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Philomena’s lesson is still not learnt

04 April 2014

We condemn past cruelty to children, but have our own faults, says Paul Vallely

THE real Philomena Lee was on the radio this week to talk about the Oscar-nominated film about her which has just come out on DVD. She said something I hadn't expected.

Philomena tells the story of an unmarried mother in Ireland in the 1950s who was sent to a convent in Roscrea to have her baby. She was then expected to work for four years in the convent's laundry to "pay" for her care during pregnancy and birth. While she was there, the nuns - who followed a practice of selling the babies to "good Catholic families" from America for £1000 a child - handed her three-year-old boy, Anthony, to a rich woman from the United States completely without warning one morning. Philomena did not have the chance even to kiss her child goodbye.

In later years, she tried repeatedly to find the lost boy - and it turned out that he, too, had looked for her, returning three times from Washington to Ireland in a fruitless search. The nuns at the convent stonewalled mother and son alike, even on his final visit, when he was dying.

This week, Mrs Lee was interviewed by Clare Balding on Radio 2's Good Morning Sunday. The shock was her revelation that her father had disowned her when she became pregnant, and would not allow her back in the house. To highlight the way in which unmarried mothers were treated in those days in no way mitigates the bad behaviour of the Church. After all, the Church played a large part in shaping the social attitudes that prompted a father to reject his child at the time when she needed him most. But the Church was shaped by the times, too.

It is unhelpful to caricature the past. In those days, it was thought wise to refuse to allow contact between an adopted child and his birth mother. There was a logic to the idea then that an adopted child would not thrive if his mother disrupted his fresh start by peering, literally or metaphorically, through the window of his new home.

That view has been revised in the UK. Today, we have a better idea of the kind of psychological impact such deracination can have - although the law is still unchanged in Ireland, something that Mrs Lee is campaigning to have changed.

After the interview, Ms Balding played a song by the Dixie Chicks ("Godspeed Sweet Dreams"), a lullaby written by a father whose son had been taken by his divorced wife to live on the other side of the Atlantic. The man sends his love each night at bedtime through the stars to his forcibly estranged son: "God hears 'Amen' wherever we are."

The group's lead singer once introduced the song in concert to an overwhelmingly female audience, and induced a whoop of emancipated triumph from a feminist in the crowd. No, the singer admonished, this is not an affirming song about the triumph of a strong woman; it's a sad song about a little boy who has lost his father.

There was an irony in that. Once it was the Church that was guilty of forcibly separating children from their parents. Now it is a culture of easy divorce. "Conscious uncoupling", to use Gwyneth Paltrow's phrase, takes its toll on our children when self-focused grown-ups don't behave like adults.

Every era is strong in the self-righteous sense of its strengths, and blind to its weaknesses. Perhaps a future generation will look back on precipitate divorce much as we do now on the inadequacies of the Church.

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