More than 9,000 infants died in homes for unmarried mothers in Ireland between the 1920s and the 1990s, many run by Catholic religious orders, a long-awaited inquiry concluded after years of campaigning from survivors and their offspring.
In some years during the 1930s and 1940s, the report said, more than 40% of the children in the mother-and-baby homes were dying before their first birthday, high mortality rates often known to the government and local authorities.
Over the entire period of the study, about 15% of all the children who were in the 18 institutions that were investigated died in the homes, some of which were owned and run by local health authorities and others by religious orders.
Ireland’s Prime Minister Micheál Martin said the report described a “dark, difficult and shameful chapter of very recent Irish history” that had lasting consequences. He said the Church, state and society shared responsibility and that religious orders responsible should make a contribution to those seeking redress.
Some of the religious orders responsible for the homes issued apologies. The former Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, said “the church way outstepped its role and became a controlling church,” and should apologize, in comments to RTÉ, the Irish broadcaster. He said those responsible for the abuse betrayed vulnerable women and their calling.
Catherine Corless, an academic who has campaigned for survivors of the homes who was mentioned by name by Mr. Martin, said survivors weren’t satisfied by Mr. Martin’s expressions of regret and that he blamed society for what happened in the homes. “It’s like church and state are both hand in hand,” she told RTÉ.
At some homes, investigators have uncovered the remains of fetuses and young children in unmarked graves, including in Tuam, some 120 miles from Dublin in western Ireland, where mass graves were found at an institution where 978 children are known to have died.
“No register of burials was kept and it is likely that most of the children who died in Tuam are buried inappropriately in the grounds of the institution,” the report said.
In other homes, burials often went unrecorded.
The report describes a country in which the lives of unmarried mothers “were blighted by pregnancy outside marriage, and the responses of the father of their child, their immediate families and the wider community.”
Some of the women were raped and others suffered mental problems or intellectual disabilities—but many were only distinguished by the fact they were pregnant without being married. Widely stigmatized and often rejected by their families, they had little alternative but to go into the institutions.
Adoption of children wasn’t allowed by law until 1953.
“Responsibility for that harsh treatment rests mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families,” the report said. “It was supported by, contributed to, and condoned by, the institutions of the State and the Churches. However, it must be acknowledged that the institutions under investigation provided a refuge—a harsh refuge in some cases—when the families provided no refuge at all,” it said.
The report said conditions in the homes changed from 1922 until 1998, when the last one closed. Living conditions in Ireland were generally poor before the 1960s, but the report found such conditions had much more serious consequences for people living close together in institutions than for those living in single homes.
The report said it hadn’t seen any evidence of major shortcomings in any of the homes or flatlets that were operating from the 1970s to the 1990s.
In the years before 1960, the report said the homes reduced children’s chance of survival. Death rates of “illegitimate” children were significantly higher than those born to married women, but in some years the death rate of infants in the homes was twice that of “illegitimate” children outside.
“The very high rate of infant mortality (first year of life) in Irish mother and baby homes is probably the most disquieting feature of these institutions,” the report said.
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