Select Committee on Health Minutes of Evidence


Part 2—The Eastern States: South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania, Canberra, New South Wales and Queensland

THE CONTINUING SCENEAs mentioned in Part I of this Report, about two thirds of the former child migrants were placed in institutions in Western Australia. This means that about one third are spread variously across the south and eastern parts of Australia. This is a vast geographical area and one has to be mindful that it is difficult to find large centres or concentrations of former Catholic child migrants. Nevertheless, it can be assumed that the sort of individual services required will be similar. As in Western Australia, the difficulties found in tracing and finding families of origin are the greatest cause of anger and frustration. There are also background indications of unrest and a number of possibilities of further allegations of abuse involving religious, both male and female.In Part 2 of this report there are, as expected, no materially different issues. There have, however, been opportunities to explore some of the tensions between the "social work" approach and the "official" approach.

THE FINDINGSWithin the hierarchy I found extreme cautiousness. This is not necessarily a criticism. It would be easy to under-estimate the intense pressure on the Church in Australia at the moment. There are currently, and have been, a number of extremely difficult abuse cases involving clergy (not connected with the former child migrants issue) which are keeping the bishops very much on the defensive. The media is at the ready to take any opportunity to embarrass the church and has no hesitation in sensationalising reports in a salacious way.Lawyers acting for the Church are having to counter commercially motivated lawyers acting on a "no win, no fee" basis. There are allegations that the legal system in Australia has become too American and is interested not in the welfare of clients but in finding pots of gold to chase after. In the current climate public figures, politicians, corporations, and the Church are seen as "fair game". As a result of the bishops have become very sensitive in avoiding saying or doing anything which might be seen as providing a further opportunity for legal action.As far as the institutions are concerned, there is a realism that further actions may result from any court successes against the Christian Brothers. This is thought to equally effect both male and female religious institutions. On the other hand I found an openness and willingness to share any information in their possession. Some of the institutions have carefully organised records though, it must be said, they usually contain very little information. Others have sent their files relating to former child migrants to the diocesan offices of Centacare so that potential enquirers can more readily access them.There is some suspicion in Church and institution circles about the Child Migrant Trust (Margaret Humphreys). Views expressed by individuals and former migrants were fairly equally divided. At the one extreme were those who felt that Margaret Humphreys had made a career out of former child migrants and was now part of the "power and abuse" set up, controlling information and keeping former migrants dependent. At the other end of the spectrum were those who genuinely felt that the Child Migrant Trust provided an excellent, unbiased, independent service which had enabled a large number of family reunions and, through group therapy, had brought about wonderful improvements in self-awareness and personal development.My own perception has remained constant. We need to co-operate fully with enquiries made on behalf of former child migrants through the Child Migrant Trust. The essence of this thinking is the importance, particularly where former child migrants feel angry or hurt, of providing a choice of services. I do not, however, feel it appropriate that the Child Migrant Trust should be the only agency dealing with enquiries. It is the duty of all agencies and institutions to continue to offer services to former clients or residents.It does, however, seem that some individual institutions or organisations are not fully recognising the needs of the former migrants. Many feel that they have little information and have not connected with counselling or tracing services. In fairness, all the institutions I visited felt that the demand was quite minimal and, over the years, they had had contact with a good proportion of former residents, both former child migrants and others. One very serious comment made by Barnardo's concerned the defective quality of information kept on individual files. Barnardos presumed that all the information regarding health, medical treatment, education, reports, holidays, specific events etc. would have been routinely kept at the time by any reputable institution. They criticised the grave lack of wisdom or forethought by superiors or head-teachers in allowing this material to be lost or destroyed.As far as the girl former child migrants are concerned, there was evidence that many of those who had reached fair educational standards often had successful careers and had married well. Some of those expressing dissatisfaction, or making allegations, have had less fulfilling lives. One particularly positive outcome to the visit has been the total co-operation of the diocesan Centacare offices. With the help of Centacare Australia it should be possible to put in place a very viable network of professional services to deal with future enquiries. The necessary skills are available and I have confidence that they can be successfully co-ordinated. Both locally and centrally there is an appreciation of the situation and a willingness to provide suitable services.I have a real concern about the possibility of some information dealing with migration issues being inadvertently lost. I have no substantial evidence as to the existence of further relevant records, only the strong rumour to suggest that some may exist. On the basis of this rumour (and because of the importance of such information should the rumour be found to be true) I have alerted the Church authorities at the highest level to ensure the safety of these records should they in fact exist. Fuller details of these concerns will be found in the running record of the meetings during this part of the visit.(To avoid repetition the following sections of this report should be read in conjunction with Part I.)

THE MAIN ISSUESThe main issue, as in Western Australia, is about the provision of services in respect of personal and family information and making contacts with family in the UK. This is felt to be the least that should be done to redress some of the perceived damage caused by the child migration scheme.The frustration, anger and confusion of former child migrants is, rightly or wrongly, usually aimed at the Church. It is not pastorally mature to take up a position on this, defensive or otherwise. There is a need to take responsibility for the serious omission in keeping satisfactory records. This is a legitimate reflection on professional practice in the past.There are real issues in evolving a way forward which can heal some of the hurt and make up for some of the damage, whether or not caused through actions of the Church or its institutions. There is a need to listen and believe. The question of historical accuracy or defending the circumstances of the migration is not relevant to the individual. Nor does it reflect badly on the Church to acknowledge what makes a person feel the way they do.Church authorities appear to be paralysed in taking part in any serious pastoral solution because of the fear of opening wider possibilities of litigation. It is easy for an outsider to see things in an over simplistic way, but I am seriously convinced that there is a primary obligation to view the needs of these former migrants from a pastoral viewpoint. The seeming inability to move in any other than a legal framework is having a deleterious effect on the Church, and in the long term could bring further discredit.In the global context the issue of the former child migrant is seen to be of small significance considering the total numbers involved in the post-war settlement of hundreds of thousands of refugees, displaced persons, and migrants. It was, however, a scheme in which the Catholic Church in England and Australia was significantly involved. For many of those involved they are not talking about the past or about history. For them this particular past is seriously impacting upon their present.

PRACTICAL WAYS FORWARDThe provision of information leaflets is of paramount importance. Some immediate research will be needed to work out content and targeting. The networks are now informally in place, but will need to be put on to a more formal footing. It is suggested that Centacare Australia will help with the format and printing arrangements.It could be possible to follow up the matter of funding for visits by former child migrants to Britain. No formal co-operation between the various religious bodies on the question of funding visits to England yet exists. On an individual basis much is already happening, but a more uniform approach would be helpful.Every agency and institution should have, as part of its protocol, a designated person who, will either provide services to an enquirer, or will be able to assist them in obtaining relevant information. It is crucial that enquirers are not handed on elsewhere, but are "led by the hand" in their search for information and for family.Christopher Fisher27 March 1995

FOOTNOTES1. The visit to Western Australia was undertaken jointly by Canon Christopher Fisher and Mrs Mary Gandy. The remainder of the visit to South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania, Canberra, New South Wales and Queensland, was undertaken alone by Canon Fisher.2. A vast area, geographically, historically and socially, has been covered in a relatively short visit. There was no working model of measurement or framework on which to base this investigation. It may be found that some of the statements or conclusions are fairly generalised. There has been a genuine effort to report faithfully the situation as recounted from many different angles. It has not been appropriate to take sides.3. Much of the benefit of this visit will not be visible in the report, but will have already taken place through the personal contacts made and by raising the profile and the needs of former child migrants in the minds of politicians, Church authorities, religious bodies, agencies and individuals.4. The visit met with universal enthusiasm. It is hoped this report will be similarly received.

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Prepared 10 August 1998