The Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation issued its final report in January, prompting a formal State apology to the thousands of women and children affected. However, criticism over the report has led to calls for an independent review.
Roughly 56,000 women and 57,000 children were placed or born in the mother and baby homes that operated throughout the State from 1922 until 1998. 9,000 children, 15 per cent of the total, died within these homes, often going without proper burial and without record keeping.
The 2014 revelation that there were no burial records for the 800 children who had died in the Bon Secours mother and baby home in Tuam prompted the investigation that has culminated in the publication of the Commission’s report. The Commission uncovered similar cases, such as the Bessborough home in County Cork, where three quarters of the children born in 1943 were found to have died and the Seán Ross home in County Tipperary, where children were found buried in coffins, unlike the Tuam remains, which had been found in an underground structure divided into 20 chambers of a disused septic tank.
The Commission placed the blame at the feet of the fathers of the children and “their [the mothers’] own immediate families”, although it stated that these people were supported and condoned by the State and the churches that operated the homes. It stated that they had found no evidence that women were forced to enter homes by the State, but that women with no familial or financial support were left with no alternative and that while the refuge provided by the homes had been a harsh one, their families had provided no refuge at all.
Despite the recording of infant mortality rates in some homes that were accessible to contemporary politicians, the report found that there was little public concern from politicians or the public over the “appalling level of infant mortality”, although what the public knew about these homes, given the lack of media and political attention at the time, is questionable.
Possibly the most controversial of the report’s findings relate to the abuse that occurred within the homes. On the abuse of women, the report states that “there is no doubt that women in mother and baby homes were subjected to emotional abuse, but there is very little evidence of physical abuse and no evidence of sexual abuse”; on the abuse of children, the report found that there had been physical abuse, “which, while unacceptable, was minor in comparison to the evidence of physical abuse documented in the Ryan report”, and “no evidence” of sexual abuse of children.
These findings of no evidence came despite the testimony of survivors of the institutions who testified to the contrary to the Commission and the refusal to count these testimonies as evidence highlights a familiar issue for Government inquiries: as seen in the report on the Magdalene Laundries published in 2013, institutions are said to have submitted evidence while individuals are said to have submitted claims.
In terms of recommendations, the report states that adopted people should have a right to their birth certificates and birth information, with a mechanism that allows a birth mother to argue her privacy rights. It also recommends a central repository for the records of those institutions to allow for information to be obtained from one place.
The Commission said that any financial redress scheme remains a matter for Government and Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman TD has pledged a scheme will be brought to the Government before the end of April of this year. The report also recommended that the women who worked in the homes without pay should be compensated.
“These findings of no evidence came despite the testimony of survivors of the institutions who testified to the contrary to the Commission and the refusal to count these testimonies as evidence highlights a familiar issue for Government inquiries: as seen in the report on the Magdalene Laundries published in 2013, institutions are said to have submitted evidence while individuals are said to have submitted claims.”
In offering an apology to those affected on behalf of the State, Taoiseach Micheál Martin TD said: “For the women and children who were treated so cruelly, we must do what we can, to show our deep remorse, understanding and support. And so, on behalf of the Government, the State and its citizens, I apologise for the profound generational wrong visited upon Irish mothers and their children who ended up in a mother and baby home or county home.”
However, Martin’s response was heavily criticised for his statement (echoed by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar TD) before the official apology, in which he asserted that all of Irish society bore responsibility for the homes. This sentiment was criticised as an attempt to downplay the role of the State and the churches, with People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd-Barrett calling the report and Martin’s response “a sham, an insult, and a whitewash”. Martin responded that his remarks “in no way sought to diminish the role of the churches or the State”, but that the had spoken of “the perverse moral code overseen by the Church that… was responsible for this in terms of its attitude to sexual morality”.
Criticism of the report has not been confined to opposition parties, with Seanad leader, Regina Doherty of Fine Gael, calling for an independent review of the report. Doherty called the report “cold” and “callous” and that she didn’t “think it’s good enough to stand as our nation’s response to our women”. Doherty was backed by Fianna Fáil Senator Lisa Chambers, who stated that the report did not contain the “level of workmanship” required. Chambers was especially critical of the report stating that there had been no evidence of abuse within the homes. “Direct testimony is evidence,” she said.
In a statement, Paul Hyde Redmond, the Chairperson of the Coalition of Mother and Baby Home Survivors, said that the State was “already trying to exclude as many survivors as possible from redress by arbitrary [sic] setting a deadline of a six-month stay”. The Coalition itself said in a statement that “the Government and the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches ran the homes together hand in glove” and their actions represent “a damning indictment of Church and State”.
Further controversy has since arisen around, with the Data Protection Commissioner writing to the Commission, asking it to provide the justification and legal basis for its deletion of its recordings of witness testimony. No verbatim transcripts of the testimonies of 550 people over five years were made. This, along with the Commission’s statement in the report that it has “made serious efforts to discover Department of Local Government documentation relating to the housing development on the site of the Tuam Children’s Home and has failed to discover such in the National Archives, despite the fact that documentation on many contemporaneous housing schemes is readily available there”, raises serious questions.
The Commission and its report, which had been intended as a final chapter in one of Ireland’s darkest episodes has inadvertently caused yet more State mismanagement to unpack.