Injustices of the past laid bare in report on homes

This week has been bleak.

Another publication laying bare the injustices of the past.

Injustices that continue to have an impact on Irish society today.

The week began with a leak containing aspects of the report by the Commission of Investigation Report into Mother and Baby Homes.

Survivors woke on Sunday to discover some of the information they had waited so long to receive was in the public domain.

They were furious.

It compounded their frustration with an investigative process of which they were weary.

Since 2015, deadlines had been missed due to the workload of the commission, more recently it was impacted by Covid-19; yet survivors waited patiently for the final report.

To be confronted with details contained in the report 48-hours prior to it’s publication left whatever trust they had left dashed.

Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman expressed anger and there was confirmation that an investigation would get under way but the damage was done.

The publication of the report by the Government on Tuesday needed to be handled carefully to avoid further anxiety.

The plan was that Minister O’Gorman would bring the report to Cabinet and seek to publish it, following which he and the Taoiseach would host an online webinar to former residents of mother-and baby-homes at 1.30pm.

They would outline the key findings of the report.

Cabinet ended at 1pm and a half an hour later, the webinar began.

Survivors were told that some if them would be disappointed.

A lack of evidence to show that gardaí were routinely notified when unmarried women became pregnant, women were not incarcerated and there was no evidence of “systematic discrimination” were some of the discoveries of the commission outlined to those on the video conference.

The microphones of the former residents of mother-and-baby homes were muted. They were told to put their questions through the comment box, but this couldn’t be located by many of them.

The webinar proved to be confusing and deflating.

At 3pm the report was published on the Department’s website and sent to survivors via email. However there was a problem with the attachment containing the report.

At 4.40pm a further email was sent from the Department to say it had been brought to its attention that some people were experiencing difficulty accessing the link to the Final Report.

The report was sent again.

Elderly former residents who don’t use the internet had to rely on television and radio because they did not receive hard copies of the Executive Summary and conclusions.

A report amounting to almost 3,000 pages requires time to read and digest.

Teresa Collins, who was born in Sean Ross Abbey, with the report

This was pointed out continuously by survivors who wanted that time before a scheduled State apology by the Taoiseach took place the day after publication on Wednesday.

According to the Dáil Schedule it was due to take place after Leaders Questions and the Order of Business at 1.04pm, to be precise.

In the meantime, those who could, ploughed through the report on Tuesday evening to unearth key findings and recommendations.

It found that 9,000 children died in mother and baby homes between 1922 and 1998, which was around 15% of all those who entered the institutions.

The commission described the high rate of infant mortality as a “disquieting” feature.

It said there was no evidence that women were forced into the homes by the Church or the State. Women had no alternative, according to the commission.

Many of the homes provided a refuge, even if they were harsh. It noted that there was no refuge provided by the children’s fathers or from the women’s families.

Ireland wasn’t unique in the presence of mother-and-baby homes. However, it said the proportion of unmarried mothers sent to homes in Ireland was probably highest in the world.

The commission found evidence of emotional abuse and some physical abuse of women as well as physical abuse of children, but it said it found no evidence of sexual abuse.

Some pregnancies were as a result of rape, girls as young as 12-years were among the 56,000 women admitted to the institutions.

The commission objected to the use of the term “forced adoption” which is one favoured by people who were adopted from mother-and-baby homes.

It also said it found little evidence that children were forcibly taken from their mothers, even though the mothers didn’t have much choice.

Susan Lohan of the Adoption Rights Alliance said this finding was astonishing, given that research conducted by ARA, Justice for Magdelines and the Chlann Project showed otherwise. 

The commission said adopted people should have a right to their birth certificates and birth information.

Adoption and Tracing Legislation has been promised by Minister O’Gorman, but having witnessed the failure in getting it through the Oireachtas in the past, there’s skepticism.

The commission said it found no records of burials of children who died in many cases.

It said it was “perplexed and concerned” at the inability of any member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary to identify the burial place of children who died at Bessborough in Cork.

On the evening of the publication, the Congregation responded with a statement which said it was “distressed and saddened that it is so difficult to prove with legal certainty where many of these infants were buried especially with regard to Bessborough. We did everything possible including the engagement of a professional historian to assist us in our dealings with the commission on this vitally important matter.”

The Bon Secours Sisters in Tuam – the mother-and-baby home over which questions were first raised resulting in the establishment of the Commission of Investigation – also expressed regret.

The Sisters confirmed that they would contribute to any redress scheme introduced.

In their statement they said “We did not live up to our Christianity when running the Home. We failed to respect the inherent dignity of the women and children who came to the Home. We failed to offer them the compassion that they so badly needed. We were part of the system in which they suffered hardship, loneliness and terrible hurt.

The sisters acknowledged that the infants and children who died at the home were buried in a disrespectful and unacceptable way and said they were “deeply sorry”.

The following day former residents, some of whom had not seen the report, waited for the State apology from the Taoiseach.

Many of them on their own at home with little support around them due to Level-5 Covid-19 restrictions.

The 1.04pm deadline was not met.

Order of Business in the Dáil ran over time, which is not unheard of on the day that the Oireachtas resumes following a break, but for survivors unfamiliar with the fluidity of the timetable, the delay was disrespectful.

When it came, the Taoiseach apologised for the “profound generational wrong visited upon Irish mothers and their children” in mother and baby homes and county homes.

Micheál Martin used the words “shame and stigma” a number of times in his speech to emphasise the impact on survivors. 

Speaking to them directly, he told them “Each of you is blameless, did nothing wrong and you have nothing to be ashamed of”.

The Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar, and Minister O’Gorman also contributed after which TDs responded.

The Independent TD Catherine Connolly began her contribution holding up a copy of the Executive Summary and recommendations to show it to survivors.

Many she pointed out, did not have a hard copy of the report which she described as inconsistent, shocking, poorly written and disturbing.

The former residents of the institutions welcomed the apology but for many of them, the proof of regret will be in the next steps taken by the Government.

Adoption and Tracing and Redress will now be the focus.

The Government has promised action under four pillars – recognition, remembrance, records and restorative recognition.

These are four pillars among many other pillars announced in Government initiatives and action plans in recent years, so it’s hoped they’ll take precedence.

The Chairperson of the mother-and-baby home survivors Paul Redmond said neither the Taoiseach or the Tanaiste “bothered to talk about real and immediate action for living survivors”.

He referenced Derek Leinster of the Bethany home Group who consistently maintained that the living survivor community must take priority over exhuming dead bodies or another talking shop.

However, by Wednesday evening Mr Redmond predicted another faceless committee to deal with instead.

It was clear that by Thursday, survivors were worn out, weary and dejected.

Yesterday, the President, Michael D Higgins, rowed in with a timely statement which stressed the importance of the personal statements given by the former residents of the homes.

“Those statements are such powerful revelations of a society, Church, a State and their institutions that contradict the traits of any real republic built on equal rights of citizens, care, true freedom, solidarity and compassion.”

President Higgins also noted that more needed to be done to bring to light a fuller understanding of what occurred, and why, and the need to vindicate the rights of women and children who resided in these homes.

He stressed that there was a responsibility to move without delay to the next phase of the process and to respond adequately and generously to the needs and rightful concerns of the survivors and other victims.

“In our times we should never forget the pain that was created, and carried for life, by such judgmentalism and deprivation of care described in the evidence that has been offered, just part of the story.  We must address the assumptions as to citizens of society on which all of what has been described has been based and resolve to craft a better place for our, and future generations.”

In order to ensure that kind of future, the voices of former residents must continue to be heard.

It’s imperative that the last week doesn’t get swept into history books without a conclusion.