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Murphy hits back hard at critics over mother and baby home report

Controversy over report far from over following commission chair’s robust response

In the depths of the winter of 2009, the then taoiseach, Brian Cowen, rose in the Dáil to give his verdict on the just-published Murphy report which had examined the abuse of children by priests in the Dublin diocese.

Thanking the commission chair, Ms Justice Yvonne Murphy, and her team, Mr Cowen described "their thorough and painstaking work over more than three years and the clear and cogent way in which they presented what they found".

The report was widely praised for the unflinching clarity it brought to the practices in the archdiocese. After this, Ms Justice Murphy was asked to examine the abuse of children in the Cloyne diocese.

Welcoming her later 380-page document, the then minister for justice, Alan Shatter, praised her and her colleagues for delivering "a report of clarity" and for carrying out their task "sensitively and meticulously".


“The victims had to relive painful memories and the commission members had to help them to relive these memories in the least distressing way possible, while at the same maintaining a professional approach. They succeeded admirably in doing this.”

Almost exactly 10 years later, campaigners and some politicians are calling for her third report – this time the report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes – to be repudiated. On Friday, however, Ms Justice Murphy hit back at her critics, and hard.

At the heart of the controversy since the publication of the report has been a simple question: why are the main findings so divorced from the evidence that survivors and their families gave in painstaking detail?

How is it, for example, that the commission could state that women in the institutions were “doing the sort of work that they would have done at home” when one woman in her testimony said: “During the summer months my job was cutting the lawn with scissors. I did this every day in a line with a group of other women.”

Or how is it, as in another example, that it could find there was “very little evidence that children were forcibly taken from their mothers” when the confidential committee report says: “Many mothers told the committee that their most searing memory of their time in a mother and baby home was that of the screams of women looking through a window, through which she could see her child being driven away to a destination unknown; for many, there had not been a chance to say goodbye.”

The commission never explained its findings after publication of its much-criticised report, though it must be said that no other commission of investigation ever did so, either.


In a letter on Friday to the Oireachtas Committee on Children, which had sought the commission's appearance following commission member Prof Mary Daly's controversial remarks at an Oxford University seminar, the judge made clear the invitation would not be accepted.

Explaining the way in which the commission had written its report, she said: “In the absence of evidence that would withstand scrutiny and cross-examination, the commission was unable to reach factual conclusions that many people apparently wished that it had reached – such as excessive and punitive work regimes in mother and baby homes; physical abuse of mothers and ‘forced adoptions’ – a term that does not have a single generally-accepted legal definition.”

How does this marry with Prof Daly’s comments at the Oxford seminar where she gave another reason for not integrating the accounts in the confidential committee to the main report?

Prof Daly said: “I have spoken to my colleagues about how could we have integrated the confidential inquiry into the report. Well, first of all, it would have taken a lot of additional time. It would have taken hundreds of hours of cross-checking, rereading against the other evidence available from registers and so on.”

Ms Justice Murphy, in her letter, also says that the confidential committee report “cannot be taken as a definitive history of mother and baby homes and associated topics” and that the number of mothers who spoke there represents “a tiny proportion” of the total held in the institutions over the years.

This throws up the obvious question: how many women telling their histories would have been enough to be considered sufficiently definitive? And what does that say for the overall report, which even Taoiseach Micheál Martin described as “the definitive account of how this country responded to the particular needs of single women and their children at a time when they most needed support and protection.”

The commission of investigation heard from 64 former residents of the homes, while the separate confidential committee, a less adversarial forum, heard from about 550 survivors and their families.

Women and their families have told how they were directed to the confidential forum when they phoned the commission expressing an interest in giving evidence.

In a letter written to the Hogan Lovells law firm in 2015, the commission said: “Not everyone who expresses an interest in giving evidence to the investigation committee will be invited for hearing.”

Ms Justice Murphy has also rejected the idea that women’s stories were “discarded” or “discounted” from the final report: “The accounts given were very much taken into account by the commission.

“They were relied upon to the extent that the commission considered appropriate having regard to the totality of the evidence gathered by the commission and before making its findings.”

There is still a question around how it was decided who would be picked to go before the investigation committee, or what particular evidence was to be used in the report.


In turning down the invitation to the Oireachtas committee on behalf of herself, Dr William Duncan and Prof Daly, Ms Justice Murphy said: "The independence, procedures and safeguards under which the commission carried out its investigation and its carefully considered conclusions would be set at nought by an appearance before your committee and in circumstances especially where prejudgment is already manifest.

“The independence of the commission cannot simply be abandoned because its findings are not acceptable to some at a political level.”

The commissioners' decision – in a strongly-worded statement at noon – not to appear comes despite pressure from the Taoiseach to do so, as well as from Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and a collection of other politicians.

Though the Taoiseach accepted in Cork this week that the commission could not be “interrogated” by TDs, many in government doubt that independence could be compromised by answering questions.

This week, The Irish Times also attempted to contact the three commissioners and members of the confidential forum both directly and through friends or colleagues, but without success.

Ms Justice Murphy had strong words for them all: “Some members of the Oireachtas committee have already engaged in a public condemnation of the contents of the commission’s final report and of the methodology adopted. Regrettably some senior members of the Oireachtas have done that despite having been members of the government that drafted and brought the terms of reference before the Oireachtas for approval.”

For his part, the Tánaiste has urged them to reconsider their decision. The Minister for Children, Roderic O'Gorman, has rowed in behind this, as has the Green Party leader, Eamon Ryan.

Growing anger

In truth, though, and despite their public protestations yesterday and previously, there is little doubt that many in the Government ever believed that the members would appear before TDs.

And yet they also profess to growing anger that the report and its findings will not be subjected to thorough questions from survivors, their families or the media given that there has been such outcry.

Even if the members of the commission never comment again, and the Taoiseach decides not to repudiate the report, the battle appears far from over for two reasons.

Firstly, the Minister for Children will raise the matter at Cabinet on Tuesday and will bring proposals on how the testimonies given at the confidential committee can be “officially reflected”.

Secondly, there are at least eight judicial reviews pending with hearings scheduled for June 22nd. “Now we will find out if the State can actually stand over this report,” says Maeve O’Rourke, co-director of the Clann Project.

Many of the cases cover alleged inaccuracies in the report.

This is the situation for one survivor, a Protestant woman, who gave evidence to the confidential committee and said the record of her testimony depicts her as a Catholic as well as many other inaccuracies. Speaking anonymously to The Irish Times about why such mistakes matter, this woman said: “It is my identity. I went to the confidential committee to tell them the truth of what happened. I had never spoken about it before to anybody. It took a huge amount out of me. In good faith I expected, in turn, they would have accurately reflected what I said. I even gave them a typed submission. Fundamentally they changed what happened to me.”

Again, in her letter, Ms Justice Murphy rejected “any suggestion that the confidential committee report is inaccurate”.

Everything that was done in the creation of that report, she says, was to preserve privacy and confidentiality.

In one of her final sentences to TDs and senators, she further said: “The former members of the commission stand over its report which speaks for itself and must be read in its entirety.”

The question remains whether it speaks for the survivors and their families.