Rudd faces ugly story of abused innocence


Child MigrantsAt 11.00am yesterday, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, on behalf of the Commonwealth of Australia, formally apologised to generations of Australians who were subjected to harm in children’s homes through the twentieth century.

Some could no longer be cared for in their families, yet were labeled ‘orphans’. Others were child migrants, sent out from Britain to have a chance of a better life in Australia. Many lived in a series of residential institutions, from infancy to adolescence, with every move damaging their development.

There are some 500,000 of these ‘Forgotten Australians’ and ‘Lost Innocents’. They all suffered hurt and distress. Many were victims of abuse and assault. Many never experienced a hug. Many were kept separate from siblings. Many never knew until years later that they actually had a mother and a family. All were at risk of attachment disorder and most lived with a fractured identity. Many struggled later in life to develop relationships. Most finished their very inadequate schooling at the age of fourteen and were used as cheap labour.

Many live heroic, resilient lives, holding on to hope. Some, as the Prime Minister acknowledged, ‘could not cope and took their own lives in despair’.

They were all innocent.

The survivors have been struggling for recognition, respect, healing and compensation for over a decade. After three Senate Inquiries and unanimous calls to start a healing process – Lost Innocents (2001), Forgotten Australians (2004) and the recent Lost Innocents and Forgotten Australians Revisited (2009) – an apology has at last been delivered.

Rudd offered his apology via a carefully crafted speech in the presence of hundreds of former residents of these institutions, some euphoric and some distressed, in the Great Hall of Parliament House. He accepted that this was ‘an ugly story’ and that ‘its ugliness must be told without fear or favour’.

Some of us who worked in or were associated with these children’s homes may not like this judgement. The rationalists will heartlessly say we should stop scratching at old scabs, get over it, and move on. The apologists will defensively say that we did the best we could with limited resources, and that it wasn’t all bad, that the children were very unruly, and that at least they got three meals a day, and that more child abuse occurs in families than in institutions. The lawyers will probably and allegedly say, ‘say nothing’.

It takes heart to be able to listen to a story of grief and abuse, to pass over into another person’s life, to feel something of the hurt, and to be there in solidarity until reconciliation slowly builds. It takes truthfulness, too.

Kevin Rudd said ‘great evil has been done, therefore hard things must be said’. He drew prolonged (and unselfish) applause when he declared that such systematic abuse should never happen again. He hoped that the apology would become a turning point, and he promised several steps to assist a healing process:
• a process for recording people’s stories and experiences, so that the past will be acknowledged and not repeated;
• special status for care leavers in accessing aged care and appropriate aged care support and resources;
• a national service and a national database to track files and help people find and reunite with their families;
• ongoing funding for advocacy groups like CLAN (Care Leavers Australia Network), the Alliance for Forgotten Australians, the Child Migrants Trust;
• a commitment to improve current child protection services, to do everything possible to prevent harm to the 30,000 children and young people in the care of the state in Australia today (see Child Protection Australia 2006-07 at

The Great Hall acknowledged the tenacious advocacy of people like Leonie Sheedy and Joanna Penglase from CLAN, and Margaret Humphries from the Child Migrant Trust, but the most moving tribute of all was given to former senator Andrew Murray, a child migrant himself, who contributed so much to the effectiveness of the Senate Inquiries into these matters.

It was a good day for Parliamentary unity. Malcolm Turnbull’s response as Leader of the Opposition was pitched much as the Prime Minister’s speech, though a little more emotional and a little less measured. Thankfully, neither leader pulled out stories of their own fractured childhood. That would have been a category mistake of monumental proportion: they had a family and an education.

Fittingly and finally, Rudd highlighted the importance of an apology to an even more forgotten group of people: the mothers who lost their children to a system that failed them.

At last, he said, perhaps we can talk not of Forgotten Australians, but of Remembered Australians. Perhaps now, he seemed to be saying, remembering the pain and acknowledging the truth and admitting the failure of the Commonwealth, we can move on.

Perhaps. We may still have a long way to go to protect the ever-expanding generation of children and young people in the care of the state today, particularly in helping them find a sense of identity and belonging. Christian communities are in a particularly critical position. Past failures in church-run homes have had far-reaching consequences. On the one hand, the government has now become a fastidious regulator of care, and principles of social work set the parameters for the provision of care. On the other hand, the self-sacrificing love that once inspired members of religious communities to welcome ‘the orphan and the widow’ appears now either to have burnt itself out or to be seeking new directions.

The voices of the Forgotten/Remembered Australians, however, are creating opportunities for new engagement with religious communities and for healing and reconciliation. In some cases this is bearing fruit, as in some collaborative efforts to establish a national data-base and family connection service.

As one former child migrant put it at the apology, ‘All we want is a sense of belonging, and that we are loved by somebody.’ Secular governments cannot create these relational qualities. Who will?

John HonnerJohn Honner has worked in community services for the past ten years. He was an instigator of a research project exploring the life experiences of a sample of care leavers: see Suellen Murray et al, After the Orphanage: Life beyond the Children’s Home (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2009). His submission to the Senate Inquiry that led to the Forgotten Australians report can be read here.


Topic tags: John Honner, Kevin Rudd, Forgotten Australians, orphans, apology



submit a comment

Existing comments

Thanks for a wonderful piece, John. Its magnanimity in the face of its profound awareness of what the lives of these people were like, is inspirational.

Three reflections:

First, that one can hope that the two Apologies in as many years will resonate deeply with the Australian people and remind us all of the basic humanity and decency that we had once taken for granted as part of our national ethos.

Second, that they will be a counter to the meanness of spirit that is still being generated and appealed to in the Asylum Seekers debate.

Third, that the Government that has got these two Apologies so right will recognise the awfulness of much that is still being done in the Northern Territory Intervention (now comfortably rebranded as Closing the Gap). The draconian measures introduced by Howard and Brough, and against all probability continued by this same Rudd and Macklin, are imposing horrors and injustices on vulnerable Aboriginal people there that can without exaggeration be compared to what The Forgotten Australians and The Stolen Generations suffered.

Joe Castley | 17 November 2009  

Congratulations John. The best article on this topic I have read. Sincerely Alan Gill, author 'Orphans of the Empire' (1998)

Alan Gill | 17 November 2009  

This article could be a little more 'measured'! The tribute yesterday to these abused children, was totally bipartisan and each Parliamentary Leader gave an eloquent tribute/apology. PM Rudd used a lot of appropriate words, Malcolm Turnbull connected with with the raw reality.

Was it really necessary for John Honner to list the 'abusers' traditional defence? Was it really necessary for John Honner to 'rate' the two Parliamentary Leaders contribution? In doing each of these he turned his article into a biased account, thus insulting the forgotten (now a la Kevin Rudd, remembered) children in the same manner they have been insulted over the years.

Sandra Bl;ackmore | 17 November 2009  

I feel a sense of deep solidarity with the Forgotten (Remembered) Australians. I understand the feelings of loss, guilt, shame and loneliness, even though I had an adoptive family that called me their own. There were problems within the adoption system too, that too often relied on the family's stated income as proof of their ability to care for a child, rather than evidence of their skills as competent carers.

I hope that the Forgotten Australians can accept the apology offered, and find a way to symbolise their forgiveness in return.

Sarah Forbes | 17 November 2009  

Just where do you get 500,000 from? the National Archives website lists 3,200. What irresponsible journalism Eureka Street allows. In 1958, the Australian population was 9 million. Were 5% of all Australians child migrants then ?

Lift you game please webmaster.

philip herringer | 17 November 2009  

In answer to Philip's query, the figure comes from the Senate Inquiry reports. It was also quoted by Mr Rudd and Mr Turnbull. Philip is confusing the number of child migrants with the total number of people who grew up in institutional care.

Webmaster | 17 November 2009  

Very moving to read the submission to the Senate Inquiry and to know that McKillop Family Services has been so deeply committed to this area for so long. The government has clearly listened to Mackillop's open and professionally crafted sharing of its learning from practice. I appreciated John Honner's balanced reflections on the apology most helplful.

john little | 17 November 2009  

I was orphaned at the age of six. For two and a half years I was moved from place to place, foster homes, prospective adopters, and two orphanages. One was run by the Legacy Club. The other, Padua College Mornington, was set up by Archbishop Mannix as an orphanage in, I think, the 30s.In my time it run by the Mercy Sisters as a primary school with local students and boy boarders.

At no time in my travels was I ever treated with anything but kindness. I cannot, therefore, agree with John's claim that 'they all suffered hurt and distress', if he means harsh treatment at the hands of carers, as I presume he does. My being deprived of loved and loving parents is another matter, but not something that calls for an apology from the PM.

How many got such a smooth ride I have no way of knowing, but I must acknowledge my personal debt to the many fine people who cared for me so well.

Brian Scarlett | 17 November 2009  

Yes, Rudd and Turnbull pull a figure out of the clouds. Were there 500,000 children in institutions in the total of the years claimed. Hardly. What sort of institutions did the child migrants leave in the UK ? Don't tell me that Australians were worse than those in the country whose institutions Dickens wrote about ? I interviewed a man then aged 80, who came from the UK the Kingsley Fairbridge's farm school at Pinjarra. He was a pall bearer at the founder's funeral, and had nothing but good to say about the place. All institutions everywhere have had their share of bad apples. We get rogues everywhere, in the police force, in medicine and not the least in parliament. Will we be having a Sorry Day for all those horses killed in jumps races ? It is after all trendy.

philip herringer | 17 November 2009  

It is hard for us to understand the attitudes of a past age. In the 19th and early 20th centuries in England it was the common practise for middle and upper class families to send their children to boarding schools from about eight years old as I was. One was subject to bullying and only saw one's parents during school holidays.

By our standards this is an odd way to bring up children. Corporal punishment was common and being single sex institutions it was difficult to mix with the opposite sex when one became older.

john ozanne | 17 November 2009  

Thank you for this article, which is written with much sensitivity, challenging us, not to allow the apology to prevent greater efforts in this field

Bernie Introna | 17 November 2009  

Australians take too many things for granted, like shelter, food, national purpose. Yet we know of how bad things are in some countries abroad. In and during post WWII-England, eggs, bacon, oil, and butter remained rationed for years. These children never experienced this type of deprivation and from the look of them as adults, including the Aborigenes example, they are all stout, well developed human beings. No one remembers these children were sent down here to save them from a possible Nazi invasion of England to strengthen Australia for its losses of lives during WWI and WWII.

We Australians are fast becoming a race of self-pampered, whinging gold-diggers, a very ugly type of people indeed. Among a half a million individuals, it is normal to have failures. It is natural and unavoidable and it is the result of statistical reality. so stop setting up impossible goals and train for stoicism as the Chinese do. top the pampering and compensations.

Attilio Louis Ferreri | 18 November 2009  

I came across an article recently on 'forgiveness'. The author, whose name I did not note, pointed out that saying "Sorry" is good but incomplete. The people/person to whom we say "Sorry" must believe the apology enough to say "you are forgiven". Maybe the Australian community has to "do" that "sorry" statement by making amends. Then perhaps, the person(s) wronged will have real grounds to say "you are forgiven".

Eileen Grichting | 20 November 2009  

Who in the future will apologise to the thousands of refugee children we have incarcerated and brutalised.

Marilyn Shepherd | 25 November 2009  

my father frederic william smiles was sent out to australia from london on the ss barraball in 1927 at the age of either 9 or 11 as he had 2 different birthdates. he had 8 brothers and sisters but he was the only one sent out here. i have done heaps of research on him

cheryl ann fissioli nee smiles | 12 February 2010  

The voices of the Forgotten/Remembered Australians, however, are creating opportunities for new engagement with religious communities and for healing and reconciliation. In some cases this is bearing fruit, as in some collaborative efforts to establish a national data-base and family connection service.
Best regards, Katya, CEO of <a href="">dvd creator burner</a>, <a href="">iscsi boot windows 7</a>

John Mayer | 28 January 2011  

Similar Articles

NSW political blood spilled

  • Tony Smith
  • 19 November 2009

Premier Nathan Rees asked two ministers for their resignations, effectively sacking them. He will have to hope that he has not thrown away Labor’s last chance to retain government.


Rich list needs community sector workers

  • Michael Mullins
  • 16 November 2009

Significant portions of the Australian population have been living in a permanent recession, cut off from opportunity and prosperity. We should offer better pay to those who have stood with them. 



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up