It’s a wound that Ireland is just starting to put on a bandage. “Mother-child homes” for single mothers in Ireland, run for decades by Catholic nuns, have caused the deaths of more than 9,000 children, according to a commission of inquiry report released on Tuesday. This represents 15% of the 57,000 children who passed through these establishments between 1922 and 1998.
“The whole of society was complicit,” Prime Minister Micheal Martin summed up on the occasion of the publication after five years of investigation of the 3,000-page report. He also issued a formal apology to the survivors in Parliament. “The state has let you down,” he said.
The report describes a “dark and shameful chapter in Irish recent history”, the prime minister also said, and highlights the “misogynistic culture” that the country has known for “several decades”. He also underlined the “serious and systematic discrimination against women, particularly those who gave birth outside marriage”.
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- How did these establishments operate?
The “mother and child houses” were institutions where women who got pregnant out of wedlock were sidelined by society, the state and the Catholic Church – which historically had an iron grip on behavior in Ireland. After childbirth in these institutions, the children were separated from their mothers, then often adopted.
The report concludes, however, that there is no evidence that mothers were forced to abandon their children in most cases, but that they had “no alternative”. On the contrary, some victims believe that the pressure exerted on these women amounted to forcing them to do so. “Families were under pressure from Church and State,” said Paul Redmond, head of the Mother and Child Survivors Coalition. “Separating single mothers from their children was official policy in this country until 1974”.
Some of these houses – most of them in a pitiful state – were funded and managed by local health authorities, others by Catholic religious orders. Church and state often worked in tandem to run these institutions, which lasted until 1998. According to the commission of inquiry, 56,000 unmarried mothers and 57,000 children passed through these 18 houses in 76 years. .
- How did the women and children live there?
In homes dedicated to unmarried women and their “illegitimate” children, they suffered “psychological abuse” in a “cold and apparently indifferent” environment.
Children there suffered a particularly high mortality, 15% or 9,000 deaths, according to the commission. Investigations also established that seven unethical vaccine trials were conducted in these homes between 1934 and 1973.
The extent of what the residents may have suffered there is difficult to comprehend, but the report brings together poignant testimonies from residents who recount their abandonment by their families and society, neglected by representatives of the Church and of the state.
- How did Ireland find out about this disaster?
The commission of inquiry was formed in 2015 after a local historian discovered evidence of anonymous burials in one of these houses, at the St Mary’s home of the Bon Secours sisters in Tuam, west of the ‘Ireland. Catherine Corless discovered that 796 children, aged 0-9, died there between 1925 and 1961.
No trace of the children’s burial has been found, suggesting that an old septic tank discovered in 1975 near the house was their last home
When the press echoed the historian’s work, Ireland’s treatment of these “illegitimate” children sparked outrage and prompted a broader state-backed investigation. The site must be excavated.
- What is the position of the survivors?
While reactions naturally differ among the victims, many feel that the investigation downplayed the role played by Church and State. Critics also denounced the fact that the investigation did not delve into adoption practices and that it only chose to look at 18 of these homes.
Former residents will now engage with the State in a process of “tribute and memory”. The state is also committed to providing them with access to their records. The survivors called for their story to find a place in school curricula.
Financial compensation has finally been raised, with Labor Party leader Alan Kelly raising the possibility of a law to seize Church assets to finance compensation for victims.
- How did the Catholic Church react?
The report is damning. Over the course of the almost 3000 pages of the investigation, poignant testimonies follow one another. “A nun told me: God does not want you … you are dirty” declared one victim in particular.
The Primate of Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, has issued an “unqualified” apology. “I recognize that the Church was clearly part of this culture in which people were frequently stigmatized, judged and rejected,” he said Tuesday evening.
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