Women who had children ‘forcibly taken’ still face discrimination
Philomena Lee refused right to give evidence in public to mother and baby home inquiry
Philomena Lee at the publishing of the Clann Project's report on adoption and mother and baby homes. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times
Claire McGettrick, co-director of the Clann Project, right, with Dr Maeve O’Rourke, co-director, Clann Project, and Rod Baker, of Hogan Lovells. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times
Women whose children were “forcibly taken from them” and placed into Ireland’s adoption system continue to face discrimination because their personal and family records are being withheld by private, religious and State bodies, campaigners have said.
The Clann Project on Monday published a report – Ireland’s Unmarried Mothers and their Children: Gathering the Data – which draws on 77 witness statements, extracted from conversations with 164 people separated from their family members through the adoption system and related issues.
The project was set up to assist people giving evidence to the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation and involves the Adoption Rights Alliance, Justice for Magdalenes Research and the law firm Hogan Lovells.
Mother and baby homes were generally institutions run by nuns where women who became pregnant outside of marriage gave birth. In the main, these babies were adopted, frequently by Catholic families in the US, in return for a donation to the order that ran the homes.
Claire McGettrick, co-director of the Clan Project, said witnesses had described “a situation of marginalisation, powerlessness and discrimination that persists in 21st century Ireland” because private, religious and State bodies were withholding personal and family records from the women.
The project’s report says that this fact, as well as the lack of an independent repository for the records, was “perpetuating the abuse of those impacted by forced, secret adoption and related historical abuses in Ireland”.
Adopted people in Ireland had “no statutory right to their birth certificates or their adoption or early life files, and this is out of step with Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and with countries such as Germany and Spain”, it says.
“Women whose children were forcibly taken from them have to rely on the discretion of private bodies that managed the institutions or social workers operating ad hoc when looking for information about their past treatment,” the report adds.
The commission, which is investigating 14 mother and baby homes and four county homes, was criticised on Monday for not being willing to hear evidence in public from Philomena Lee, whose experience of the adoption system featured in the 2013 film, Philomena.
Ms Lee gave birth to a son, Anthony, at Sean Ross Mother and Baby Home in Roscrea and when Anthony was three it was arranged, without Ms Lee’s knowledge, that he be adopted by a Catholic family in the US.
Her son, who was named Michael Hess after his adoption, rose through the ranks of the Republican Party in Washington but died in 1995 aged 43. He had visited Ireland a number of times seeking details about his mother, without success, and Ms Lee had simultaneously been seeking details about him before his death.
Ms Lee sought to give her evidence to the commission in public, something which the 2004 Commission of Investigations Act says is possible if requested by a witness.
Speaking at a press conference in Dublin on Monday, Rod Baker, of Hogan Lovells, which has helped those providing evidence to the commission, said Ms Lee’s wish to give her testimony in public was “refused” and that those who had done so privately were not being allowed access to their transcripts.
The Clann Project report makes eight recommendations to the commission in advance of its final report, which is expected in spring, including that those affected receive an apology from the State and be given access to a scheme of redress and reparation.
It also recommends that making access to related information be its primary goal; the introduction of statutory rights and services for adopted people, natural parents, relatives of the deceased and all individuals who experienced abuse; the establishment of a specific unit to investigate criminal allegations in the area; and active memorialisation and research into the matter.
In their own words . . . What women told the Clann Project
Witness 12’s son was adopted through the Sacred Heart Adoption Society: “In early February 1968, when my baby boy was six or seven weeks old, he was wrenched from my breast by one of the nuns while I was feeding him and taken away for adoption . . . When my son was taken, I ran after the nun down the corridor but there were two big doors that the women weren’t allowed to go through and so all I could do was bang on those doors.
“About an hour later, the nun came back and told me that my baby was gone and when I asked where she said ‘just gone’. I later found out that my son had been adopted and had been taken away by his adoptive parents the same day. At no time did I give my consent to my son’s adoption.”
Witness 12 said that at Bessborough Mother and Baby Home, Co Cork in 1967-68: “The nuns constantly told me I was evil, that no one would ever want to marry me and that I would never make anything of my life. On a personal level this was very damaging . . .”
Witness 11 said the nuns refused to let her attend her son’s burial: “I do not even know whether he was buried in a coffin,” she said. “There was never even a kind or sympathetic [word] spoken to me.”
Witness 25 said of her time at Sean Ross Abbey, Roscrea: “The key thing I remember is that the nuns kept on reminding us that we had committed a mortal sin and that our shame should be eternal.”
Witness 73 said that when she went to St Patrick’s Guild looking for details of her birth mother, a lay social worker “told me my mother’s surname but not her first name because as that was a rare name . . . it might have . . . identified her straight away. I look back with incredulity at the degree to which I accepted this . . .”
Of a religious sister at St Patrick’s Guild, she said: “I can honestly say that she made me feel like a criminal, someone unworthy of her time and attention and that feeling has continued with me to this day.”
Witness 17 said the nuns at the County Home in Killarney subjected her mother to verbal cruelty when giving birth – “when my mother cried out in pain during labour she was told by one of these nuns that she should not be surprised as my mother was ‘paying for her sins’”.