Ireland Says 9,000 Babies Died in Catholic Homes but It Was Society’s Fault Not the Church

·7 min read
Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

ROME—The Irish government has issued a controversial report seeking to explain why it was OK that tens of thousands of unwed mothers were forced into state-funded Catholic homes to give up their babies for adoption between the 1920s and 1990s. The report states that as many as 9,000 children died in 14 homes run by Catholic nuns but gives scant reason why. In the nearly 3,000-page tome, the government blames the unwed mothers, their families, and society at large, angering a number of victims who have called it a “whitewash.”

Some reports have suggested that the original report was 4,000 pages and that 1,000 pages were cut before its release to the public.

“The women in mother and baby homes should not have been there. They should have been at home with their families,” the report by Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes Commission states. “However, the reality is that most had no choice—they were, or expected to be, rejected by their families and they needed a place to stay. Most were unable to provide for the baby. They were not ‘incarcerated’ in the strict meaning of the word but, in the earlier years at least, with some justification, they thought they were. They were always free to leave if they took their child.”

Ireland’s ‘Mother and Baby Home’ Horror Goes Beyond Tuam’s Dead Infants

The lengthy report is full of grim details about the homes’ residents. One, referred to as “Resident (A),” was raped by her boyfriend and became pregnant at 18. “She told the commission she saw ‘about 10’ deceased babies being sent for burial in what appeared to be shoeboxes.”

Another person referred to as “Resident (H)” says she became pregnant at 20 as a result of rape. “When she visited the parish priest to tell her story, she says the priest then sexually assaulted her in his car,” the report states. “The medical officer at Castlepollard examined her once a week: ‘I hated him; he was so rough, he used to examine me internally from the back passage and I was sore for ages after.’”

Throughout the report, the authors refer to practices “of the times” and the stigma of unwed mothers with little mention of either the fathers or the fact that the last of the mothers’ homes only closed in the late 1990s. The report focused on 56,000 unmarried mothers, some as young as 12, and 57,000 children who were born in the mother and baby homes, but admits that there were likely a further 25,000 unmarried mothers and more children in homes that were not investigated by the commission.

The report does not thoroughly explain why the remains of 767 fetuses and babies were found in a septic system at the Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway, instead blaming infant mortality and lack of burial records.

“A number failed to keep any records of the burials of children who died,” the report states. “The commission finds it very hard to believe that there is no one in that congregation who does not have some knowledge of the burials of the children. Similarly, the commission considers that there must be people in Tuam who know more about burials there.”

The report also comes down on a home in Bessborough where many other human remains were found. “The commission finds it very difficult to understand the seeming inability of any member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary to assist in locating the burial places of children who died in Bessborough,” the authors found.

An interim report published in April 2019 gave grim details leading up to the final report. “The memorial garden site contains human remains which date from the period of the operation of the Tuam children’s home so it is likely that a large number of the children who died in the Tuam home are buried there,” the April report states and then refers to other human remains found in a waste treatment area of the home. “The human remains found by the commission are not in a sewage tank but in a second structure with 20 chambers which was built within the decommissioned large sewage tank.”

Those remains “involved a number of individuals with age-at-death ranges from approximately 35 fetal weeks to 2-3 years” the report alleges. The interim report also says its authors were “surprised by the lack of knowledge about the burials on the part of Galway County Council and the Sisters of Bon Secours who ran the home.”

The controversial Mother and Baby Homes are featured in the movie Philomena, which tells the story of a woman looking for her son who was adopted by an American couple.

Dame Judi Dench on Playing the Inspiring Philomena

Dublin native Terri Harrison found herself in a home after becoming pregnant and moving to London, only to be “kidnapped” by nuns who returned her to Ireland. She described to the commission the horrific details of her time there. “Your child was put into the locked nursery, they only opened those doors at feeding time,” she said, according to Dublin Live. “And then you weren’t allowed to hold your baby or cuddle your baby because the nun keeps reminding you that it would upset your son’s mammy and daddy if the baby got used to you.”

She says she can never forget the horrific screams of the children and when one of them suddenly disappeared. “I remember the screams and I’ll take them to my grave. You always knew when there was a baby missing out of the nursery,” she said. “It’s the weirdest sound you’ll ever hear, like animals in the wild. I remember when I found his cot empty, that same sound came out of me, but it didn’t sound like me.”

Mari Steed, now 60, was one of the babies born in a home in Cork. She told NBC News that as an adult she found out that she and other babies born in a home were part of what she called a “highly unethical” vaccine trial in which she was injected with experimental shots against diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, and polio—all which is expected to be outlined in the final report issued Tuesday. “Scientifically, I understand that there is no more perfect research group than a group of captive children. But that requires enormous ethical protocols, and that just wasn’t followed,” Steed, who was adopted by an American family, told NBC. “Whether that was through sheer ignorance or ‘We don’t give a crap what happens to those kids’ — that part of it still makes me angry.”

The report acknowledges the trials. “It is clear that there was not compliance with the relevant regulatory and ethical standard of the time as consent was not obtained from either the mothers of the children or their guardians and the necessary licenses were not in place,” the report states. “Who the guardian is, however, is largely irrelevant as no attempt seems to have been made to seek the consent of parents or guardians. There is no evidence of injury to the children involved as a result of the vaccines.”

The Vatican has said it will not comment on the report until it has read it.

The report is the fruit of a six-year labor by Judge Yvonne Murphy, who has compiled shared experiences of the thousands of women with an eye to getting them compensation from the government.

The final report is supposed to pave the way for legislation put forth by Ireland’s Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman, who wants to ensure the exhumation, identification, and reburial of all the bodies found in the 18 homes. That legislation could also lead to compensation for the victims, many of whom have searched their whole lives to learn whether their newborns were adopted or mysteriously died and buried in nameless graves.

Ireland’s Taoiseach, or prime minister, Micheal Martin addressed the victims in a video conference before releasing the report to the public. He is expected to make a public apology to the victims during a parliamentary session Wednesday.

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