The Sisters of Nazareth have accepted that there was a "grave injustice" done to some 130 children who were sent to Australia from care homes in Northern Ireland as part of a child migration programme that mainly ran from the late 1920s to the mid 1950s.
Sister Brenda McCall, representing the Sisters of Nazareth, acknowledged the suffering caused to the children who were sent to Australia as part of a scheme by the Australian government to bring "white" children of "good stock" into the country.
Sister Brenda told the North's Historical Institutional Abuse inquiry in Banbridge, Co Down today that the Sisters of Nazareth were involved in sending about 111 children to Australia in the scheme which seems to have petered out in the mid to late 1950s.
“In hindsight looking back there was a grave injustice done to these children in sending them out. And not just to the children but to their families as well,” she said.
“I think no matter the most eloquent apology or the most beautiful monument or no matter how much money they receive it will never make up for what we took from them,” she added.
“I know some made good lives for themselves. But having been out to Australia and spoken to some migrant children they still have this, ‘what if, what if I had stayed in Ireland?’ , even though they had made good lives for themselves out there,” said Sister Brenda.
“We have to acknowledge, that is the British government, the Australian government, the churches, the congregations and institutes. We all have to put our hands up and acknowledge that maybe it was not the right thing to do even though it was done in the best interests of the children at the time,” she added.
The inquiry, chaired by Sir Anthony Hart QC, is investigating allegations of child abuse in institutions run by the Catholic Church and the Northern Ireland state from 1922 to 1995. This includes allegations by those who were part of the migration scheme.
In the past two weeks the inquiry heard instances of children from care homes mainly in Northern Ireland who suffered sexual and physical abuse in Australia. The inquiry was told that the children sent to Australia were orphaned or abandoned or the children of unmarried parents.
The overall scheme involved the Australian and British governments and a number of Catholic care homes in Britain and Northern Ireland. Sister Brenda said that one early Sisters of Nazareth reference from 1928 was found which stated that the scheme was also to help “spread Catholicity” in Australia.
She said the children “would have been selected according to the precepts of the Australian government that they were white, that they had to have good health and be of good stock”.
She accepted that while some children in care homes wanted to be part of the scheme that it was not a voluntary scheme. “Of course, definitely, what would children know?” she said.
Sister Brenda said the sisters “acted in good faith” in cooperating with the scheme and were assured by the Australian government and the Australian Catholic hierarchy that it would be good for the children. “The sisters would have thought they would have a better life in Australia,” she said.
She added that the nuns were not acting from any financial incentive. “I don’t think that finance came into the equation at all; it was just for the child’s betterment; money did not come into it.”
Sister Brenda said her understanding was that the Sisters of Nazareth would have sought the parents’ or guardians’ consent “where possible” before selecting children for migration but contacting them was “not always possible”. She said if any children were sent without such consent then “obviously that is wrong and it should not have happened”.