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Sexual abuse, slave labour: trauma of Maltese child migrants sent to Australia

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Following World War II, Malta was under extreme economic stress as businesses shut down and parents lost their jobs.

The impact was felt heavily among large families. So a scheme was set in motion that would see over 300 Maltese children migrate to Australia where they would be brought up under the guidance of Christian Brothers.

Three of those children were Raphael (nine), Manny (13) and Peter Ellul (15) – three brothers who found themselves on a ship to Australia in 1960, all of their belongings stuffed into a single suitcase shared between them.

Who Would You Tell? tells their story in the first feature-length documentary directed by Dery Sultana, a Maltese filmmaker who moved to Australia.

“It was like a holiday,” Manny recalls of the siblings’ one-month sail.

When they made port in the land down under, the boys were led off the ship “like we were cattle”.

After a few weeks of separation when Raphael was sent to a facility for younger boys, the three were reunited in Tardun, in the middle of the sprawling outback to the west.

Home to about 60 children and 12 Christian Brothers, Manny estimates, St Mary’s College would be the boys’ ‘sanctuary’ for the coming years. The intended programme would see them learn English and the skills to become a farmer.

Punished for speaking Maltese

“[You] couldn’t speak your native tongue because if you did, you got belted for it,” Raphael says.

Not only were they punished for speaking Maltese but were left behind in their education as all lessons were taught in English, with none of the Elluls able to speak it and no one teaching it.

Meanwhile, their ‘education’ saw them worked to the bone.

“It was absolutely slave labour,” says Manny.

His workday on the farm started at 7am and finished at 9pm, and that did not include morning chores for the college such as chopping wood.

Dery Sultana, director of Who Would You Tell?

Making children masturbate other children

In 1959, rumours of abuse began reaching Maltese shores, which prompted Mgr Philip Calleja, the director of the Emigrants Commission, to visit Tardun among other Australian institutes.

While there, he was “surprised” at the foreign mentality as he saw boys wash together and sleep in massive dormitories, yet there was no abuse to be seen.

Yet, like most things sinister, the abuse was hushed and hidden.

Manny recalls the first night in Terdun: “I was lying in bed and I felt someone’s hand going underneath the blankets and trying to touch my private”.

The 13-year-old pushed his aggressor off him in shock, which would make him a less frequent target for future attacks.

Raphael was not so fortunate. “Compared to what Raphael endured, Manny’s abuse was vanilla,” Sultana said.

“After 12, that’s when things started to change,” Raphael recalls as both he and Manny would become part of various sexual rituals. Brothers would push them up against walls, hold them down and even blindfold them.

“They used to get children to masturbate… they used to make children masturbate other children,” Manny says.

“There’s two things that I will never forget: he smelt, and his semen was very salty,” Raphael recalls, estimating that he was molested two to three times a week until the age of 15.

Although many of the institute’s wards were going through the same experience, Brothers would tell them that it was “our little secret”. This contained each incident as children felt it was their duty to keep quiet.

This, however, did not stop the two younger Elluls from speaking up.

When Raphael approached a police officer about his molestations, the supposed protector smacked him.

“He said to me, ‘Don’t you dare tell lies about those good Christian men, they’ve done nothing but help ya’.”

Compared to what Raphael endured, Manny’s abuse was vanilla

‘It’s crap’

Yet, while Manny describes St Mary’s as “today’s prison”, Peter’s memories of his time in Tardun paint a different picture.

“I had lots of energy and I worked hard and loved it. Best place I’ve ever been,” Peter said, one of the many differences in recollection that would eventually drive a wedge between the siblings.

“It’s crap,” Peter says, explaining that any time he reads stories regarding sexual assault: “I reckon it’s been exaggerated”.

Peter arrived at St Mary’s at the age of 15 – the same age Raphael was when his abuse stopped – and was, therefore, past the age that the college’s Brothers would prey on, Sultana explains.

At the time of filming the documentary, Peter and Raphael had not spoken for over 40 years due to their differences. In fact, when Sultana approached Peter to be part of the film, he refused to be on camera, which led to Sultana getting on his knees and physically begging the brother to participate.

“Yet again, I was hearing another story,” he said, so capturing Peter’s perspective of denial towards his siblings was a priority.

“He represents the part of society that does not believe these victims, and he is part of the family.

“I’m telling the story of these three individuals who literally came from the same place but ended up so far away from each other. Now, their lives are totally different.”

‘Evil acts’

In 2012, then-Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard launched a Royal Commission to investigate allegations of child abuse in the country.

“These are insidious, evil acts to which no child should be subject,” she said.

The Commission lasted five years and during that time, the Commission handled 42,041 calls, 25,962 e-mails and letters, 16,000 individual contacts, conducted 8,013 sessions and made 2,576 referrals to authorities.

Although both Raphael and Manny have received monetary compensation for their childhood, the trauma echoed through their lives – keeping the secret led to ruined marriages.

“It’s history and I’m not going to lose any sleep over it because that’s how it had to happen,” Peter says. 

Who Would You Tell? premieres on Friday, March 10 at 8pm at the Eden Cinemas in St Julian’s. Tickets are available online. Afterwards there will be a question-and-answer session between theatre director and Times editor-in-chief Herman Grech and the documentary’s director, Dery Sultana.

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