Ireland to Apologize for Abuse of Unwed Mothers and Their Children

For much of the 20th century, unmarried Irish women who became pregnant were treated as outcasts in a society dominated by the Catholic Church.

Ireland’s Prime Minister Micheal Martin speaks at the European Council building in Brussels last month. (John Thys/ Pool FILE via AP)

(CN) — Ireland’s prime minister said on Tuesday he will issue a formal apology for the widespread abuse unwed mothers and their children suffered inside institutions run by the state and Catholic Church during much of the 20th century.

Prime Minister Micheál Martin’s government on Tuesday released a 2,865-page report into the horrific and deadly conditions inside institutions where tens of thousands of unwed mothers and their children born out of wedlock were housed between 1922 and 1998. The report said about 9,000 children died in the institutions during that period, which accounts for about 15% of all the children born in the homes.

“The report describes a dark, difficult and shameful chapter of very recent Irish history,” Martin said during a news conference in Dublin. “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 marriage.”

For much of the 20th century, unmarried Irish women who became pregnant were treated as deviants and became outcasts in a society dominated by an intolerant and cruel Catholic Church.

They were forced into so-called “mother and baby homes” run by Catholic nuns and state-run facilities called “county homes.” Many children also were sent into foster homes where they suffered further abuse and were illegally adopted, often by Americans. The report contains harrowing testimony from survivors of the institutions who suffered abuse, hunger and mistreatment.

The report examined 14 mother-and-baby homes and four county homes throughout Ireland that housed 56,000 women, some as young as 12, and 57,000 children between 1922 and 1998, when the last such home was closed. These homes saw the highest levels of admissions during the 1960s and 1970s.   

Martin said his government will set up a compensation scheme for survivors and provide them with counseling and enhanced health care.

His government said it will ask church institutions to contribute payments to the scheme. But the prime minister declined to specify how much of the financial burden should be borne by the church.

“This system was supported by, contributed to and condoned by the institutions of the state and the churches,” the prime minister said.

The Irish government is also proposing to establish a national memorial to commemorate the victims and set up a central archive where information about the institutions can be viewed. It is further promising to help survivors of the homes and their families to find their biological relatives.

Ireland has been dealing with this new dark chapter of its history since an amateur historian revealed in 2014 that about 800 children were buried inside a home in Tuam run by nuns with the Sisters of Bon Secours. The nuns who ran the home allegedly treated children so badly that many died from disease, neglect and malnutrition.

Investigators believe about 800 children were buried on the home’s grounds without proper burial and that most of their bodies were put into an underground chamber that was part of a sewage system, according to a government report.

On Tuesday, the government said it will present legislation to pave the way for remains in Tuam to be properly dug up and identified.

Martin said Ireland needs to reckon with this past.

“It presents all of Irish society with profound questions,” he said. “We had a completely warped attitude to sexuality and intimacy and young mothers and their sons and daughters were forced to pay a terrible price for that dysfunction … We must face up to the full truth of our past.”

But the report and government’s proposals to compensate victims were met with some criticism.

Critics blasted the report for not taking a harsher stance toward the Catholic Church. The report said the church could not be held responsible for sending mothers into the homes and instead said Irish society as a whole shared the blame.

“With such widespread abuse, there is not one root – yes, high on the list of accountability are the religious organizations who cultivated a culture of indignity and committed so many atrocities to women and children,” said Anne Rabbitte, Ireland’s minister of health and children, at the news conference. “The circle of blame is vast; not all of us had a part to play in what happened, but we all have a role to play in how we heal from this.”

Catherine Corless, the amateur historian who discovered the improper burials at the Tuam home, was disappointed by the report and the government’s promises, according to RTE, an Irish public broadcaster.

She called an online meeting the prime minister held with survivors on Tuesday before the release of the report “whitewash, full of political jargon,” and she faulted the report for emphasizing the role that all of Irish society had in the system of abuse and said survivors “will never have any peace” until religious orders issue formal apologies.

One religious order, the Daughters of Charity, released a statement expressing regret that more was not done for the women who arrived in their home in Dublin, the largest of Ireland’s homes for unmarried women.

It said the report deals “with a very sad era in our history” and that the women who came to their home, often because they were told to keep their babies a secret, were “isolated and shamed, without justification” and given “no support from family and wider society.”

The report said that conditions at the institutions changed over time and slowly improved, including the introduction of free education by the 1960s. It said the homes “provided a refuge – a harsh refuge in some cases – when families provided no refuge at all.” It noted that such homes were not unique to Ireland, but that Ireland likely had the highest proportion of unmarried women admitted to them than any place in the world in the 20th century.

For some survivors, the release of the report is a long-awaited moment of recognition.  

“I feel relieved,” Elizabeth Coppin told Sky News, a British broadcaster. “Somebody has done something about what I personally and other women have been fighting for.”

She said she spent her early life in state and church institutions after her unmarried mother gave birth to her. In 1969, when she left a church-run laundry she had been placed in, she fled to the United Kingdom.

“Put it like this,” she said. “I fled persecution; that’s the only way I can describe it. People may laugh at this. In a Western world, how could somebody be fleeing Ireland in 1969 because they were persecuted? I was persecuted, my mum was persecuted, millions of Irish women and children were persecuted.”

She said her father paid 100 pounds sterling to free her mother and her from service from a Magdalene laundry. The inhumane conditions at these church-run laundries were the subject of a previous government inquiry and apology in 2013. She described the system of homes and workhouses for unmarried women in Ireland as a “money racket.”

“It was a money racket. It was abuse women, sell off children; they used to adopt them out to any Tom, Dick and Harry; they used to give them to the highest bidder in the (United) States. We all know that,” Coppin said.

The report was issued by the Mother and Baby Homes Commission, a judicial body set up to investigate abuse at the homes and overseen by Irish Judge Yvonne Murphy. Irish prosecutors and police have examined the report, the prime minister said. Survivor groups are pushing for prosecutions into alleged crimes committed at the homes. 


Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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