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No sympathy for abusive clergy


The 2009 National Apology to the 'Lost Innocents' — the thousands of unaccompanied children exported from England to Australia during the 1940s and 1950s — was, like the Apology to the Stolen Generations, a rare moral highlight of Kevin Rudd's mostly lacklustre tenure as PM.

Oranges and Sunshine relates the history of this dark period of colonial history from the perspective of Margaret Humphreys, the heroic English social worker who in the 1980s uncovered the truth about these 'child migrants', and who still works to reunite the now adult children with their families.

Humphreys' non-fiction book Empty Cradles was the main source for the film. 'I read it in 2003 in one sitting,' says director Jim Loach. 'I knew very little of the wider story of the child migrants, and was shocked by it.' The following day he phoned Humphreys and set up a meeting. 'She was inspirational, and had an incredible story to tell. I knew it was a film I wanted to make.'

English actor Emily Watson portrays Humphreys as a steadfast woman on an all-consuming quest. It takes its toll. Frequent, prolonged trips to Australia put strain on her home life; her husband Merv (Richard Dillane) is supportive to a fault, but her young children are not always so understanding.

'She's a working mum,' says Loach, 'trying to run her own family, but also out trying to repair the damage done to others. That juxtaposition made the story more morally complex. If it was told from the perspective of the child migrants, the rights and wrongs would have been very straightforward.'

Detective work is hardly the most difficult aspect of Humphreys' job. For many of the children, forced separation from their families was exacerbated by the abuse they suffered in Australian institutions. In the film Humphreys becomes literally ill from her exposure to the trauma that many still carry.

The Christian Brothers, who were responsible for some of the institutions at issue, are portrayed in an unflattering light. During her investigations, Margaret is subjected to a campaign of intimidation that is attributed (albeit ambiguously) to supporters of the Brothers. When she eventually comes face to face with some of the Brothers, at Dimboon outside of Perth, they regard her with resentful silence.

These encounters, Loach says somewhat elusively, are based on 'something that happened in real life'. That said, the decision to keep the Brothers literally voiceless within the film was quite deliberate. 'They've had their say,' says Loach. 'I wasn't going to give them another opportunity.'

To be fair, the Brothers as an institution have made efforts to atone for their wrongdoings of that era. That Oranges and Sunshine seems to condemn them universally, when it's likely that the innocent have been tarred along with the guilty, is due less to malice than to the fact that Loach's sympathies sit sqaurely and wholly with the child victims.

He notes that there is an implicit power shift in the scene where Humphreys and one of the former migrants (portrayed by David Wenham, who, along with Hugo Weaving, features as one of Humphreys' most pertinent clients) confront the silent Brothers. 'The power lies in what's unsaid.' 

Loach is as strongly critical of the British government as he is of the Australian institutions. But Oranges and Sunshine also resonates, unintentionally, with another, particularly Australian story.

When Margaret pleads with government officials for accountability and transparency, they respond that the scheme was carried out in 'a different time' and with 'the best of intentions'. This echoes the apologetics proffered by defenders of the forced separation of Aboriginal children from their parents.

It's enough to make you wonder what defense the perpetrators of the current inhumane treatment of asylum seekers will offer in decades to come. 'It's amazing how you can delete the scandal, insert another one, and the same scene would probably work,' quips Loach. 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a contributor to Kidzone, Inside Film and The Big Issue, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail. Follow Tim on Twitter 

Topic tags: Jim Loach, Oranges and Sunshine, Emily Watson, Hugo Weaving, David Wenham, Christian Brothers, abuse



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Existing comments

This is an important story about 10,000 deported children and had to be told. I hope the film is seen by millions.

Not to detract from that story, however, there is an even bigger story about what Kevin Rudd called an 'ugly chapter' in Australian history. That is the story of 500,000 Australian-born children brought up in orphanages or in foster care: the half million dubbed the 'Forgotten Australians' by the Senate report of that name (2004).

The Senate reported "a litany of emotional, physical and sexual abuse and often criminal physical physical and sexual assault...neglect, humiliation and deprivation of food, education and health care. Such abuse and assault was widespread across institutions, across States and across the government, religious and other care providers." (p.xv)

Yet Tim Kroenert writes them out of history in his opening sentence above. The 2009 apology by Rudd and Turnbull and the Australian Parliament was for BOTH the 'Lost Innocents' and the 'Forgotten Australians'. Given the numbers (10,000 child migrants and 500,000 institutionalised children) this can only be regarded as a bizarre distortion of what took place in Australia during this ugly period of our (forgotten) history.

Frank Golding | 09 June 2011  

This film seems to pre-suppose all Christian Brothers were a rotten lot to be consigned to Hell if the director believes in Hell.

Trent | 09 June 2011  

Tim I enjoy reading your articles, but I sense imbalance here. Standing on a hill, looking back on history is a dangerous place from which to speak. Chances are that we unwittingly begin to intone the very voices we are criticising - that is as bystanders of the past, we risk intoning them. While there is truth in the statements made by some when faced with horrendous incidents in the past, that it was 'a different time' and they had 'the best of intentions'; most recoil when these summaries are employed to exonerate perpetrators, or at the very least, explain away the compliance of earlier bystanders. Perhaps this is why Jim Loach quips, 'It's amazing how you can delete the scandal, insert another one, and the same scene would probably work'. All this does not fully explain the motives of Loach when referring to the position of the Christian Brothers, he says he decided to keep the Brothers voiceless within the film. 'They've had their say,' says Loach. 'I wasn't going to give them another opportunity.' There is a galaxy of hurt out there. There are ghosts lurking in many hazy playgrounds, but in this synopsis I see no natural justice. FIlm is a power cultural tool, but perpetrating monsters by employing silence is a cheap shot at what is today a still target in the headlights.

Vic O'Callaghan | 09 June 2011  

Thanks Frank. I didn't intend to write the Forgotten Australians out of history; I focused only on the Lost Innocents simply because they were specifically relevant to this particular film. But thanks for bringing the broader picture to our readers' attention.

Tim Kroenert | 09 June 2011  

I haven't seen the film but I am completely happy with the director's comment that "They have had their say" with regard to the Brothers. This film is not an impartial government report - it's an artistic and moral statement. It's no doubt biased towards the victims of what was a terrible crime perpetrated by the state and the church. Were there good Brothers? Undoubtedly. Did they not do enough to change the behavior of the 'bad' brothers? No, they didn't. Did governments fail these children? Yes. Did the Church 'sin'? Yes. No amount of 'being reasonable' about it helps in any way. Being reasonable about it, avoiding the issues, rationalising unconscionable acts, simply allows the next dreadful mistake to occur more easily. This review is well matched with Moira Rayner's piece about 'live exports' of the bovine and human kind - and the respective public responses. If we had one or two leaders in the church or the country who would make a bloody, loud nuisance of themselves when morally repugnant decisions are made we'd all be better off. Sometimes strident and unbalanced views are necessary for change.

Steve | 09 June 2011  

Vic O'Callahan takes umbrage at Loach's decision to deny the Christian Brothers a voice in "Oranges & Sunshine". Perhaps Mr O'Callahan would be kind enough to tell us what the Christian Brothers would have said in defence of their abuse of innocent children? Furthermore, if you are portraying the history of child abuse how is it possible not to perpetuate monsters? How could you make a film about the holocaust without perpetuating the monstrous deeds of Hitler and his henchmen?

Frank Golding | 09 June 2011  

Dimboon is Bindoon, the old Keaney college, just half an hour down the road from New Norcia in Western Australia. Today it is Catholic Agricultural College, Bindoon. A progressive co ed Christian brother school that offers a wide range of educational courses. And the sins of the fathers sit heavy with those who lead today.

A conundrum of how to acknowledge the past, to learn from the past, knowing that the collective scar is still there, held in so many damsged people. And with that synergy how do we move forward. I believe with hope, the anger and courage, that we can know better in the future.

jo dallimore | 09 June 2011  

I am really looking forward to seeing the film but have some empathy with the 'cheap shot' allegation. My memory is of a former Christian Brother who by the time the scandals surfaced in the mid 1990s was serving as assistant priest in my parish.He had been a child migrant himself.A deeply honest man he assured us he had seen nothing of the events he now accepted had taken place. We are assuming too readily that the Brothers have had their say.The truth is that many haven't (and probably never will have because no one is willing to listen).It would be tragic indeed if Loach's excellent film made its own contribution to this ongoing story of a terrible conspiracy of silence.

Margaret | 09 June 2011  

Frank, thank you for the question. I suppose this is my point really. Although we have Tim’s review to go by, the characters in the film were not afforded the same opportunity i.e to respond to a question. For the record, I for one, could never offer any defence for the terror inducing acts perpetrated on innocents. I think we differ in our view of how a script can engage the viewer. I do believe there are ways of making a film about holocaust type events by describing monstrous deeds while not continuing to completely denigrate the remnant who themselves appear to be innocent. My question is: Can we accept the healing graciousness of time while maintaining the rage against and toward the behaviour?

Vic O'Callaghan | 10 June 2011  

The Brothers are not clergy.
'No sympathy for abusive brothers' would be more accurate.
'No sympathy for abusers' would be more inclusive and fair.

Sam | 10 June 2011  

Excellent article. I have a minor criticism in that the film, also subsequent commentators. perpetuate the view that child migration was conducted in a secretive manner, until "discovered" by Margaret Humphreys in the 1980s.

In fact, the "traffic" (horrible word) was conducted quite openly. In the early in particular newspapers routinely interviewed shiploads of new arrivals; Barnardo children formed guards of honour at first nights of theatre shows, and female child migrants were employed as maids to "good families". Perhaps sadly, no one saw the inherent harm in it all; the scheme fizzled out in the 1960s due to increased affluence in Britain, a declining birth rate (birth control) and lack of interest.
Alan Gill (author "Orphans of the Empire")

Alan Gill | 10 June 2011  

There are not "good" brothers and "bad" brothers, especially if you listen to Catholic apologists, no matter how obscene their crimes against innocent children, they are all "good".

There are those that prey on the defenceless, those that stand by and let it happen, and those that speak out about such horrific behaviour no matter what it costs them.

In the Catholic Church in Australia the latter group can still be counted on the fingers of one hand, and the horrific abuse of innocent children continues to be permitted and enabled and the criminals hidden from justice, while the abuse itself is denied, excused and hidden amongst lies and distractions.

As a victim myself, the Catholic Church has for far too long been allowed to drown out the voices of victims with their lies, their bullying and their terribly damaging re-abuse.

By all means silence them and give the victims a well deserved and long overdue turn to speak.

Voiceless Victim | 24 June 2011  

"The Leaving of Liverpool" is another excellent documentary-style dramatisation of the brutalisation of a whole generation, at the hands of white-Australia focussed imperial political policy and religious institutions. As someone who has also been met by a resentful (and I might add, fearful) silence from arrogant, compromised clergy, I found the scene of the silent, pitifully diminished "Dimboon" Christian Brothers community eerily accurate. A quick Google search of "Bindoon", the still existing college, and it's founder(s) waxes lyrical about an untarnished and exemplary Christian history and spiritual and moral excellence - not one mention of the use of child slave labour and rampant physical and sexual abuse which characterised its founding - a common theme amongst Catholic institutions, where the history is written by self-interested defenders of monsters, for the preservation, at any cost, of the image of the church.

Michelle Goldsmith | 10 January 2012  

I notice from the various comments, that much emphasis is placed on the sexual abuse of child migrants that took place in Christian Brothers institutions; it should be remembered that the abuse that took place covered all manifestations of abuse including emotional deprivation, physical, forced child labour, the depersonalisation of boys,the psychological assaults, the destruction of culture and language... The assault on the boys in care was a daily occurrence and wide spread. Even religion was used as an emotional weapon upon the boys in care. I am now 68 years old, I still live under the shadow of those dark days. Godfrey

Godfrey Gilmour | 27 February 2012  

The Christian brothers have A lot to Answer to, They abused my Father physically and Mentally daily at Bindoon. Public shaming in front of other boys for wetting his Bed at night. Was stripped naked and Strapped in front of an audience. Let alone working in the blistering heat all day. Abuse isn't a Strong enough Word to discribe the way they treated The Forgottan Australian. That Memories of the Horrid Abuse tore my Fathers life Apart!!!'

Miss Natasha Nunn | 23 February 2013  

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