State and church and healthcare

 

Sir, – The Catholic Church cannot escape responsibility for the formation of Irish societal attitudes towards unmarried mothers and their children which resulted in the shameful treatment detailed in a series of reports of which the mother and baby homes is just the latest. Church control of education, enabled by supine politicians, was fundamental and near total. Today, 91 per cent of Irish primary school children attend Catholic Church-sponsored schools.

The Catholic Church continues to play a major role in the provision of healthcare and while the religious orders’ active involvement is dwindling due to age and falling vocations, their solution is to vest ownership of publicly funded hospitals in private Vatican controlled entities beyond the reach of the State. The Mater Hospital in Dublin and the Mercy Hospital in Cork have both transferred their ownership into such Catholic structures called public juridic persons.

As recently as 2016, the State and the board of the National Maternity Hospital agreed to transfer ownership of the publicly funded planned new hospital at Elm Park to the Sisters of Charity under an agreement negotiated by Kieran Mulvey. Following public outrage, the Sisters announced in 2017 their intention to transfer their shareholding into a private company with charitable status, St Vincent’s Holdings, for a consideration of a peppercorn €1. That recently formed private company, which openly declares exactly the same Catholic “core values” as the Sisters of Charity in its constitution, makes no allowance for public representation on its board.

Furthermore, the new company’s board consists of only three people, all of whom are members of the existing Board of St Vincent’s Healthcare Group. The transfer is yet to be completed, and currently awaits the permission of the State. Unless the plan is vetoed, St Vincent’s Holdings, which has given itself wide powers to sell or mortgage any of its hospitals or merge with another healthcare group, will be the ultimate owner of the new National Maternity Hospital.

The privately owned Bon Secours Group, notoriously associated with the mother and baby homes scandal, recently merged with its American counterparts. Bon Secours Group transferred to a public juridic person in 2017.

In a recent controversial and distinctly uncharitable move, the Sisters of Charity closed a number of care homes at Elm Park, no doubt preliminary to selling the enormously valuable sites. Considerable distress was caused to the residents and staff.

Without wishing to deny the role religious orders played in previous centuries in their mission to provide health care to the poorest, it is surely time for the State to stop funding capital investment in hospitals owned by private religious organisations, unless it can be categorically ensured that it retains full control of those assets, has a meaningful role in their governance, and insists on the provision of all healthcare legal in the state. If such organisations wish to continue to provide healthcare governed by Catholic ethos, they should fund themselves. This is particularly important in relation to women’s reproductive healthcare.

In 2017, Simon Harris, then minister for health, said he intended to bring proposals to Cabinet for a “discussion” on hospital ownership, which could lead to the State taking control of religious-owned facilities. Four years later, we await with interest progress in this regard. – Yours, etc,

Dr PETER BOYLAN,

Dublin 6.