Blogs > Why serious questions about Catholic child migration need answers

02 March 2018 | by Gordon Lynch

Why serious questions about Catholic child migration need answers

The IICSA report will hopefully mark a new chapter in the responses of the Catholic Church

IICSA gives evidence to HOC committee

By Gordon Lynch

Yesterday’s publication of IICSA’s report on the abuse of British child migrants marks an important moment for public recognition of the depth of organisational failures in the programmes which sent them overseas. Child migration schemes have a long history, with around 90,000 British children migrated to Canada by various organisations between 1869 and 1924. These programmes became increasingly controversial, however, when they resumed after the end of the Second World War, running as they did against the growing consensus about child-care standards set out in the influential 1946 Curtis Report. During the post-war period, around 4,000 child migrants were sent abroad through programmes usually funded by British and overseas governments. Of the roughly 3,200 of these who were sent to Australia, just under a third were sent by Catholic organisations.

Media attention will naturally focus on IICSA’s recommendation of a Government compensation scheme, following its main conclusions about the failure of successive British Governments to protect children in the face of known problems with these migration programmes. With strong criticisms made of a number of voluntary organisations involved, serious questions also remain about post-war Catholic child migration. This investigation was the first time that an inquiry into child migration programmes had undertaken an extensive analysis of government and voluntary organisations’ archives. The picture of post-war Catholic child migration that emerges from evidence presented at the inquiry is stark. 

During the Second World War, senior Catholic figures, including the soon-to-be Archbishop of Westminster, Bernard Griffin, became aware of criticisms of Christian Brothers’ institutions in Western Australia to which British boys had already been sent. Civil servants in the UK Government’s Dominions Office were told no more children would be sent by the Catholic Church in England and Wales until the Church had conducted its own inspection visit to these institutions. No such visit ever took place. Instead, when approached by representatives of the Australian Catholic Church in May 1946 about ambitious plans to resume child migration, Griffin actively supported it, calling an urgent, confidential meeting of the Catholic Child Welfare Council to approve this.

During 1946, active efforts were made to recruit children for this initiative, with most coming from residential homes run by the Sisters of Nazareth. In the following spring, it was discovered by State officials in Western Australia that many of the residential institutions listed to receive these children by the Archdiocese of Perth were not in a fit state to do so and required urgent remedial action. Not all of this work was completed before the children arrived.

Through the autumn of 1947, 334 children were sent to Western Australia by Catholic organisations. Castledare, an institution for younger children run by the Christian Brothers, received twice as many children as had been agreed by the UK Government. An inspection report by child welfare officials the following year painted a disturbing picture of overcrowded accommodation, soiled bedding and young children lacking any individual attention. Girls were also sent to Nazareth House, Geraldton, despite the UK Government having explicitly said that none should be sent there while that convent was continuing to accommodate elderly patients. One former child migrant to Geraldton later recalled being sexually abused by men in an elderly ward there when she was forced to work on it from the age of thirteen.

As post-war child migration continued a clear pattern emerged in which the largest numbers of British children sent by Catholic organisations occurred in years when representatives of the national immigration committee of the Australian Catholic Church made recruitment visits to the UK. These representatives were repeatedly told by the Catholic Child Welfare Council not to recruit children directly from Catholic children’s homes, but to go through the respective child-care officer for each diocese. This request was probably made both so that some national over-sight could be kept of the recruitment of child migrants and because, in at least some cases, diocesan officers would have been a child’s de facto guardian.

The Australian officers often flouted this request, and numerous examples have now come to light in which a child’s migration application form is signed only by an Australian recruiter and the Mother Superior of the institution from which a child was being sent. Remarkably, the Catholic Child Welfare Council was aware that its request had been repeatedly broken by Australian officials, but continued to send children through their organisation because there was a belief that both shared in a common goal of safeguarding children’s faith and building up the Catholic population in Australia. It is still not clear whether children recruited without the permission of the diocesan children’s officer may, if the diocesan officer was their guardian, have therefore been sent overseas without appropriate legal consent.

Despite knowledge of criticisms of Christian Brothers and the emphasis on effective inspection systems for children in the 1945 Monckton and 1946 Curtis reports, no such systems were ever implemented by Catholic organisations sending British child migrants. In the case of the Sisters of Nazareth, who provided around two thirds of Catholic child migrants to Australia, little evidence of monitoring by the order was provided for children sent to Nazareth Houses overseas and the order acknowledged that it had done no formal follow-up checks at all on any children sent to institutions run by other religious orders. The Catholic Child Welfare Council took several years to initiate a reporting system on children sent overseas. Even by 1955, eight years after the first post-war Catholic children arrived in Australia, the council had still received relatively few individual reports back.

Given these failings, it is unsurprising that IICSA has concluded that the Catholic Church failed to take sufficient care, even by standards of that time, in protecting children from abuse. In its evidence, the Catholic Church has described itself as being on a learning process in relation to this history. Some progress can indeed be seen. In its 1998 report on the welfare of former British child migrants, the Health Select Committee strongly criticised the then director of the Catholic Child Welfare Council for what it saw as his unrealistically positive account of Catholic child migration. There is clearly a somewhat greater recognition in the Church of its failings now. The question remains whether this will translate into further action in supporting or compensating former child migrants. Will it also lead to more open reflection by the Church about how it could have given theological and pastoral sanction to so damaging a policy, including making its archives about its own organisational policies more open to external scrutiny? Far from representing the end of a process, the IICSA report will hopefully mark a new chapter in the responses of the Catholic Church and the Sisters of Nazareth.

Gordon Lynch is Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology at the School of European Culture and Languages, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent. Follow him on Twitter @Gordon_Lynch

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