By Padraic Halpin and Clodagh Kilcoyne
DUBLIN/TUAM, Ireland (Reuters) – Thousands of infants died in Irish homes for unmarried mothers and their offspring run by the Catholic Church from the 1920s to the 1990s, an inquiry found on Tuesday, an “appalling” mortality rate that reflected brutal living conditions.
The report, which covered 18 so-called Mother and Baby Homes where young pregnant women were hidden from society for decades, is the latest in a series of government-commissioned papers that have laid bare some of the Catholic Church’s darkest chapters.
Around 9,000 children died in all, Tuesday’s report found – a mortality rate of 15%. The proportion of children who died before their first birthday in one home, Bessborough, in County Cork, was as high as 75% in 1943.
Relatives have alleged the babies were mistreated because they were born to unmarried mothers who, like their children, were seen as a stain on Ireland’s image as a devout Catholic nation. The inquiry said those admitted included girls as young as 12.
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.
“The report makes clear that for decades, Ireland had a stifling, oppressive and brutally misogynistic culture, where a pervasive stigmatisation of unmarried mothers and their children robbed those individuals of their agency and sometimes their future,” Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman said.
Prime minister Micheál Martin will make a formal apology to those affected by the scandal in parliament this week for what he described as “a dark, difficult and shameful chapter of very recent Irish history.”
The government will provide financial recognition and laws to support excavation, exhumation and, where possible, identification of remains, it said in a statement.
A coalition of survivors’ groups said the report was “truly shocking”, but it had mixed feelings because the inquiry did not include a number of similar institutions and did not fully account for the role the state played in running the homes.
“What occurred was but an aspect of the newly established State which was profoundly anti-women both in its laws and in its culture,” the group said.
The investigation was launched six years ago after evidence of an unmarked mass graveyard at Tuam was uncovered by amateur local historian Catherine Corless, who said she had been haunted by childhood memories of skinny children from the home.
The remains of 802 children, from newborns to three-year-olds, were buried between 1925 and 1961 in just one of the homes, a 2017 interim report found.
“My heart is breaking for every survivor,” Anna Corrigan, whose two brothers John and William Dolan are recorded as having died at the home for unmarried mothers in Tuam, told Reuters ahead of the release of the report.
“We expect, as we have always expected, truth, justice, accountability resulting in prosecutions should they arise and restitution for survivors,” she said.
The Church’s reputation in Ireland has been shattered by a series of scandals over paedophile priests, abuse at workhouses, forced adoptions of babies and other painful issues.
Pope Francis begged forgiveness for the scandals during the first papal visit to the country in almost four decades in 2018.
The Church ran many of Ireland’s social services in the 20th century. While run by nuns, the homes received state funding.
While Irish voters have overwhelmingly approved abortion and gay marriage in referendums in recent years, the Mother and Baby Home scandal has revived anguish over how women and children were treated in the not-too-distant past.
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.
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Additional reporting by Ben Dangerfield, Estelle Shirbon, Conor Humphries and Graham Fahy; Editing by Mike Collett-White)