Philomena Lee forgives nuns but never forgets her son

The woman who inspired the Oscar-nominated film wants to help 60,000 adopted children

Philomena Lee at the launch of the Philomena Project. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/THE IRISH TIMES

Philomena Lee at the launch of the Philomena Project. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/THE IRISH TIMES


Even now, despite being incarcerated in a family-and-baby home, having her son taken off her and then being lied to about him for the rest of her life, Philomena Lee has forgiven the nuns who separated her from her beloved son Anthony.

Such a gesture of Christian forgiveness is far more charitable than was ever afforded to her, yet she has never let bitterness consume her.

Mrs Lee, who is originally from Newcastle West, Co Limerick, was back on home soil yesterday to launch the Philomena Project. Its goal is that no mother or child will ever have to suffer the way she has had to suffer.

Anthony was born in the mother-and-baby home in Sean Ross Abbey in Co Tipperary in 1952, run by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. After 3½ years he was forcibly given up for adoption to an American couple for a considerable sum of money.

Mrs Lee’s attempts to be reunited with her son was made into Philomena, a film that achieved critical and commercial success and was recently nominated for a best picture Academy Award despite being a relatively low-budget production.

Her son, Anthony Lee, became Michael Hess, a man who became senior counsel to the Reagan and Bush administrations. He died a tragic premature death from Aids in 1995.

He spent the last years looking for his mother and was eventually buried in the grounds of Sean Ross Abbey. His mother spent years looking for him, but the nuns, in their wisdom, never passed on information.

“I still do feel sad when I think that if only I had met him once more and put my arms around him and gave him a hug, but I never did,” she said, her voice trailing off.

“I pray to him and talk to him every night, and I visit his grave.”

The Philomena Project has been set up to effect the legislative change needed to open the 60,000 adoption files kept in State and private hands relating to children still alive who were put up for adoption.

It will be funded by philanthropic donations, and a website will be set up to help adopted children find their natural parents.

Birth parents
Susan Lohan, a co-founder of the Adoption Rights Alliance, said the case of Philomena Lee is not ancient history and adopted children still struggle to find out who their birth parents are.

She accused successive governments, including the present one, of hiding behind a 1998 Supreme Court judgment which states 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 a woman who went looking for her records was told only that her mother was from a rural, Catholic background, and liked reading.

Many private church agencies continued to hold on to the files and were “hanging on to dear life to them”.

She praised Philomena Lee for having the courage to tell her story and she had “single-handedly” released the memories for thousands of Irish mothers who were put in mother-and-baby homes.

Some 25,000 files which were in private hands, including those relating to Sean Ross Abbey, are now with the HSE.

In response to the setting up for the project, Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald acknowledged “the right an individual has to know their own identity and in fact the deep psychological and emotional effects this can have on individuals”.

The forthcoming heads of the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill would seek “a structured and regulated approach for applicants seeking access to adoption information”.

Legal position
However, she stressed that the proposed Bill would have to “address the constitutional and legal position with regard to any retrospective application of legislation, particularly as it relates to the right to privacy and the necessity to obtain consent for the release of personal information” .

The heads of the Bill involving the “complex and sensitive issues” would be teased out by the Oireachtas health and children committee.

“My overriding policy objective is to provide as much information as possible to adopted persons while respecting the constitutional rights of all parties,” she said.