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Feb 3, 2002 / CBS News
It's a mind-boggling story, one that sounds more like a bad movie than reality. But it happened. In the two decades after World War II, 10,000 English children were sent to Australia, reports 60 Minutes II Correspondent Bob Simon. Many were mistreated and abused. All were lied to.
The story begins in Britain after World War II - a nation victorious but battered, broke, and burdened by overflowing children's homes. Many of the kids were put there by families too poor to raise them. What happened next is almost unfathomable in civilized countries or in modern times.
The British government, in collaboration with churches and charities, developed a secret plan to clear out these children's homes; a plan which has only recently been uncovered. The kids were told that they would be adopted by loving families in Australia. And they were shipped off by the thousands. It was as simple as that.
The first ship to sail in 1947 was the SS Asturias. Cargo: 147 boys and girls. John Hennessy, 11 years old at the time, was one of those children. Only a few weeks before it sailed, some priests and bureaucrats showed up at his children's institution in England. They were rounding up kids to go to Australia.
"We thought Australia was down the street or it was around the corner," says Hennessy. "How did we know it was on the other side of the world? Well, anyway, they, they came with the stories, you know, that there's fruits there, plenty of fruits."
Like many children, Mary Molloy didn't quite grasp what was being proposed: "I just thought, you know, we're going away for a while."
All across Britain, at children's homes and institutions, kids were being told the same thing: you're going to a new land, a new life, a new family. Many were illegitimate children. Many were dropped off by single mothers who'd fallen on hard times.
But that's not what the kids were told. Tony Jones, who at the time was in a boys' home in Malvern, England, was told that his parents had died: "They said, 'You're an orphan now.' And I was an orphan."
That's what they told all the kids, that they were orphans. That there was nobody for them in Britain.
Over the next 20 years, 10,000 children, somas young as 3, none older than 15, would depart unaccompanied for their new homes in Australia.
Six weeks and 12,000 miles later, the children arrived at the Fremantle docks in Western Australia. They looked around for the fruit trees, the kangaroos, the adoptive families they were told would be waiting for them. But there was none of that here. There was something quite different.
Not long after they disembarked, they received a lecture from a man in black, the archbishop of Perth.
Hennessy remembers the man's speech: "He said, 'We welcome you to Australia. We need you for white stock.' Because at this stage, the 'white Australia' policy was on. And we didn't know that we were part of the scheme to - to populate Australia with the - the white people. And the archbishop says, 'The reason why we do [is] because we are terrified of the Asian hordes!' Course, we didn't understand that."
These children were a commodity to a continent that was terrified of being overwhelmed by Asia. They had, in essence, been exported by a nation that had a surplus of white people.
Afterwards, the children's fingerprints were taken and they were herded into lines. Says Hennessy: "They grabbed the girls from their brothers. Brothers from their sisters, screaming. And I can still hear the screams today."
These children, who'd been plucked from institutions in Britain, were now trucked to all over Australia. Where? To institutions. No parents were waiting for them - just picks and shovels.
John Hennessy was sent to a place called Bindoon, an institution run by the Christian Brothers, an order of Catholic monks 60 miles from civilization in the sweltering bushland of Western Australia. Bindoon was a home and school for boys. But this was no Boys Town, and education was not the priority.
The priority was construction. Brother Francis Keaney, an imposing, white-haired Irishman who ran the place, was obsessed with building the largest Catholic institution in Western Australia. He used his charges as labor. From sunrise to sunset, the boys built Brother Keaney's shrine, with no shoes, and no questions asked.
Bindoon is a real school now, an agricultural college. But it's still run by the Christian Brothers. And old boys are not welcome, particularly not when they're accompanied by newsmen. When Bob Simon went back with Hennessy, who helped build Bindoon, they were kicked off the premises. The Christian Brothers are not eager to showcase their past as users and abusers of child labor.
"They got us dirt cheap," says Norman Johnston, another boy who helped build Bindoon. "We might as well have been slaves. And, you know, we endured all of that when we didn't have to."
For these children, there was nowhere to run. At the Fairbridge institution, sponsored by the Church of England, Tony Jones tried to escape whenever he could. He once made it as far as the docks where the children had first arrived.
Says ones: "I got down to the beach. I remember looking all over the ocean, and I asked this couple, 'Which way is England?' If there was land all the way across, I would have walked there. I would have walked there."
The food at the institutions seemed to have been cooked up in a Dickens novel. At Bindoon, the boys were so hungry one Sunday, 12-year-old John Hennessy led a raid on the vineyard out back. They enjoyed their grapes, but after mass the next morning, Brother Keaney was in a rage. He'd learned of the raid, and he called out for his leading suspect.
Then the man whipped him. "He stripped me naked," he says. "In front of 50 boys, put me across the chair and nearly flogged me to death. I've-I've-I've got medical advice that that's where I got the stutter from." He had never stuttered before that day, and has ever since.
The children say that floggings and beatings were part of a daily routine. The nightly routine with the Christian Brothers included priestly visits to the children's beds. The brothers were taking away boys who were less than 10 years old.
Hugh McConnell was 9 years old. One night, a bad storm hit Castledare, his children's home run by the Christian Brothers. Terrified that the world was coming to an end, Hugh ran outside and hid under a tree, where a Christian Brother found him. The man invited McConnell into his bed, where the boy fell asleep quickly. Later that night, the priest raped him.
There was no one to go to. Certainly not the Australian government, which was the legal guardian of the children. "The state supposedly were to be looking after us," says Johnston. "In the nine years I was institutionalized in Australia, I have never been spoken to by a child welfare officer. These Christian Brothers had us for what they wanted in those institutions. And they did with us what they would."
The head of the Christian Brothers in Western Australia, Tony Shanahan, admits that there was abuse, but he also suggests that some of the stories may have been exaggerated. A British government inquiry last year was more critical, saying that what happened at institutions run by the Christian Brothers in Western Australia was of "a quite exceptional depravity."
In 1993, the Christian Brothers, responding to a lawsuit, officially apologized to the child migrants and paid reparations totaling $2.5 million dollars to 250 who'd been abused at their institutions. The girls, who'd been sent to different places, suffered very little sexual abuse compared to the boys, but many were beaten, and all were exploited as free labor.
The shipments of both boys and girls stopped suddenly in 1967. The British simply didn't have any more children available for export.
But the 10,000 already in Australia? Only five - not 5,000 - were ever adopted. Few had birth certificates or documents of any kind. It seems their motherland wanted them to disappear without a trace.
Mary Mollogrew up in an institution outside Sydney. When she graduated into the real world and applied for a passport, she was in for a surprise.
"The only way I could get a passport was to become a naturalized Australian," says Molloy. "I thought I was. Now, to me, that was crazy. I've been out here since I was 9. I was brought out here. And yet, I wasn't acknowledged as an Australian. And yet, according to Britain, I didn't live there anymore. So, where was I?"
For decades, Britain was able to forget about the children it threw away. For decades, the children believed what they were told, that they were orphans.
But just a few years ago, these lost children - now lost adults scattered all over Australia - were stunned to learn that none of this was true. They weren't orphans at all.
The governments of Great Britain and Australia, the Catholic Church and the Church of England had not only exploited and abused these 10,000. They had conned the kids for 50 years.