Thousands of babies and children died in 18 of Ireland’s mother and baby homes — church-run institutions where unmarried women were sent to deliver their babies in secret, often against their will — over eight decades, according to a landmark report.
On Tuesday, the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters — which was set up to investigate what happened in 14 mother and baby homes and four county homes from 1922 to 1998 — announced the 9,000 deaths as part of the final findings of its near six-year inquiry.
Around 56,000 people — from girls as young as 12, to women in their 40s — were sent to the 18 institutions investigated, where some 57,000 children were born, according to the report.
One in seven of those children (15%) didn’t survive long enough to leave the homes, yet no alarm was raised by the State over the high mortality rates, even though it was “known to local and national authorities” and was “recorded in official publications,” the report found.
Prior to 1960, mother and baby homes “did not save the lives of ‘illegitimate’ children; in fact, they appear to have significantly reduced their prospects of survival,” it said.
The report called the infant mortality rates the most “disquieting feature of these institutions.”
Speaking on Tuesday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that the report “opens a window onto a deeply misogynistic culture in Ireland over several decades,” and that the report “reveals significant failures of the state and of society.”
Martin formally apologized to the survivors of the homes on Wednesday, for the “profound generational wrong” visited upon them.
Speaking in the Irish parliament, he said the report was a “moment for us as a society, to recognize a profound failure of empathy, understanding and basic humanity, over a very lengthy period.”
“I want to emphasize that each of you were in an institution because of the wrongs of others, each of you is blameless,” Martin said, addressing the survivors.
The report, which runs to more than 2,800 pages, was released just days after its key findings were leaked to a national newspaper — compounding the pain and anguish of survivors who have waited years for the final report — and who had been promised a first view of it by the Minister of Children.
In his apology, Martin also discussed the role of conservative religion in the scandal. The Catholic Church and institutions associated with it are highly influential in Ireland.
The Taoiseach said the most striking thing revealed in the report was the “shame felt by women who became pregnant, outside of marriage” in the country.
“We embraced the perverse religious morality and control, judgementalism and moral certainty but shunned our daughters,” Martin said.
He added that Irish society at the time had a “completely warped attitude to sexuality and intimacy” for which “young mothers and their sons and daughters” were “forced to pay the price.”
Martin also said that the conservative Catholic values of the time did “not diminish the responsibility of churches and state for the failures laid bare.”
“The state’s duty of care was not upheld,” he said, addressing survivors. “The state failed you, mothers, and children in these homes.”
Susan Lohan, co-founder of the Adoption Rights Alliance and a member of a dedicated survivors group appointed to advise the government, told CNN on Tuesday that the leaked extracts of the report, seen on Sunday, show that the Irish government may seek to “trivialize” the human rights abuses that took place on a “massive scale” inside of these homes.
Survivor Philomena Lee, who spent years searching for the son she was forced to give up for adoption said in a statement on Sunday that she had “waited decades for this moment — the moment when Ireland reveals how tens of thousands of unmarried mothers, such as I, and the tens of thousands of our beloved children, such as my dear son Anthony, were torn asunder, simply because we were unwed at the moment our children were born.”
During her time at the Sean Ross Abbey mother and baby home, Lee said that she was “deprived” of her liberty, independence and autonomy, and was “subject to the tyranny of the nuns,” who told mothers daily that they were to atone for their sins by “working for our keep and surrendering our children to the nuns for forced adoption.”
Lee, whose story was told in an Oscar-nominated movie starring Judi Dench, added that she was “taunted” by the nuns during a difficult labor, who she says told her that the “pain was a punishment for my promiscuity.”
The commission’s final report reported that this practice was not unusual.
For many survivors and advocate groups, there is concern that the report fails to vindicate their experience.
Lohan told national broadcaster RTE that the institutions were a “form of social engineering,” and that the “state and church worked in concert to ensure that women — unmarried mothers and girls who were deemed to be a threat to the moral tone of the country” were “incarcerated behind these very high walls to ensure that they would not impact or offend public morality.”
On Tuesday, Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth Affairs Roderic O’Gorman said: “The report makes clear that for decades, Ireland had a stifling, oppressive and brutally misogynistic culture, where a pervasive stigmatization of unmarried mothers and their children robbed those individuals of their agency and sometimes their future.”
For many people, Martin’s official apology is not enough.
Lohan told CNN on Tuesday that she disagrees with a state apology, saying that no apology should be issued until survivors have had a chance to read and digest the Commission’s findings, which could take many weeks.
She also suggested that an apology should be the first of a series of several, noting that the commission’s investigations only covered 18 institutions, while some 180 sites were part of a system that facilitated child neglect, premature death, forced adoptions, enforced disappearances, enforced labor, the stripping of identities, the falsification of state documents and the forging of mothers’ consents.
The report does not appear to fully address the allegations of forced or illegal adoptions, only stating that “many allegations have been made that large sums of money were given to the institutions and agencies in Ireland that arranged foreign adoptions. Such allegations are impossible to prove and impossible to disprove.”
Lee also underlined the role that other state-run and private institutions played, saying in her statement that she “can only hope” that the authors of the report recognize that “those of us who were detained against our will … and who gave birth there, are not all of the mothers nor all of the children who have suffered.”
Tens of thousands went through other state-run hospitals and private institutions and “suffered the same fate,” she said.
Having since had a brief glimpse of the report’s summary on Tuesday, Lohan said that survivors were left feeling underwhelmed by the apparent lack of attention to the major topics and that some survivors felt their evidence had been disbelieved as the Commission had dismissed certain allegations, citing lack of evidence.
The question as to why the homes were established in the first place appears to have been glossed over, some advocate groups said, undercutting the trauma endured by mothers and their children.
While the report documented the testimony of women who detailed torture and beatings, it said that “there is no doubt that women in mother and baby homes were subjected to emotional abuse but there is very little evidence of physical abuse and no evidence of sexual abuse.”
Mary Harney, who was born in the Bessborough home and was later sent to an industrial school in Cork, said a first read of its findings had left her feeling that the report was “for the most part, in favor of the perpetrators.”
“They say that the conditions in the homes were bad — and they pick out various homes — but they say overall there was no evidence of systematic abuse,” Harney said.
She points out that consistent issues at Bessborough were known to health authorities — the report itself says “successive inspections” of the home “revealed major shortcomings.”
“What would it take (for them) to classify something as gross abuse?” she asked.
The report also does not appear to address the testimony of some survivors who have said that senior members of the Catholic Church forced them to enter the homes, in addition to their family members.
“There is no evidence that women were forced to enter mother and baby homes by the church or State authorities. Most women had no alternative,” it said, also stating that “it must be acknowledged that the institutions under investigation provided a refuge -a harsh refuge in some cases -when the families provided no refuge at all.”
In a statement released by Archbishop Eamon Martin on Tuesday evening, he said: “I accept that the Church was clearly part of that culture in which people were frequently stigmatized, judged and rejected.” He apologized to survivors and those impacted for the “long-lasting hurt and emotional distress that has resulted.”
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Micheál Martin said that “in principle I think the religious orders concerned should make a contribution” to a proposed redress scheme.
On Wednesday he also acknowledged that an official apology “on its own is not enough,” adding that the Irish government “will be judged by our actions.”
In addition to the report’s public release on Tuesday, O’Gorman also brought forward legislation to advance the “burials legislation” to “support the excavation, exhumation and, where possible, identification of remains, and their dignified reburial” at the site in Tuam, County Galway, which was first identified by local historian Catherine Corless, whose tireless work in 2014 was the catalyst for the commission’s launch.
The legislation will also apply to “any other site where intervention is reasonably required,” according to the Ministry of Children and Youth Affairs.
Some 973 children died at, or near, the Tuam mother and baby home, according to the commission, which revealed that some of their remains had been found inside a decommissioned sewage tank.
Only 50 records of burials at Tuam have been located; others “may have been lost or destroyed over the years,” according to a March 2019 interim report.
Other interim reports, of which there are seven, have detailed further details of the horrific circumstances that mothers and their children faced inside these institutions.
A total of 900 babies born at or admitted to hospitals near County Cork’s Bessborough home died in infancy or early childhood.
In 1944, infant mortality rates at the Bessborough home peaked at 82%. Only 64 of those 900 babies’ graves have ever been located.
The report said that at the Bethany home, which was founded by a Protestant evangelical group, 62% of children born in 1943 died within the first year of their lives.
The commission also found that between 1920 and 1977, the bodies of more than 950 children who had died in some of the homes were sent to university medical schools for “anatomical studies.”
While the release of the final report closes a chapter on the commission’s work, survivors’ rights groups say their work is not over.
Survivors have long hoped that the commission would reveal more about allegations of arbitrary detention, cruelty and neglect, forced adoption and vaccine trials that went on inside the homes, as well as hold wrongdoers to account.
And crucially, they also hoped it would help them to access their personal records, including information about missing relatives and babies buried in unmarked graves.
In October, the government passed a law promising to seal the commission’s archive from survivors and the public for 30 years. Days later, the government changed its position, saying survivors of the homes were legally entitled to access their personal data.
Critics of the law had successfully argued that sealing the commission’s records was illegal under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), an EU directive which gives individuals the right to access their data.
Now, survivors’ rights groups are warning that the government — and state agencies including the child and family agency, Tusla — are still restricting survivors’ access to their own records.
In a statement to CNN, Tusla put the issue of access back on the government, saying that “the absence of legislation to deal with the provision of information will continue to be a source of great anxiety for people, and the resolution of this issue is beyond the reach of Tusla.”
“We recognize the hurt and trauma experienced by those who are affected by the Commission’s report into Mother and Baby Homes, that are understandably searching their identity,” the statement said.
Martin confirmed Wednesday that the Irish government “is committed to introducing information and facing legislation as a priority” which will facilitate access to records.
“To confront the dark and shameful reality, which is detailed in this report we must acknowledge it as a part of our national history,” he said Wednesday.
In the meantime, the agency is still routinely denying survivors — particularly adopted people — access to their own personal information, their birth certificates, their identities, and even their ethnicities, Lohan says.
“These abuses, they didn’t end in 1998 when the last of the dreadful places closed.”
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that several public statements about the report were released on Tuesday, not Wednesday.