The role Churches took in relation to the Stolen Generations

The role Churches took in relation to the Stolen Generations


The picture (undated) is of ‘Camfield’ an institution for Aboriginal children that was operated by the Anglican Church in Albany till about 1870.

The following in a transcript of an interview I did with Mick Dodson on Radio National – Sunday 11 February 1996

Mick Dodson: Genocide is not just the physical destruction of a people. And Australia signed the Genocide Convention, I think that was in 1949. But genocide includes the forced removal of children from one group to another group. And the best answer, according to the authorities, depended on their being de-Aboriginalised, if you like, and made into non-indigenous people, made into white fellas if you like. That became official national policy in I think 1937, and it was the official policy up until – well in some jurisdictions up until the mid-80s.

Kirsten Garrett: The appalling truth is that it was the churches that practiced these evil policies. Not all of the churches all of the time, there are of course exceptions. But where did the policies to take the children away from the communities originate?

A former Executive Officer of the Anglican Social Responsibilities Mission in Western Australia, Stephen Hall.

Stephen Hall: Well it’s hard to know which led which, but I think the Government policies of assimilation, and the missionary vision which grew out of a fervour that saw the great stories of the missionaries in Africa and China and those kind of things, were stories that were around. But also there was the view of missionaries – it wasn’t just to Christianise or evangelise, but it was to make Aboriginal people more like us, which immediately laid them to falling into the trap of the assimilation policies of the day and being colluded and co-opted into that.

Kirsten Garrett: Yes, because the point’s been made to me a couple of times that the churches were only carrying out Government policy, they were not in a sense responsible. But at that time there was much less of a gap between church and State.

Stephen Hall: There’s two answers to this question: One, yes they were just delivering Government policy, but they weren’t doing it blindly, and the question of how they got into that position is something that needs to be addressed in the issue of Church and State. But the other thing is that as you say, Church and State were much closer then, and I actually thnink that people who were active in Church circles, were also active in government circles and to a degree there would have been people who were driving that policy who were active church leaders and active people in churches. So the links, I think, were very close.

Kirsten Garrett: The National Council of Churches to which every church belongs except the Lutherans and the Baptists, has written to the Inquiry, saying it will co-operate fully. But the Council says it will need outside funding to do so because the documents are scattered all over the country and not collated. It is beyond the present means of the National Council of Churches to get the documents together in a useful form, and it is unlikely that the churches will be able to make any formal submission before the Inquiry finishes at the end of the year.

Last year, Stephen Hall prepared a discussion paper for the Anglican Church in Western Australia. Stephen Hall is concerned that there may be sensitivities in some areas, of some of the church bureaucracies.

Stephen Hall: If churches are serious about justice, if churches are serious about reconciliation between Aboriginal Australia and non-Aboriginal Australia, they would have to face up to this issue fairly and squarely. I’m cautious though, because I know that there’s all kinds of history there that some people might not want to uncover, and I’m also very aware of how some churches responded to all the matters raised with the British child migration and institutionalisation, and they were very reluctant to address issues there, and this is a far bigger issue affecting far more children and people of course who are now adults.

Kirsten Garrett: Is there a fear in the churches that the things that will be uncovered might be things like sexual abuse or cruelty, or just policies that are no longer tenable?

Stephen Hall: Some of those issues have certainly been highlighted in the stories of some children that were institutionalised in church institutions; sexual abuse by staff or children of staff in some situations, I think that’s an issue, but also they were very harsh, strict regimes, and that’s fairly well accepted now that they were, and of course some churches may have difficulty facing up to that. And of course there is the whole question of the moral framework within which those institutions operated.

Kirsten Garrett: The moral framework of the churches is under scrutiny. Their practices reflected the paternalism that has been prevalent in all British colonies.

Stephen Hall: It’s difficult to talk about the church as a homogenous thing because as you said, there were all kinds of denominations and missionary societies and organisations involved, and to say the church did this, or did that, is very difficult of course because different things were done in different places and in different ways. But yes, I think the church did fall into the trap of assimilation into the idea that the Aboriginal race was dying out and that Aboriginal peoples’ blackness would be bred out of them. And there’s some classic speeches by A.O. Neville, who was the Chief Protector of Aboriginal people in Western Australia during that time, sort of saying whether it takes a hundred years or 150 years, there’s no reason why assimilation won’t work. I mean, they talk about children being snatched and put into institutions, and I think one of the things was not just to make them more like us as far as white, but was to Christianise or inculcate them with the theological dogmas and beliefs that those missionaries and people had at that time. And I think that mind-set is still around in some church organisations in how they deal with Aboriginal people as well.

Kirsten Garrett: It doesn’t end there. The churches, the discussion paper says, may also have to look into what money and assets they received to carry out their work.

Stephen Hall: There’s ample evidence around that churches and some missionary organisations that were non-denominational have profited through grants of land that were related to them running institutions for Aboriginal children. The Catholic Church in the north-west of W.A. has some significant holdings of land; the Anglican Church has lands around that were used in this practice that are still in control of the church; and benefit has been made out of those lands, and there were financial grants that were made – salaries, and all kinds of things like that – in institutions and missions that were run around the country.

Kirsten Garrett: When you raise these kinds of ideas in church circles, what sort of a response are you getting?

Stephen Hall: Well some people are quite excited and pleased that these kinds of issues are being raised, but they tend not to be the institutional people if you know what I mean – they tend to be the people who are concerned about issues and wanting them addressed, rather than the people who control the finances and the properties.

Kirsten Garrett: This is a real sleeper, a lit fuse. If the churches were given land that had been taken from Aboriginal people in the first place, where does that place them morally, now?

Stephen Hall
Stephen Hall
Lives in Perth, Western Australia.

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