Nine thousand children died in Ireland’s brutal homes for unmarried mothers and babies run by the Catholic Church in the 20th century, a damning report has revealed.
In total, 15 percent of the 57,000 children at the 18 institutions investigated by the Mother and Baby Home Commission died between 1922 and 1998.
The report published today said the homes ‘provided refuge’ for the mothers when they had nowhere else to turn and found that blame ‘rests mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families.’
But the women faced appalling emotional torment at the hands of the nuns – forced to work scrubbing floors while being called ‘fallen,’ ‘sinner’, ‘dirt’ and ‘spawn of Satan.’
The Commission said that the high deaths rates among infants were ‘probably the most disquieting feature of these institutions.’
A woman and her daughter pay their respects at the Tuam graveyard today, where the bodies of 796 babies were uncovered at the site of a former Catholic home for unmarried mothers and their children
The notorious Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Tipperary, which was mother and baby home operated by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary from 1930 to 1970
A woman holds a poster at a funeral procession in remembrance of the bodies of the infants discovered in a septic tank, in 2014, at the Tuam Mother and Baby Home, in Dublin, Ireland October 6, 2018
In 1945 and 1946, the death rate among infants at the homes ‘was almost twice that of the national average for “illegitimate” children.’
The inquiry was launched six years ago after evidence of an unmarked mass graveyard at Tuam, County Galway, was uncovered by amateur local historian Catherine Corless.
She said that she had been haunted by childhood memories of skinny children from the home.
Then-Prime Minister Enda Kenny described the burial site as a ‘chamber of horrors’.
From 1921 to 1961 (when it closed), 978 children died at Tuam, 80 percent aged under 12 months, 67 percent between one and six months
Three quarters of those children died in the 1930s and 40s, with the most deadly years recorded as 1943 and 1947.
At another notorious home, Bessborough in County Cork, 75 percent of the children born or admitted in a single year, 1943, died.
The highest mortality rate of all the homes was at Sean Ross (1931 to 1969), in County Tipperary, where 1,090 infants out of 6,079 died – 79 percent of those fatalities were between 1932 and 1947.
The high death rate at Sean Ross was partly attributed to infectious diseases, including diphtheria and typhoid.
Overall the report said that the infant mortality at the homes was down to respiratory infections and gastroenteritis, despite the public attention being focused on malnutrition.
Women were rejected by their families and forced out of their homes after falling pregnant because of the shame it brought in the devout Catholic society.
One witness described to the Commission how her mother had ‘called her a prostitute and a whore.
‘Three of her uncles were priests and her parents were worried about how her pregnancy would affect them.
‘Both sets of parents were also very concerned about how an “unmarried pregnancy” would affect the careers of the witness’s brothers.’
Witnesses told the Commission that labour provided sisters at the homes with a chance to ‘punish’ the unmarried mothers.
A woman who was adopted from Sean Ross said that her mother was tied to the bed while giving birth and that ‘a nun sat on her chest’ to help her push.
A woman who went to Bessborough aged 17 told the inquiry that she was terrified of one of the midwife’s.
‘She was cutting the girls down below and would tell them this is your punishment for what you have done and you are never doing this again,’ the witness said.
Another woman at the home said that when she was sent to the local hospital to give birth she was ‘butchered’ and given no anaesthetic.
‘They just split me open to deliver the baby,’ she said.
Another former Bessborough woman said that the mothers were forced to work even if they were sick.
‘It was just as if the nuns had no hearts at all,’ she said. ‘You could hear the girls crying at night. We went to bed frightened and always woke up frightened.’
The report found no evidence of sexual abuse against the women, and little evidence of physical abuse, but said that the emotional torment perpetrated against the mothers was rampant.
In some instances the women were forced to work without pay and they lived in accommodation which was incredibly harsh even by the standards of the mid-half of the last century, with poor sanitation and little comfort.
Infants stayed at the homes for varying periods of time, before they were adopted or ‘boarded out’ – sent to local families to work on farms or in small businesses, often for little or no pay.
The inquiry said many of the women had received no sex education, with ignorance and fear ruling over their minds after they fell pregnant.
The report found that even into the 1960s ‘girls and women were continuing to become pregnant without realising how and why.’
Historian Catherine Corless watches Taoiseach Micheal Martin speaking during a Government webinar meeting for survivors and supporters of Church-run mother and baby homes where he outlines the first look at the report by the Commission of Investigation into the institutions before it is formally published, in Tuam, Ireland, January 12, 2021
Baby shoes hang today from a wall at the Tuam graveyard, where the bodies of 796 babies were uncovered at the site of a former Catholic home for unmarried mothers and their children
The 3,000-plus page report makes for difficult reading, Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said.
‘This was an enormous societal failure and an enormous societal shame that we have a stolen generation of children who did not get the upbringing they should have,’ he told national broadcaster RTE on Monday ahead of the publication.
The country’s children’s minister Roderic O’Gorman said that the report makes clear there was a ‘stifling, oppressive and brutally misogynistic culture’ for decades.
Government records show that the mortality rate for children at the homes where tens of thousands of women, including rape victims, were sent to give birth, was often more than five times that of those born to married parents.
‘My heart is breaking for every survivor,’ said Anna Corrigan, whose two brothers John and William Dolan are recorded as having died at the home for unmarried mothers in Tuam.
‘We expect, as we have always expected, truth, justice, accountability resulting in prosecutions should they arise and restitution for survivors,’ she said earlier today.
The Church ran many of Ireland’s social services in the 20th century. While run by nuns, the homes received state funding and, as adoption agencies, were also regulated by the state.
The homes were the subject of the 2013 Oscar-nominated film Philomena, which charted the failed efforts of Philomena Lee to find the son she was forced to give up as an unwed teenager.
IRISH INQUIRIES INTO ALLEGED ABUSE AT CHURCH-RUN HOMES
An Irish inquiry into alarming death rates among newborns at church-run homes for unwed mothers will hand down its final report on Tuesday, laying bare one of the Catholic Church’s darkest chapters.
There have been a series of reports into allegations of abuse and mistreatment by priests and members of religious orders. Here are some details of their findings:
FERNS REPORT INTO CLERICAL SEXUAL ABUSE, OCTOBER 2005
– The first official inquiry into the activities of abusive priests – in the diocese of Ferns in County Wexford – detailed the Church’s handling of 100 allegations, including of rape, against 21 priests dating back to the mid-1960s. It found that for 20 years the bishop in charge of the rural diocese did not expel priests but simply transferred them to a different post.
COMMISSION TO INQUIRE INTO CHILD ABUSE, MAY 2009
– The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse issued a five-volume report which found that priests abused children between the 1930s and the 1970s in Catholic-run institutions. It described orphanages and industrial schools in 20th century Ireland as places of fear, neglect and endemic sexual abuse.
Generations of priests, nuns and Christian Brothers – a Catholic religious order – beat, starved and, in some cases raped, children, the inquiry found. Some of the testimonies spoke of children scavenging for food from waste bins, being flogged, scalded and held under water.
MURPHY REPORT INTO CLERICAL SEXUAL ABUSE, NOVEMBER 2009:
– The Murphy report investigated widespread child abuse by priests in the Dublin archdiocese between 1975 and 2004 that the Church “obsessively” concealed under a policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” about abuse. The archdiocese was preoccupied with protecting the reputation of the Church over and above protecting children’s welfare, the report said.
CLOYNE REPORT INTO CLERICAL SEXUAL ABUSE, JULY 2011:
– The report into the handling of sex abuse claims in the County Cork diocese of Cloyne showed that senior clergy were still trying to cover up abuse allegations almost until the present day, a decade after it introduced rules to protect minors, and that the Vatican was complicit in the cover-up.
Then-Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny accused the Holy See of obstructing investigations into sexual abuse by priests. The Vatican responded by recalling its ambassador to Ireland.
MAGDALENE LAUNDRIES REPORT, FEBRUARY 2013
– An official report compiled by an inter-departmental government committee into Ireland’s notorious Magdalene Laundries found that 10,000 women and girls, some as young as nine, were put through an uncompromising regime of unpaid work from the foundation of the Irish state in 1922 until 1996.
The report found that many of the women – some of whom were subjected to the harsh discipline of the institutions for simply becoming pregnant outside wedlock – were sent there by the Irish state.
MOTHER-AND-BABY HOME REPORT, JANUARY 2020
– Following the 2014 discovery of an unmarked grave with the remains of hundreds of babies on the grounds of a former so-called “mother-and-baby home”, the Irish government ordered an investigation into the treatment of children at the church homes for unmarried mothers.
The report was expected to detail a level of infant mortality far higher than the average in the country at the time and accusations of physical and emotional abuse of women and children.