Australia apologizes to Brit kids sent to colonies

CANBERRA, Australia – When John Hennessey was 10 years old, he was sent from a war-weary Britain to an orphanage in Australia, where he was told food was plentiful and children rode kangaroos to school.

Instead, he was beaten and sexually abused, leaving him emotionally scarred and with a stutter that persists 60 years later.

"There's no other country in the world that has deported their children to the other side of the world and then abandoned them," the 72-year-old said before an emotional ceremony Monday in Australia, where Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized for his country's role in a shameful episode in British colonial history.

"They stole our innocence," he added, calling his caretakers in Australia "a ring of pedophiles."

Rudd acknowledged the deep wounds inflicted by the programs that sent an estimated 150,000 British children to distant colonies — intending to ease pressure on post-World War II Britain's social services, provide orphaned or abandoned children with a fresh start and supply the empire with a sturdy supply of white workers. Rudd extended condolences to the 7,000 survivors of the programs who still live in Australia, many of whom grew up in institutions where they were physically and sexually abused or were sent to work as farm laborers.

"We are sorry," Rudd said. "Sorry that as children you were taken from your families and placed in institutions where so often you were abused. Sorry for the physical suffering, the emotional starvation and the cold absence of love, of tenderness, of care. Sorry for the tragedy — the absolute tragedy — of childhoods lost."

The ceremony at Parliament House comes one day after the British government said Prime Minister Gordon Brown would apologize next year for the child migrant programs, which lasted from 1618 to 1967. After 1920, most of the children went to Australia.

Rudd also apologized to the "forgotten Australians" — children who suffered while in state care during the last century. According to a 2004 Australian Senate report, more than 500,000 children were placed in foster homes, orphanages and other institutions during the 20th century. Many were emotionally, physically and sexually abused.

After Rudd spoke, Hennessey climbed the stage to show the prime minister a framed photograph of his mother, May Mary Hennessey, who handed her 4-week-old son over to nuns at an English Roman Catholic orphanage because she was not married. In 1947, the Irish order of Christian Brothers offered to take care of him and other supposed orphans in Australia.

"They said to us kangaroos will take us to school, there's food everywhere, and we said: 'of course we'll go' — little did we know it was on the other side of the world," Hennessey said.

Sparsely populated Australia's close shave with Japanese invasion during World War II inspired a national motto of "populate or perish" and triggered a wave of Australian government-assisted migration from Europe.

Australia had an immigration policy that favored British and white immigrants until the 1970s.

"The Archbishop met us at Fremantle in Western Australia," Hennessey said. "I can still remember his words. He said: 'Welcome to Australia. We want white stock because we're terrified of the yellow peril.'"

A 1998 British parliamentary inquiry, meanwhile, noted "a further motive was racist: the importation of 'good white stock' was seen as a desirable policy objective in the developing British Colonies."

When Hennessey arrived in Boys Town orphanage — now an elite private school in the farming village of Bindoon, 55 miles 90 kilometers north of the western city of Perth — the boys slept for more than a year on thin mattresses and iron beds on verandahs until they built their own dormitories.

"When it rained and was windy, we'd get wet and yet the brothers were inside tucked away in their lovely warm beds," Hennessey said.

Hennessey said his stutter began with a particularly violent and harrowing assault at the orphanage when he was 12 years old. He was stripped naked and nearly beaten to death by the headmaster for eating grapes he had taken from a vineyard without permission because he was hungry.

Associated Press writer Jill Lawless reported from London.