A LONG-AWAITED investigation has revealed how decades of religious discrimination contributed to the abuse of tens of thousands of mothers in Ireland, and the needless death of thousands of children, from the 1920s to the end of the century.
The 2865-page Commission of Investigation report on mother-and-baby homes in Ireland, dated October 2020, was published on Wednesday.
There were about 56,000 unmarried mothers aged 12 to 40, and 57,000 children in the mother-and-baby and county homes investigated by the Commission: most admissions were in the 1960s and early ’70s. Some pregnancies were the result of rape; the mothers were destitute, forced to leave home or even leave the country to avoid discrimination.
An estimated 9000 children died in the institutions under investigation. The mortality rate overall was 15 per cent, more than double the rate for children born out of wedlock. But the overall figure hides the failings of individual homes. The worst was the Sean Ross Home (1931-69) in Co. Tipperary, where 1090 infants died out of 6079, nearly 80 per cent of them in the home’s first 15 years. Many of the deaths were attributed to the practice of making the unmarried mothers work as unpaid nurses in a fever hospital nearby, where they contracted infections such as diphtheria and typhoid.
The five-year investigation was prompted in 2014 by the discovery that there were no burial records for the almost 800 children who died at the Bon Secours mother-and-baby home in Tuam, County Galway. Excavations subsequently found a disused septic tank containing significant quantities of human remains, which led to protests across the country.
Of the treatment of women, the report states: “Many of the women did suffer emotional abuse and were often subject to denigration and derogatory remarks. It appears that there was little kindness shown to them and this was particularly the case when they were giving birth.”
The homes investigated in the report varied in governance, financial arrangements, practices, and conditions. Some were run by religious institutions. County homes, usually former workhouses, were controlled by local authorities.
The report found no evidence that the Roman Catholic hierarchy played a part in the day-to-day running of mother-and-baby homes; however, religious groups had to seek permission from the diocesan bishop to set up a home. “Local authorities often deferred to the views of the religious orders that ran mother and baby homes or to the views of the diocesan bishop.”
That illegitimacy was widely “regretted and disowned” contributed to the marginalisation and poor treatment of unmarried single mothers, the report says. “The Catholic Church did not invent Irish attitudes to prudent marriages or family respectability; however, it reinforced them through church teachings that emphasised the importance of pre-marital purity and the sexual dangers associated with dance halls, immodest dress, mixed bathing and other sources of ‘temptation’.”
As for the children, the report concludes that the homes “did not save” their lives; rather “they appear to have significantly reduced their prospects of survival”. Nor were the high mortality rates hidden but “were known to local and national authorities at the time and were recorded in official publications”.
The RC Archbishop of Tuam, the Most Revd Michael Neary, responded: “The report contents are a cause for shame as we are confronted in our very recent history with the scandalous way in which vulnerable women and children in our society were deprived of care and dignity and subjected to humiliation. . .
“I acknowledge and humbly ask forgiveness for the abject failure of the Church for the pain and suffering visited on those women and their children in the Mother and Baby Homes nationally.”
Read the full report here