What’s wrong with the proposed mother and babies home commission

Opinion: Appointment of judge to chair body raises expectation of criminal findings

‘Haven’t the Sisters who ran Tuam and other institutions on behalf of the State already been found guilty of heinous crimes?’ Above, the memorial on the site of the Tuam mother and baby home, Galway.  Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

‘Haven’t the Sisters who ran Tuam and other institutions on behalf of the State already been found guilty of heinous crimes?’ Above, the memorial on the site of the Tuam mother and baby home, Galway. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

According to the Government’s inter-departmental group, the proposed commission of investigation on mother and baby homes, the commission should be different from previous inquiries into child abuse and neglect: “The particular social and historical issues which the commission of investigation will be asked to explore are likely to distinguish the nature of its investigations from those of many other commissions.”

The report illustrates this by giving an impressive sketch of recent historical studies into the various issues raised by the treatment of unmarried mothers and their children in Ireland.

All this appears to stress an important difference between issues of criminality and neglect central to previous inquiries, and questions of social change and cultural change at the heart of our debate about mother and baby homes.

Former minister for health James Reilly seemed to take a similar approach. The goal of the commission, he announced in the Dáil (July 17th, 2014) was “to bring a true and clear picture of this part of our history into full public view.”

But how different would this commission be? The appointment of a judge as chairperson – especially one with experience in dealing with criminal cases – may have the undesired effect of leading many people to think the investigation will not be all that different from those that went before.

Doesn’t it raise expectations in the mind of the public that criminal wrongdoing must have occurred in Tuam and other mother and child homes, and that the object of the commission is to uncover it? Isn’t the problem made more acute by the choice of a judge whose name is linked to the Dublin and Cloyne reports, which were about criminal actions and negligence within Catholic institutions?

I believe this particular selection may tilt the mind of the public in a certain direction. It is all the more likely to do so, given the negative vibes that continue to flow from the early, inaccurate media coverage of the Tuam story.

For example, Deputy Robert Troy of Fianna Fáil spoke of “the horrific revelations in the national media regarding the barbaric practices in the mother and baby home in Tuam” (Dáil debate, July 17th, 2014).

Did Troy realise how much his thinking may have been conditioned by inaccurate media reports and how much he was prejudging matters?

So before the commission has been set up, haven’t the Sisters who ran Tuam and other institutions on behalf of the State already been found guilty of heinous crimes? Can there be any real presumption of innocence as far as they are concerned?

Natural justice

Here’s another problem: the commission, it seems, would concentrate primarily on the mother and child homes run by Catholic religious congregations together with one Protestant-run home. Yet the inter-departmental report mentions the need also to take into the remit of the investigation a wide range of other institutions, such as the State-run county homes, which, it seems, housed 70 per cent of all unmarried mothers and children.

If this is so, is there not a case to be made for changing the name, and so the remit, of the commission in recognition of the fact that ill-treatment of unwed mothers and their children was not limited to the nine homes run by religious listed in the report? How otherwise can it be seen as differing essentially from the Ryan and Murphy investigations into Catholic institutions?

Troy quoted the Adoption Rights Alliance’s concerns that “Consigning or relegating institutions such as the county homes and the Magdalene laundries to a historical survey sends a very clear message to the most vulnerable, most ignored victims of those institutions, which is that their humanity could be set aside . . . They maintain that this is a discriminatory approach . . .”. There is validity in this too – but the humanity we must remember includes both those who went into these homes and those who ran them.

Media coverage

If one aim of this exercise is to help us as a nation come to terms with the past and to shape a better future for ourselves, we need to examine those powerful organs which mediate past and present realities to us. Those organs have the capacity to do tremendous good in terms of truth-telling, but they are also capable of deceiving, manipulating and exploiting us.

Very little has been said about the irresponsible nature of much of the recent media coverage. Yet its consequences were very serious. It was greatly damaging to the reputation of Irish Sisters and to Ireland’s own international reputation. I think many people, and not just those of the Catholic or Christian fold, would agree that this was the case.

D Vincent Twomey SVD is author of The End of Irish Catholicism? (Dublin 2003) and Moral Theology after Humanae Vitae (2010)

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