Mother and Baby Homes: Commission saw ‘heavy pushback’ from religious orders

Body was separately threatened with legal action, commission member tells online event

A plaque on a wall at Bessborough commemorating babies who died in the former mother and baby home. File photograph: The Irish Times

A plaque on a wall at Bessborough commemorating babies who died in the former mother and baby home. File photograph: The Irish Times

 

The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes experienced “heavy pushback” from religious orders and was separately threatened with legal action at one stage, one of the members of the Commission has said.

Prof Mary Daly, who was one of three members of the Commission, defended the final report and said it had to meet “robust legal standards of evidence” amid criticism from survivors about inaccuracies.

Some survivors and families have raised concerns that accounts of evidence they gave to the confidential committee, which was separate to the Commission’s final report, contained errors and misrepresentations.

Ms Daly, who spoke publicly for the first time on Wednesday about the commission’s work at an online event organised by Oxford University, said it was “not a wise idea” to run the confidential committee report alongside the inquisitorial part of the commission.

“I don’t think the two should have been put into the one commission”.

She said that at one stage there was a threat of legal action against the commission during the course of its work and that it had to be “ultra-careful”.

“If the report reads as legalistic, if the report doesn’t include some evidence that people gave to the confidential inquiry there is a reason why it’s not there.”

“Anything in the main report of the commission had to meet robust legal standards of evidence.

“If we wrote something that was averse or critical about an individual or an entity, an institution, we had to write a draft report, send them that draft report where we made these critical observations and supply them with the accompanying documentation. And they had a chance to read that, and they had a chance to come back.”

This, she said, happened “with a vengeance” and she gave the example of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home.

The final report said that of the 978 children who died there, 80 per cent were less than a year old and 67 per cent did not live past six months.

“They came back with a vengeance. I mean the burial report I would have thought was fairly conclusive in what we said about both Tuam and Bessborough but we got heavy pushback on both.

“Tuam came with this extraordinary assertion... that those burial tanks were actually purpose-built burial vaults. The kind of thing you see in continental Europe used by royal and other families.

“Now, apart from the idea that a cash strapped local authority would have constructed something like that in the 1930s...They had the nerve to send that back to us.”

She said in relation to the Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork that they said they “didn’t know where anything was buried but they were all buried according to the rights of the church”.

“I mean we got serious pushback similarly on the deaths again, and I think the deaths evidence in the 1940s was so shockingly self-evident that you could not second guess it. And again, there were attempts to kind of take all the data, and all the voluminous files we sent...and just blur the stories to muddy the messages.

“So the point I’m trying to make is that everything that went into the main report really had to stand up to cross-examination. At one stage there was a looming threat of judicial...of us been brought to court, it didn’t happen, but this is the level we’re on.”

Ms Daly described State files as an “utter disgrace” and local authority files as “another disgrace”.

In the case of one health board, the North Western Health Board, she said no files could be found in relation to a home that closed in 2006 which she said was “criminal neglect by any standard of public records”.

She said the only Government departments that are “not guilty of gross neglect in terms of archives are the Taoiseach’s department, the Attorney General and Foreign Affairs”.

During the online meeting, Ms Daly was also asked if there should have been an expert in trauma and memory employed by the commission when dealing with evidence given by women about their experiences.

She said: “I think basically we have done a job. And I think let it stand. Nobody ever suggested this was going to be last word on it.”

Asked about the confidential committee, she said she discussed with colleagues “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, re-reading against the other evidence available from registers and so on. Then maybe interrogation… and then maybe working out how to integrate the two.”