LONDON – England’s mammoth inquiry into historical child sex abuse was told of the “torture, rape and slavery” suffered by child migrants shipped to Australia, at its first public hearings on Monday.
The wide-ranging Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse opened by looking at the schemes that sent thousands of vulnerable children to far-flung parts of the Commonwealth in the decades after World War II.
David Hill broke down as he told the inquiry of the “endemic” sexual abuse at the school he was sent to in Australia.
“I hope this inquiry can promote an understanding of the long-term consequences and suffering of those who were sexually abused,” he said.
“Many never recover and are permanently afflicted with guilt, shame, diminished self-confidence, low self-esteem, fear and trauma.”
British Prime Minister Theresa May set up the inquiry in 2014 when she was interior minister.
The British Empire sent some 150,000 children abroad over 350 years, according to a 1998 parliamentary study, although the probe started Monday by looking at use of the practice after World War II.
It was justified as a means of slashing the costs of caring for lone children and providing disadvantaged young people with a fresh start, while meeting labour shortages in the Commonwealth and populating colonial-era lands with white British settlers.
Between 1945 and 1970, youngsters were sent mainly to Australia, but also Canada, New Zealand and what is now Zimbabwe — often without the consent of their families.
But the promise of a good upbringing and an exciting new life in the sun was often, in reality, a world of forced labour, brutal treatment and sexual assault in remote institutions run by churches and charities.
“They sent us to a place that was a living hell,” victim Clifford Walsh told the BBC.
Oliver Cosgrove was sent to Australia in 1941, one of an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 children shipped there from 1922 to 1967.
“Those who were abused tried in vain to tell others, who they hoped and believed might assist them. But they didn’t,” his representative told the inquiry.
“This was a systematic and institutional problem.”
Aswini Weereratne, of the Child Migrants Trust which supports victims, said there was good evidence that Britain knew of the poor standards of care in Australian institutions but failed to respond.
“Some of what was done there was of quite unacceptable depravity. Terms like sexual abuse are too weak to convey it,” she said.
“This was not about truly voluntary migration, but forced or coerced deportation.”
Some children were said to have suffered “torture, rape and slavery,” she added.
Professor Stephen Constantine told the hearings that royal visits to such institutions legitimised them for people who saw the photographs, believing if it was good enough for the royal family, “it is good enough for us”.
The hearings are being held at the International Dispute Resolution Centre in London. The opening phase dealing with Australia is expected to last 10 days.
The inquiry was established following the death of TV star Jimmy Savile in 2011, when it emerged he had been one of Britain’s worst serial paedophiles, carrying out abuse unchecked in a range of public institutions.
The inquiry will look at historic abuse in England and Wales, including in schools, hospitals, children’s homes, local authorities, religious organisations, the BBC, the armed forces and charities.
It will also examine allegations involving famous people in politics and the media.
The inquiry got off to a rocky start, with the first three chairs stepping down.