Philomena Lee urges release of 60,000 adoption records

Woman whose search for son inspired Oscar-nominated film calls on State to grant access

Philomena Lee at the launch of The Philomena Project, a campaign backed by the Adoption Rights Alliance to get the State to grant access to more than 60,000 adoption records for both in-country and Irish-US adopted people and their families, at the Merrion Hotel in Dublin today. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Philomena Lee at the launch of The Philomena Project, a campaign backed by the Adoption Rights Alliance to get the State to grant access to more than 60,000 adoption records for both in-country and Irish-US adopted people and their families, at the Merrion Hotel in Dublin today. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Fri, Jan 24, 2014, 15:57

Philomena Lee, whose life story was made into an Oscar-nominated film, has called on the Government to release the records of 60,000 adopted children in Ireland.

Ms Lee this morning launched The Philomena Project, which aims to effect legislative change by calling on the State to grant access to adoption files for both in-country and Irish-US adopted people.

Ms Lee appeared with her daughter Jane and author Martin Sixsmith, whose book Philomena was turned into the film of the same name which has been nominated for best picture Oscar. Judi Dench, who played her, has been nominated for best picture.

She said: “I’ve been so moved by the support we’ve received, both for telling our story and for bringing attention to this experience that so many of us had.

“My daughter Jane and I established The Philomena Project because we’ve heard from so many people who saw my story and want to help. It is my hope that this effort will help us find solutions that ensure every mother and child who wants to be reunited are able to come together once again.”

Susan Lohan, co-founder of the Adoption Rights Alliance, accused successive governments including the incumbent of hiding behind a 1998 Supreme Court judgment which stated that adopted people had no absolute right to know who their natural parents are.

“Successive governments have used this as the basis for blanket refusal. They will not release what they call identifying information, only non-identifying information.”

Ms Lohan said only last month that one individual who went looking for her records last month was told only that his mother was from a rural area, liked reading and had a Catholic background.

She said many private church agencies continue to hold on to the files and were “hanging on for dear life to them”.

She praised Ms Lee for having the courage to tell her story, adding she had “single-handedly” released the memories of thousands of Irish mothers who had been placed in mother-and-baby homes. “Adopted children have always been stymied in their requests,” she said.

Ms Lee’s son Anthony Lee was born in Sean Ross Abbey, Roscrea, in 1952. After three years she was forced to give him up for adoption to an American couple.

Anthony Lee then became Michael Haass, and rose to become senior legal counsel to the Reagan and Bush White Houses.

He was also gay, and died of Aids in 1995. In his last years he attempted to get in touch with his mother, who was also looking for him, but the nuns in charge did not pass on the information.

Ms Lee said she did not harbour any bitterness towards the nuns despite her experiences.

“There was a lot of good nuns, one in particular Sr Annunciata. She took a photograph of Anthony although she was not supposed to take it,” she said.

“A lot of women since the film came out have said to me, ‘Did you know my mother, she was in Sean Ross Abbey’, but we didn’t know one another because we didn’t know anything about anyone else.

“It comes back to the shame of it, but we didn’t speak to one another about what we have done. We didn’t know each other because we were known by just one name.”

She said that she prays to her son every night. She recalled a “lovely little boy”.

She recalled the relief she felt when she found the grave of her son, who was buried at his own request in Sean Ross Abbey. “At least I managed to find him,” she said.