Survivors of Abuse in Irish Mother and Baby Homes Face Further Injustices Through Government Report and Redress Scheme
Author: Elia Duran-Smith
This article outlines the findings of the official report of the historic abuses of the Mother and Baby Homes across the Republic of Ireland from 1922 to 1998, and the injustices of the process of its compilation, which have been pointed out by survivors and campaigners. It goes on to highlight the Irish government’s attempt to offer compensation through the redress scheme and campaigners’ criticisms of it.
Mother and Baby Homes Report
The Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation took 6 years to compile their report, which was published in January 2021. It investigated the experiences of around 56,000 women and 57,000 children. Produced by the misogynistic culture of the country at the time, these Mother and Baby Homes housed women who had become pregnant out of wedlock (some caused by rape) and were considered ‘fallen women’. These women, ranging from 12 years old to those in their 40s, were shunted out of society to give birth in secrecy in these institutions (O’Carroll, 2021; ‘Executive summary’, 2021). Some of the homes were run directly by the state. However, it mostly provided funding to the other homes, the majority of which were operated by the Catholic Church, and some by Protestant churches (Carroll, 2021; Meehan, 2021).
Both women and children who lived in these homes were often forced to work in laundries for no pay (O’Carroll, 2021). Their children also became the subjects of unregulated vaccine trials. Some mothers were compelled to give their babies up for adoption or to be fostered and were not informed of where their children were sent. Those who lived in these homes were often victims of emotional abuse and physical neglect by the nuns who operated these institutions (Specia, 2021). The infant mortality rate in these homes, according to the report, was around 15% – almost twice the national average (‘Executive summary’, 2021, p. 4). Overall, the investigation found 9,000 children died of malnutrition or preventable illness in the 14 institutions investigated (Specia, 2021; ‘Executive summary’, 2021). The deaths of these children were shrouded in secrecy for decades, with local historian Catherine Corless leading a catalytic investigation into the deaths at one home in Tuam, county Galway, that paved the way for the commission’s report. There she found human remains of children under 3 years old in at least 17 underground chambers. The home’s records stated that 796 children had died there from 1925 to 1961 but no burial records had been kept. In response to these findings, Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman said “we are progressing legislation to enable access to birth certificates and early life information, and to allow for interventions at the site in Tuam” (O’Carroll, 2021).
The current Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Micheál Martin responded to the report saying “it opens a window onto a deeply misogynistic culture in Ireland over several decades, with serious and systematic discrimination against women, especially those who gave birth outside of marriage. We did this to ourselves as a society” (Specia, 2021). The survivors, however, said the Catholic Church needs to be held more fully accountable, and that the report was “fundamentally incomplete” and did not reflect the true nature of their experiences (Specia, 2021). Indeed, audio files of survivors’ testimonies were deleted during the investigation without their consent, which O’Gorman doubted was within the legal remit of the commission. Some survivors said they cannot find their evidence in the report “or else they find a version of their story, but they are very strong in the case that, that is not exactly what they said to the commission”, according to Sinn Fein TD (Member of Parliament) Kathleen Funchion (Hurley, 2021). Philomena Lee, the most well-known survivor and the subject of the 2013 film Philomena, said the secrecy surrounding the commission’s investigation had only served to exacerbate the survivors’ trauma (Specia, 2021).
The High Court Decision
On December 17th, the High Court found that nine of the mothers’ rights had been breached as they were not allowed to see a draft of the report before its submission to the Minister for Children, despite this right being afforded to the alleged perpetrators. Two of these women, Philomena Lee and Mary Harney, had noticed that they were easily identifiable in the report, and yet the Commission had failed to provide them with a draft copy of it so they could verify the accuracy of the portrayal of their testimonies and propose changes (O’Loughlin, 2021; Loughlin, 2021a).
Chief Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, Sinéad Gibney, said this should never have occurred and this demonstrated the need for “systemic change in the State’s attitude and responsibility towards anyone who is a victim or survivor of State wrongdoing” (O’Loughlin, 2021).
According to these nine women, along with the Clann Project group of survivors, the ruling had indicated that the report did not stand as a credible record of their experiences (Loughlin, 2021a). Philomena Lee said “the Commission of Investigation failed in its duty to impartially and fairly investigate and establish the truth. This has been confirmed by the High Court’s declaration today” (Loughlin, 2021a). She said the Irish government should therefore denounce the commission’s report (McGrath, 2021). However, the Taoiseach said it was “not for government” to disavow the report (Loughlin, 2021b).
The scheme, established by the cabinet on November 16th, is “the next chapter in the state’s response to the legacy of those institutions, and its commitment to rebuilding the trust it so grievously shattered”, according to the Minister for Children (O’Carroll, 2021). Despite this intention, the redress scheme has come under criticism by campaigners for only allowing compensation for around 40% of survivors – 34,000 people- especially as the scheme is based on what they see as a flawed report (Loughlin, 2021b). Nevertheless, the Taoiseach defended the scheme, saying it was “very, very comprehensive” and was not based on the report but, in fact, goes further than its recommendations (Loughlin, 2021b; O’Carroll, 2021). He also stated there were no plans to re-assess the scheme to compensate those who spent fewer than six months in these homes or were boarded out. However, Martin said the government will “engage with the opposition and there will be consultation in relation to it and…we will obviously take views and people’s opinions on board as we go through the legislative process” (Loughlin, 2021b). Furthermore, the Irish government will make personal records and birth certificates available to all survivors, which he called an unprecedented “groundbreaking” piece of legislation (Loughlin, 2021b).
It is clear that the process of attempting to achieve justice for the survivors of the Mother and Baby Homes has been fraught with complications and obfuscations which have only served to deepen their pain and outrage with Irish state institutions. The tireless efforts of campaigners have, however, brought the truth to light and have pushed the Irish government to take significant steps to attempt to compensate for these failures, which will ensure that the experiences of those in the Mother and Baby Homes will not be forgotten.
Bibliography and further reading
Carroll, R. (2021, January 12). Ireland publishes report on ‘appalling’ abuse at mother and baby homes. The Guardian.
‘Executive summary of the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes’. (2021, January 12). Government of Ireland.
Hurley, S. (2021, February 19). Deleting of witness recordings at Mother and Baby Homes Commission defended. RTE.
Loughlin, E. (2021, December 17). Mother and Baby Homes Commission ‘treated survivors unlawfully’, High Court rules. Irish Examiner.
Loughlin, E. (2021, December 31). Taoiseach: ‘No plans’ to open redress to all mother and baby homes survivors. Irish Examiner.
McGrath, D. (2021, December 17). Mother and Baby Homes Commission treated survivors unlawfully, High Court rules. Belfast Telegraph.
Meehan, N. (2021, December 24). Letters to the Editor: Flawed mother and baby home report. Irish Examiner.
O’Carroll, L. (2021, November 16). Irish government agrees €800m package for mother and baby home survivors. The Guardian.
O’Loughlin, A. (2021, December 17). ‘Change in attitude must follow State’s concession’ in mother and baby homes case. Irish Examiner.
Specia, M. (2021, January 12). Report Gives Glimpse Into Horrors of Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes. The New York Times.