On 18 February 2017, Dery Sultana is on a train to Sydney when his sister calls him from Malta. Sultana, a creative and video editor whose muscle had been part of the Where’s Everybody atelier back in its heyday, is looking for a feature film idea. Here it is, says his sister – a MaltaToday report on the horrific sexual and violent abuse endured by Maltese child migrants in Tardun, a middle-of-nowhere outpost in Western Australia where the Congregation of the Christian Brothers educated and trained a small army of kids and teens.
“That report marked the start of a five-year project,” Sultana tells me of the article on the Australian Royal Commission hearings into child sexual abuse, which showed that 7% Australia’s Catholic priests had been accused of abusing children in the six decades since 1950. By far the worst was the order of the St John of God Brothers, where a staggering 40% of religious brothers are believed to have abused children; 22% of Christian Brothers and 20% of Marist Brothers, both orders that run schools, were alleged perpetrators.
The Ellul brothers, which Sultana’s film focuses on, where among the 259 boys and 51 girls from Malta who were sent to Catholic institutions in Western Australia and South Australia. They too were part of the historic ‘safety valve’ that ensured children in poverty in Malta could have a chance at a decent life in the industrialised post-war world.
“I had no idea about the child migrants,” Sultana says. “And when I read the report, I wanted the world to know about it.”
Manny Ellul, the middle brother in the Ellul family, was Sultana’s first lead to the story, through one of the comments he posted on his younger brother Raphael’s testimony, one of the main victims of the Christian Brothers’ abuse. Now 73, at 10 years of age Raphael was sent to Australia under the Catholic Child Migration Scheme with two of his brothers. “I was not allowed to speak Maltese with any of the Maltese boys at Tardun,” Ellul had told the Royal Commission, typical of his time, unable to speak English. “I remember that if I was heard by a brother to say anything in Maltese, I was smacked, hit with a strap and sometimes punched with a fist.”
“The children who came here did not speak one word of English,” Sultana reflects. “They were sent into a world of child slave-labour, under the pretext that they were being taught trade skills. Their lives evolved so differently to other children, and they belong to a generation which back then just did not speak up about the problems afflicting them – it was a generation that lived with shame.”
Their prospective education in Australia was sold to them as an “adventure”, but working in Tardun was nothing short of full-on farmwork: moving heavy superphosphate and wheat bags, clearing land, cutting down trees, burning off, constructing miles and miles of fencing, milking cows at four every morning, shearing sheep, and baling wool. 250,000 acres of land with some 300,000 sheep, 1,000 head of cattle, 500 pigs and some 6,000 acres of crops.
The school became notorious for the sexual abuse visited upon other Maltese child migrants, with one witness, V.G., to the Royal Commission testifying on gang-rapes from the brothers and being forced to perform oral sex on several brothers. When in 1967, a Maltese delegation visit the Tardun school – V.G. believes it could have been an education minister, possibly Alexander Cachia Zammit – he tried to report what was happening in the school.
The Brothers used inch-thick leather straps they hung to their sides to strike blows to the back of a boy’s thighs. “Brother Kelly seemed to me to love hurting the boys… A particular brother, Brother Roy Ackery, used a large narrow strap which had hacksaw blades stitched into it,” Raphel Ellul recalled.
Ellul left Tardun bereft of any real education, drifting into a motorcycle gang at 19, becoming an alcoholic for nine years before giving up the vice upon his second marriage. He said the abuse rendered him sexually inept with his first wife, stultified by Catholic guilt, as well as suicidal. “What happened to me was I lost my country, I lost my language, I lost my culture, I lost my family, and I lost any chance of a decent career.”
Dery Sultana has managed to recount this story through the testimonies of Raphael, Manny and their older brother Peter, who has now passed. Peter, a teen who left the school when his brother was left behind to endure the abuse, remains a sceptic of the abuse visited on his young brothers. “Age gave these children a different perspective on the abuse that was going on,” Dery Sultana says. “But I am happy that I managed to get all perspectives on board, even though it sometimes gives a contrasting view.”
Historian Henry Frendo, the late Monsignor Philip Calleja – who led the Church’s emigrants commission for decades – and former prime minister Lawrence Gonzi, whose uncle was Archbishop Michael Gonzi up to the mid-1970s, also feature in Sultana’s documentary, appropriately entitled ‘Who Would You Tell?’.
“Calleja went twice to Tardun, and he did ask the questions… it’s all in the film really… I mean, the fact is that this was not a horror story for everyone. The ones unlucky enough to be fancied by the Brothers, endured that horror,” Sultana says.
For the Maltese viewers of ‘Who Would You Tell?’, Sultana hopes they can understand the reality of poverty in Malta after WWII, a determining factor in pushing out children into what was supposed to a better world for them, in a scheme concocted by the Church to also empty their orphanages… I don’t mean it to be anti-Church. The reality of these children was that they were transplanted from the dense urban towns in an island, to an Australian expanse in which they had no hope of finding any help for their ordeal. Who would, they tell?”
Who Would You Tell? premieres at Eden Cinemas Friday 10th March at 7pm, showing daily thereafter for one week only. Tickets available here