Adoption controversy: Only one person was ever charged over bogus birth certificates

State has known about falsification of babies’ records for well over 60 years

Susan Lohan of the Adoption Rights Alliance believes that as many as 15,000 illegal adoptions could have taken place in Ireland.

 

The falsification of babies’ records is as old as the State. “Official Ireland”, which is only now beginning to acknowledge the problem in public, has been aware of the practice – and its use in facilitating illegal adoptions – for well over 60 years. Yet denial and inaction have been the most common response.

It was June 1954 when a highly confidential memo from the American embassy in Dublin first put the Irish State on notice that a serious criminal enterprise involving falsified birth records was under way in the city.

What alerted the embassy to the issue was the sudden and unexplained rise in the number of American women claiming to have given birth in Dublin and seeking to have the babies entered on their passports.

The embassy told the Irish authorities they suspected that the Americans, who had registered the children as their own on the official birth records, “are not the mothers of the children, but obtained them from the real mothers”.

Investigation

This was law-breaking on an international scale and the Garda Special Detective Unit was sent in to investigate. Without too much effort they soon established that a certain Mrs Keating was running an illegal adoption racket from St Rita’s, her private nursing home in Ranelagh, sidestepping all official channels by falsely registering babies as the natural children of the couples who acquired them from their actual mothers.

Gynaecologists, social workers, GPs and priests with connections to these homes all played a part

But this was not an isolated case of one particularly enterprising midwife availing of a novel opportunity to flout adoption law. There were dozens of private nursing homes like St Rita’s around the country and although the Special Branch showed no interest, there is considerable anecdotal evidence to suggest that at least some were doing exactly what Mrs Keating was doing.

What’s more, gynaecologists, social workers, GPs and priests with connections to these homes – some of whose names were known to the authorities – all played a part.

And the authorities were very well aware of just how extensive the problem was.

During the 1950s several foreign newspapers carried detailed stories of a black market in Irish babies, underpinned by the sort of illegal practices Mrs Keating and others were engaged in. Clippings from these papers, along with civil servants’ notes and memos arising from them, can be found in State files in the National Archive – documentary proof of official knowledge.

In one Germany newspaper, a story with the headline “1,000 children disappear from Ireland” claimed that many of these babies and toddlers were destined to be sold in America for $3,000 each.

A senior official at the Department of External Affairs declined to challenge the story, pointing out that “the article is largely correct”.

In 1955 – the year after Mrs Keating was rumbled – an American paper ran the headline, “50 American couples buy Irish babies through international adoption ring.” Claiming a senior Garda as its source, the paper said the babies came from private nursing homes around the country, including five that had been identified in Dublin.

To acquire a baby, the paper reported, an American couple “would travel to Dublin where the wife checked into the nursing home as an expectant mother. An Irish woman would actually bear the child, but the birth would be registered in the name of the Americans.”

Mrs Keating’s modus operandi was being widely replicated.

No less a person than the Secretary of the Department of Justice, the all-knowing Peter Berry, advised that the story “could not be truthfully refuted”, as there was “some basis for the article in question”. Once again, official Ireland had recorded its knowledge of serious illegalities in the adoption process.

Cover-ups

But while such official knowledge of the practice of forging birth records to facilitate illegal adoptions can be shown to have existed for at least 6½ decades, it is much harder to point to any real determination on the part of the authorities to do anything about it. In fact, cover-ups and denials have been the most common response of the authorities here.

Until very recently, the Adoption Authority claimed to know of just one case of a fabricated birth certificate.

There was no official investigation of any kind into the multiple cases of baby trafficking exposed by foreign media in the early 1950s. The memos on file show that the State’s primary concern was to keep publicity to a minimum. The welfare of the children hardly figured, and those procuring babies for “adoption” by illegal means were left to get on with it.

Although the St Rita’s scam that the Garda investigated in 1954 had revealed numerous potentially imprisonable offences, committed by multiple players, there were no prosecutions. In fact, the array of crimes committed didn’t even warrant a mention in the Special Branch report whose main focus was the religious affiliations of those acquiring “Catholic” babies.

Official indifference

After the Keating investigation, the authorities knew the names and addresses of all the Irish birth mothers whose children were taken illegally from St Rita’s, but the false entries in the official Register of Births – where the Americans are named as the parents – were allowed to remain on the public record – suggesting, at best, official indifference, at worst collusion in a criminal act.

The falsification of birth records in this way is frequently given a humane and benevolent gloss, with the claim that it is done to protect the anonymity of the natural mother. But what it has also done in spades is make it possible for many couples who would be deemed unsuitable as adoptive parents were they to submit to due process, to acquire children without vetting of any kind. This is the essence of baby trafficking.

Many more Irish couples than Americans were the beneficiaries of this illegal traffic

Not surprisingly, Mrs Keating was undeterred by her experience. She hadn’t even received a caution, and simply carried on as before. Another decade would pass before the authorities again showed any interest in her illegal activities. And once again it took the intervention of the United States to spur official Ireland into action, despite the fact that many more Irish couples than Americans were the beneficiaries of this illegal traffic.

It was now 1964. Following new revelations from the American embassy, the Garda Síochána launched another investigation that this time focused on a prominent figure in Irish public life who was suspected of being the “Mr Big” behind countless illegal adoptions. But when the Garda file eventually landed on the desk of the Director of Public Prosecutions, he decided to bring charges against someone the Garda now believed to be a minor cog in the wheel – Mrs Keating.

Guilty plea

In the Dublin District Court on January 19th, 1965, Mrs Keating pleaded guilty to falsifying the official birth register and procuring bogus birth certificates, something the judge described as a “very grave” offence. Yet despite its gravity, she was given the benefit of the Probation Act and the matter ended not with a bang but with a whimper.

As she pleaded guilty, no evidence from the Garda investigation was presented in court. There was never any hint of a Mr Big pulling the strings. No suggestion either that the suspected crime was far bigger than the couple of forged birth certs Mrs Keating was accused of “uttering”.

Mrs Keating remains the only person ever prosecuted for this 'very grave' offence

Yet again, a veil was drawn over the murky world of illegal adoptions, and those who were intent on carrying on the nefarious business of forgery and fabrication knew they could proceed with little fear of detection or punishment. Despite everything the State knew then about the falsification of birth records – and has now known for decades – Mrs Keating remains the only person ever prosecuted for this “very grave” offence.

Three men who knew more than they ever revealed about the sort of business Mrs Keating was engaged in were in court that day, all prepared to act as her character witnesses should they be required.

The first was Karl Mullen, who had famously captained the Irish rugby team to victory in the 1948 Five Nations championship, and who, in the 1960s, was an eminent gynaecologist, presiding over a great many births at St Rita’s, as well as at other private nursing homes. He took his secrets to the grave.

The second was Joe Doyle, a future Fine Gael TD, senator and lord mayor of Dublin who in the 1960s was sacristan at Donnybrook Catholic Church where babies illegally adopted from St Rita’s were routinely baptised. Like Mullen, he revealed nothing in his lifetime.

The third was a priest who, after the trial, sought a meeting with then taoiseach Seán Lemass in a bid to ensure Mrs Keating didn’t lose her licence. The priest told me that while waiting for Lemass he spoke to Charles Haughey, then minister for agriculture, who laughingly told him that “half the babies born in St Rita’s were fathered by members of the Dáil”.

A gross exaggeration, no doubt, but a timely reminder that for every crisis pregnancy there was a putative father in the wings, often men in positions of authority, employers, respectable members of society, other women’s husbands, priests even, and, yes, politicians – all of them equally protected from disclosure by the practice of falsifying birth records.

Is it any wonder it has taken so long for the State to face up to the truth?

Mike Milotte wrote Banished Babies: The Secret History of Ireland’s Baby Export Business in 1997.