwell, seemingly nonplussed, replied: "This country needs population. It ought to be the aim of any government to increase the population of Australia as quickly as possible, in view of the dangers which will confront us from now on.
"Dr Simonds came to see me in Melbourne and told me that, at the request of his own Church, he was going to England to recruit a number of children . . . . I told him that he would be free to bring any children here under conditions that would apply to every other religious or secular organisation."
Sir Frederick was not satisfied with this response, remarking that Simonds was attempting to recruit not just British children, but "Continental children". To this Calwell replied: "I am not responsible for newspaper statements in regard to visits by any persons to European countries to bring child migrants to Australia."
The controversy embarrassed Calwell, a practising Catholic, who was anxious to appear impartial. Simonds and the Christian Brothers also sought to import children from Malta. In a speech to the Federal Parliament, while Simonds was still overseas, Calwell referred in favourable terms to Maltese immigration, which, "because of the small population of that island, is not likely to reach large proportions".
"The Maltese are British subjects", he added, "whose record during the war was a magnificent one, and their compatriots who have settled in Australia in the past have proved themselves industrious workers and good citizens."
Between 270 and 300 Maltese child migrants were subsequently admitted to Christian Brothers’ institutions in Western Australia.
The Irish Government did not change its mind, and no child migrants were sent to Australia directly from there. The reality, however, was that a high percentage of children in Catholic institutions in Britain – many of them illegitimate – were of Irish parentage. Several hundred Catholic former child migrants now living in Australia believe they are of Irish origin. The shortage of records, which in the past were deliberately withheld from them, means that they are unable to verify this. Many are now going to extraordinary lengths to locate family members and ascertain their roots.
Br Louis Conlon died in December 1958. He had been living in retirement in Boys’ Town, Bindoon, where he was one of the few Brothers to have been liked and respected by the migrant children.
The former child migrants themselves remember him as a kindly man who – they believe – would have been shocked had he known of the pattern of gross sexual abuse established both before and after his death, and whilst he was living in their midst. But evidence presented to the NSW Supreme Court hearings in Sydney – actions now withdrawn in the light of the order’s $3.5 million voluntary settlement made in 1996 – indicate that he did know, though he probably was unaware of the extent.
Among material read out in open court were extracts from letters by Conlon to the superior-general in Dublin. One such letter refers to a Brother against whom complaints had been made as a sex offender and heavy drinker. Conlon wrote: "I have tried hard to get this Brother transferred from Clontarf during the past six months, but have failed . . . . I know it is a delicate matter to deal with . . . . I do not wish to be critical of the (Australian) provincial, as I know only too well he has many difficulties. Still, I think that he should be more prompt in dealing with offences of this kind."
In 1935, an Australian Brother wrote to Dublin: "If we do not take a determined stand with regard to this matter, we are bound to have numerous scandals in the near future." His comment was to prove prophetic.
A letter to the Dublin headquarters by another senior Brother states: "The weakness being a deplorable one and scandalous in the extreme, the ever-present possibility of publicity being given to the incident gives abundant cause for the most serious concern." Fear of disclosure was also raised by Conlon: "As long as outsiders do not become aware of these things, we may hope for better times after the war."
On 1 December 1948 one Brother, S.R. Young, wrote from Sydney to Dublin about another suspected offender: "We had hoped that rehabilitation had taken place, but generally the dog returns to his vomit . . . . "
In a report issued privately in 1994 to the Christian Brothers’ leadership, the Australian order’s then official historian, Br Barry Coldrey, admitted that there was a pattern of sexual abuse within the Christian Brothers’ Australian congregations from 1920, and maybe earlier.
Referring to one of many clearly identified pre-war cases of sexual abuse, Barry Coldrey writes: "The police were not called. The matter was handled within the Catholic community to avoid scandal."
Coldrey’s major work, The Scheme, dealing with the West Australian orphanages and child migration, was published in late 1993. It was commissioned largely as the order’s public response to allegations of sexual and physical abuse against children in its care. But the contents of a second book, A Secret Report, go much further. Its existence only became generally known when a copy was obtained by lawyers representing the former orphans, and used in evidence in the court hearings. While Coldrey’s motives may have been pure, knowledge of its existence has helped neither him nor the Christian Brothers’ cause, merely seeming to confirm suspicions of a gigantic cover-up, which lasted until Coldrey’s own researches began about seven years ago.
In the past two years or so, the mood of denial within the Catholic Church in Australia has been replaced by shocked acceptance of the facts, a genuine spirit of repentance and a desire for reconciliation, particularly on the part of the Christian Brothers and Sisters of Mercy, the two most widely criticised groups. Newspaper apologies have been published, counselling arranged, and air fares paid to assist several former child migrants to meet next of kin.
Regrettably, the media have failed to report this development adequately, nor have they highlighted similar abuse, albeit on a lesser scale, perpetrated within non-Catholic "caring" organisations, including the much-revered Salvation Army. As a result, the Catholic Church and its agencies are receiving more than their fair share of flak.
The Australian Federal Government, for its part, has done nothing at all. Two government ministers appeared on Australian television after the release in Britain of the House of Commons committee report which details the abuses and recommends action, opining that it was "a bit rich" for the Pommies to be seeking an inquiry in Australia when it was the British who sent the children there. What those ministers overlook is that the abuse – physical and sexual, of the most scandalous and grotesque proportions – took place in Australia, and successive Australian immigration ministers were the children’s legal guardians.
The truth is that an inquiry, or perhaps inquiries, should properly be conducted in both countries.FURTHER READING