Findings of Mother and Baby Homes report ‘at odds’ with testimony, High Court hears

Cases beging brought by retired nurse Philomena Lee and Galway-based Mary Harney

Retired nurse Philomena Lee: was sent to the Seán Ross mother and baby home in Co Tipperary in 1952 after becoming pregnant at the age of 18.  Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Retired nurse Philomena Lee: was sent to the Seán Ross mother and baby home in Co Tipperary in 1952 after becoming pregnant at the age of 18. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

Numerous findings in the final report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigations are “at odds” with the testimony submitted by former resident Philomena Lee, the High Court has heard.

Mr Justice Garrett Simons has begun hearing two lead cases- Ms Lee, now in her 80s and living in England, and Galway-based Mary Harney, who was born in Cork’s Bessborough mother and baby home in 1949- over the final report, which both women claim does not accurately reflect their evidence to the committee.

They were chosen as lead cases to address a core claim made in nine separate but similar actions concerning the scope of section 34 of the Commission of Investigation Act 2004.

Both women say they are readily identifiable in the final report, despite not being named, effecting that the commission was required, under section 34 of the Act, to provide them with the draft report so they could make submissions on it, including on the treatment of their evidence.

The State denies the claims.

The women are seeking to quash parts of the final report.

On behalf of the applicants, Michael Lynn SC said there were “numerous” findings in the commission’s report that are “at odds” with testimony given by Ms Lee to the confidential committee.

He pointed to “highly publicised” information about Ms Lee outside the report. “Many people are aware” of her experiences, he said, as her life was made the subject of a book and later a film featuring Judi Dench as Ms Lee. This goes to alleged factual issues with the report, as well as the alleged identifiability of Ms Lee, counsel said.

Ms Lee was sent to the Seán Ross mother and baby home in Co Tipperary in 1952 after becoming pregnant at the age of 18. Her son was sent in 1955 to a US couple for adoption when he was aged three.

He said Ms Lee, who is now in her 80s and living in England, gave testimony to the confidential committee saying she had been told by a nun that her son was going to be adopted and she was told to sign a form. She was not given time to read the document, which relinquished her rights to her son, he said. This, counsel said, was at odds with the commission’s findings that it was impossible to know whether women gave full, free and informed consent.

He said the report also found that women were not “incarcerated”, in the strict meaning of the word, and were always free to leave. However, he said Ms Lee had given testimony that girls who ran away from Seán Ross were returned by gardaí­.

Further, the report’s assertion that there was no evidence that women who gave birth in the homes were not offered pain relief, “runs contrary” to Ms Lee’s affidavit given to the committee, counsel said. Her testimony “made it clear” that she did not receive pain relief or any form of medical care when giving birth, he said.

Mr Lynn said the commission has painted an “incomplete, inaccurate picture” of what took place during Ms Lee’s time in the home, he said.

Ms Harney (72) said she gave evidence to the confidential committee that conditions in the home were harsh and that she was made to cut the lawn with a pair of scissors, Mr Lynn said. She is “seriously aggrieved”, he said, by the commission’s suggestion that such claims were a “work of fiction”.

Ms Harney was entitled, due to being allegedly identifiable in the report, to make submissions to the commission, that it should not have omitted evidence she gave about abuse and neglect while boarded out between 1951 and 1954, he said.

As the commission has been dissolved, the challenges are brought against the Minister for Children, the Government, Ireland and the Attorney General.

Eilis Brennan SC, for the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, submitted that the commission’s role was one of “truth-telling” and setting out a history that reflects the experiences of residents of the institutions, she said. Its purpose, she submitted, was to put “victims and survivors at the centre of the inquiry process”.

In opposing the cases, Eoin McCullough SC, for the State, said the court must have regard for the scale and complexity of the commission’s work. The commission had to take into account vast amounts of evidence and “reach its own conclusions”. He said it was “obviously never going to be the case that every single word of what every single person said was going to be recorded in the report”.

He submitted that it is not clear what fair procedures are alleged to have been breached in relation to the applicants, who, he argued, do not fall into the categories covered by section 34.

The State will continue to give its evidence on Thursday.