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'Chamber of horrors': Final report released on deaths of newborns at Catholic-run mother and baby homes

by Will Maule

An inquiry into the historic deaths of newborns at Catholic-run institutions for unwed mothers has today been published and handed over to the Irish government. 

The inquiry was launched six years ago after the remains of 802 children - from newborns to three-year-olds - were found in an unmarked grave at the site of a former mother and baby home in the town of Tuam, County Galway. The infants had been buried there between 1925 and 1961.

The report, undertaken by the Independent Mother and Baby Homes Commission, made 53 recommendations to the government in response to its findings, including compensation and memorialisation. 

The commission said that it discovered "evidence of some abuse of children in a number of the institutions" but "has not heard any evidence of sexual abuse of child residents".

The report confirmed that around 9,000 children died in the institutions under investigation, which equated to 15% of all the children who were in the institutions. 

Government records show that the mortality rate for children birthed at the homes was five times that of babies born to married parents. 

The commission said: "In the years before 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.

"The very high mortality rates were known to local and national authorities at the time and were recorded in official publications."

Mother and baby institutions were established across Ireland in the 19th and 20th centuries to house women and girls who became pregnant outside marriage - something that was seen as a grave sin by the Catholic Church. Often times, mothers were forcibly separated from their babies, with the infants being illegally put up for adoption in the United States. 

The unlawful exploits of these institutions were highlighted in the 2013 film, 'Philomena', which followed the story of Philomena Lee, a survivor of an unwed mothers home (known colloquially as a 'Magdalene Laundries'), as she attempted to track down her son who was forcibly removed from her and sold to an adoptive family aged three. 

The commission batted away criticism of the Child and Family Agency (Tusla) regarding alleged delays in providing key historical documentation relating to mothers and babies who attended the homes.

"This criticism is unfair and misplaced," it said.

"Tusla is implementing the law and has no choice about doing so.

"The problem is not with Tusla; it is with the law.

"Any other agency providing information and tracing services would be in the same position."

The commission also considered the issue of access to birth information for adopted people who were born in the homes.

It said: "Adopted people should have a right to their birth certificates and associated birth information.

"A person's right to his or her identity is an important human right and should only be denied in very exceptional circumstances.

"Medical information and adoption records compiled at the time of the adoption should also be available.

"A mechanism could be put in place to allow a birth mother to argue that her privacy rights are being eroded."

Taoiseach Micheal Martin said the report detailed "a dark, difficult and shameful chapter of very recent Irish history".

"It holds up a mirror to aspects of our past, which are painful and difficult, and from the present-day perspective, often hard to comprehend," he said.

He added: "While this report will obviously have the most direct impact on survivors and their families, it presents all of Irish society with profound questions.

"What has been described in this report wasn't imposed on us by any foreign power. We did this to ourselves, as a society.

"We treated women badly, we treated children especially badly. We had a completely warped attitude to sexuality and intimacy. Young mothers and their sons and daughters paid a terrible price for that dysfunction."

Ireland's Taoiseach Micheál Martin is expected to issue a formal state apology to all mother and baby home victims on Wednesday. 

There were approximately 56,000 unmarried mothers and 57,000 children in the mother and baby homes and county homes investigated by the commission, with most being admitted to the homes in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Many of those sent to the homes had to suffer through "appalling physical conditions", the report said, along with emotional abuse, even while giving birth. 

The commission said: "It appears that there was little kindness shown to them and this was particularly the case when they were giving birth.

"The large institutions were regimented and they were inadequately staffed until the later decades.

"The atmosphere appears to have been cold and seemingly uncaring.

"They offered little sympathy or counselling to women who may have been rejected by their family and by the father of their child.

"There were no qualified social workers, or counsellors attached to these homes until at least the 1970s, and until that time, there is no evidence that women were given opportunities to discuss the circumstances of their pregnancy or future options for their child.

"Women were dissuaded from sharing their stories with their fellow residents, because of concerns to protect their privacy though such conversations might have offered some comfort at a traumatic time.

"Conditions improved in all respects in the later decades."

The commission added that it was likely that the proportion of Irish unmarried mothers who were in mother and baby homes was the highest in the world, with the number of babies adopted in Ireland being equal to 97% of the "illegitimate" births.

The commission added: "Large numbers of Irish women continued to give birth in mother and baby homes in the 1970s, though by that time most mother and baby homes in other countries had closed."

'Chamber of Horrors'

An interim report published by the Irish government's Independent Mother and Baby Homes Commission - which was set up after the mass grave discovery - found that babies had been buried in various compartments within an old sewage tank.

The Prime Minister at the time, Enda Kenny, described the burial site at Tuam as a “chamber of horrors”.

Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkhar said that the 3,000-page report was excruciating to read. 

"One of the things that hit me was the extent to which this was an enormous societal failure and an enormous societal shame that we have a stolen generation of children who did not get the upbringing they should have,” he told Irish state broadcaster RTE. 

Pope Francis addressed the mother and baby home scandal during his visit to Ireland in 2018, saying he was “taken aback” and “shocked” to hear of their existence.

During his time in Ireland, the pontiff met with eight survivors of clerical abuse in Ireland, along with people who spent time in industrial schools, seminaries and mother and baby homes. 

In a subsequent letter to the Minister for Children at the time, Pope Francis assured that those involved in the investigation of the mother and baby homes had his "prayerful solidarity and concern". He added that he was praying that "efforts made by the Government and by the local Churches and religious congregations will help face responsibly this tragic chapter in Ireland’s history". 

The historian who uncovered the mass grave at Tuam, Catherine Corless, said that the government must back up their apologies with action - by seeking after justice and compensation for the victims.

"All the words in the world won't matter unless there is action behind them," she told RTE.

Corless has also called on the Catholic Church and the specific orders who ran the mother and baby homes to issue official apologies to survivors.

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