Slavedrivers. Abusers. Rapists. Men of God – The horror endured by Maltese child migrants in Australia

They were physically and sexually abused and robbed of any decent chance for a rewarding career or family life: they were child migrants in the care of the Christian Brothers sent from Malta in the hope of a better education after WWII

A report by the Australian Royal Commission into child sexual abuse released damning statistics on the scale of the crisis within the Catholic Church
A report by the Australian Royal Commission into child sexual abuse released damning statistics on the scale of the crisis within the Catholic Church

The original print article erroneously referred to Censu Tabone as the Maltese minister who visited the Tardun school. He was in fact Alexander Cachia Zammit. The error is regretted.

In 1928, Perth-based Maltese priest Fr Raphael Pace urged the Congregation of the Christian Brothers to include Maltese children in its emerging migration scheme. The Irish order was especially dedicated to the evangelisation and education of youth. Negotiations between the Maltese and Western Australian governments continued through the 1930s but the first Maltese child migrants did not arrive in Australia until after World War II. Between 1950 and 1965, 259 boys and 51 girls were sent to Catholic institutions in Western Australia and South Australia.

Most parents believed their children would receive a better education in Australia. Instead many were put to work on the Christian Brothers’ building projects, some were forced to stop using their Maltese language and never learned to read or write English. They were also brutally sexually abused and physically punished.

Last week, a report by the Australian Royal Commission into child sexual abuse released damning statistics on the scale of the crisis within the Catholic Church, which shows that seven per cent of Australia’s Catholic priests were accused of abusing children in the six decades since 1950.

By far the worst was the order of the St John of God Brothers, where a staggering 40% of religious brothers are believed to have abused children; 22% of Christian Brothers and 20% of Marist Brothers, both orders that run schools, were alleged perpetrators.

In total, between 1980 and 2015, 4,444 people alleged incidents of child sexual abuse relating to 93 Catholic Church authorities. The abuse allegedly took place in more than 1,000 institutions. The average age of victims was 10.5 for girls and 11.6 for boys. The overwhelming majority of survivors were male. Almost 1,900 perpetrators were identified and another 500 remained unidentified. 

VG* [name withheld by the Royal Commission] came to Australia as a child migrant in the early 1960s. Born out of wedlock, in a large family, the death of his father prompted his wife to accept a priest’s proposal he be sent to Australia under the care of the Catholic Church.

His prospective education in Australia sold to him as an “adventure”, his arrival at St Mary’s Agricultural School in Tardun set the tone for what would become the setting of this ‘Catholic’ nightmare. A Maltese boy informed him that none of the kids went to school. Working in Tardun was nothing short of full-on farmwork: moving heavy superphosphate and wheat bags, clearing land, cutting down trees, burning off, constructing miles and miles of fencing, milking cows at four every morning, shearing sheep, and baling wool. 250,000 acres of land with some 300,000 sheep, 1,000 head of cattle, 500 pigs and some 6,000 acres of crops. The children were never paid.

VG also recalls: “I once saw Brother Morgan belt a boy who was much older than me. The boy retaliated and grabbed the brother by his white collar and started to hit the brother back. The brother got away from the boy and came back with two other brothers, and together they held the boy and belted him until he could no longer stand. I watched him getting beaten with the other boys. I thought the brothers were going to kill him. I was shaking with fear.”

Maltese children at Bindoon Boys’ Town 1952, child migrants sent by their parents in the hope of being given a better opportunity for life. Courtesy State Library of Western Australia
Maltese children at Bindoon Boys’ Town 1952, child migrants sent by their parents in the hope of being given a better opportunity for life. Courtesy State Library of Western Australia

He wrote to his mother telling her he had not been placed inside a classroom. But there were no postboxes at Tardun. So he gave the letter to one of the brothers to send. A reply never came.

Physical abuse

Raphael Ellul, born 1950, was the 16th child in a family of 18. His father was a dock worker. At four he was already living in a Zejtun orphanage, where he stayed till he was 10, seeing his family at weekends. At 10, he was sent to Australia under the Catholic Child Migration Scheme with two of his brothers. “I was not allowed to speak Maltese with any of the Maltese boys at Tardun. I remember that if I was heard by a brother to say anything in Maltese, I was smacked, hit with a strap and sometimes punched with a fist,” Ellul said, leaving Tardun speaking broken English and unable to write.

The Brothers would use leather straps about an inch thick, three inches wide and about two and a half feet long with a thick buckle. The straps hung from the brothers’ sides.

Ellul recalls being punched many times by Brother Thomas, mostly when he was angry at his limited English. A particular brother, Brother Gavan Kelly, had a wide leather belt doubled over, which he would use to strike blows to the back of a boy’s thighs. His standard punishment was six blows. “Brother Kelly seemed to me to love hurting the boys… A particular brother, Brother Roy Ackery, used a large narrow strap which had hacksaw blades stitched into it.”

Sexual abuse

VG says the brothers would supervise the children inside their dorms from a room, which he says acted as a “lion’s den” for brothers to take in children with them at night. “I saw boys being taken into the brothers’ den night after night. When a brother chose a boy to take to their room, the boy would often start crying straightaway. At first, I thought that the boys were being punished for something that they had done. When the boy entered the brother’s room, the curtains would be closed. After that, I’d often hear the boy saying things like ‘No, sir, please, no, sir’.”

The morning after, boys who had been taken into a brother’s den seemed to change. They could barely walk or talk. I often also saw the boys’ beds were soiled with blood and sometimes even faeces. “It was only later that I realised what the brothers were doing to them.”

A year into his stay, VG was moved into the main dormitory under the supervision of the notorious Brother Simon, where he witnessed several boys, older than he, seemingly going into his ‘den’ voluntarily.

“I could hear what went on in his room. I could hear crying at times and the noise of Brother Simon’s bed, but not much talking at all.

“I remember the night Brother Simon took me into his den. I had always feared this. He came to my bed and said, ‘Get up and come with me’… After I got into his room, he started to pull my pyjamas down, exposing my buttocks, putting his finger in my anus and trying to pull me down so I would sit on him. He pressed me down on him and I felt an agonising pain in my backside and I realised that it wasn’t just his finger that he was hurting me with. He was breathing very heavily. He was hurting me and squeezing my hand to my chest. I somehow managed to get free and I got hold of a chair and hit him with it on his stomach. I started to run away but he grabbed my shirt and threw me to the ground. I then felt the buckle of a strap on my head. I don’t remember anything after that.”

VG woke up the next day in Mullewa Hospital, with a bandage around his head. VG reported what had happened to the nurses and the matron. “I learned later that Matron Barden was the sister of Monsignor Barden, who often visited Tardun… I got some paper and a pen and I wrote a letter to my mother, which I asked the nurses to send for me and not to tell anyone else.”

In another episode of sexual abuse, Fr Sullivan – to whom VG had ‘confessed’ a month earlier – accosted him inside the rectory while helping him out, and lifted his habit, asking him to touch his extended penis. “He tried to force my head down but as he did I ran between his legs to try to escape. I became tangled in the back of his robe and I grabbed one of his legs and he fell forward. I ran out of there and spent the night in the bush. I managed to get some food during the night. I was so scared that I didn’t want to go back, but I did the next day because I was hungry and had nowhere else to go.”

In or around 1967, a delegation from Malta visited Tardun. When his name was called out, VG was asked by the visiting delegation why he had not written home. “I burst out crying and told him that I had. Later that day, I wrote as much as I could about what was happening at Tardun including the beatings and the sexual abuse. At lunch, I approached the man, making sure that the brothers did not see me, and handed the letter to him. I asked him not to read it until he was alone.”

That afternoon, the Maltese man – whom he believes was then minister for emigration Alexander Cachia Zammit – met him to tell him that he had known his father, and that his older brother had passed away at 27.  “He told me that he would find out what was going on and see to it that none of this would happen to me again. He also told me not to worry, and that he would not tell the brothers about my letter.”

Nothing however changed at Tardun. In 1969 VG moved out to work on the farm of an old boy of Tardun, also Maltese, from where he managed to move on out of the system in 1970, saving enough money working in the mining industry to return to Malta in 1972.

“I got married to my wife when I was there. Even when I was in Malta, I didn’t feel free from what happened at Tardun because I always pretended that I was qualified, so my mother would never find out what really happened.”

The effects of Tardun lived on inside VG, whose promise of education never materialised, and instead lived a life in fear of authority, of low self-esteem and refusal to believe in God. At the height of a senate inquiry into children migration, he was driven to suicide. “I have taken many types of medication. However, no amount of medication will be able to erase my memories. I have nightmares that don’t go away. I feel like this trauma has dictated my life.”

Like VG, Raphael Ellul left Tardun bereft of any real education, drifting into a motorcycle gang at 19, becoming an alcoholic for nine years before giving up the vice upon his second marriage. He said the abuse rendered him sexually inept with his first wife, stultified by Catholic guilt, as well as suicidal. “What happened to me was I lost my country, I lost my language, I lost my culture, I lost my family, and I lost any chance of a decent career.”

Compiled by Matthew Vella