National Maternity Hospital: a watershed moment

Withdrawal of Sisters of Charity from St Vincent’s will have implications for healthcare and possibly education

 

By any standards the welcome decision by the Religious Sisters of Charity to end their role with the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group and to have no involvement in the ownership or management of the new National Maternity Hospital (NMH) is momentous.

It is a watershed moment in relations between Catholic Church institutions and the State, and will have broader implications for healthcare generally and possibly even education. More immediately it removes a significant threat to the building of the NHM at the Elm Park campus, as its ownership will now rest with a new independent voluntary company, St Vincent’s.

This new company, as the Sisters’ statement makes clear, will comply “with national and international best practice guidelines on medical ethics and the laws of the Republic of Ireland”. That should allay fears that medical procedures allowed by law would not be carried out in the new NHM at St Vincent’s where these may be in conflict with the teachings of the Catholic Church.

There can be no doubt this decision by the Sisters was encouraged by reaction this past six weeks to revelations that they would own the new NHM at St Vincent’s, with the implication that procedures there would have to comply with Catholic teaching. Equally it is clear their elderly profile was another major influence.

The average age of the Sisters is 76. It is similar with other religious congregations involved in both health care and education, with very few personnel actively involved any longer in either sector. In each context their more immediate concern is care of their own elderly colleagues.

We are approaching the end of an era. In that context it is appropriate to acknowledge the often huge contribution of these religious congregations to the welfare of the weakest when others would not or could not do so. The majority of their membership down the centuries was inspired by the highest ideals and served them, and the people, selflessly.

In the 1830s, for instance, St Vincent’s on Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green was the first hospital in these islands to be organised and staffed by women. Nursing, in the modern sense, was unknown, as the statement yesterday pointed out.

It is true some in the congregations were guilty of appalling wrongs, leading to the travesties exposed in the 2009 Ryan report. It disclosed abuses in residential institutions for children run up to the 1970s by 18 of the congregations.

But it should be remembered that most members of the congregations today were either too young at the time to have any influence on how those institutions were run or to even have yet become members of the congregations. They are not responsible for the crimes of their predecessors and should not have had to endure the hostility and vitriol directed at them over recent weeks.

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