A government-commissioned report found a shocking number of deaths and widespread abuses at religious institutions in Ireland for unwed mothers and their children. Survivors say the document released Tuesday is a small step toward accountability after decades of horrors.
The report, the culmination of a six-year investigation, detailed some 9,000 deaths of children at 14 of the country's so-called mother and baby homes and four county homes over several decades, a mortality rate far higher than the rest of the population. The institutions, where unmarried women and girls were sent to give birth in secrecy and were pressured to give their children up for adoption, were also responsible for unethical vaccine trials and emotional abuse, the report found.
For decades, the stories of these places and the atrocities carried out in them were largely unspoken — despite calls from the mothers who became virtual prisoners and children who spent their earliest years there.
But as the country has made strides to reckon with uglier aspects of its conservative Roman Catholic roots, deeply intertwined with the foundation of the state, there have been recent moments when the scale of the systemic abuses have been thrust into the light. Tuesday was one of those days.
Ireland's leader, or Taoiseach, Micheal Martin, said the report outlined "a dark, difficult and shameful chapter" of the country's past, acknowledging failures by the state, society and church. "It opens a window onto a deeply misogynistic culture in Ireland over several decades," he said.
Survivors say urgent action by the state is needed, and many say the Roman Catholic Church, which ran the homes, needs to be held more fully accountable. The Coalition of Mother and Baby Home Survivors said it was disappointed in the "fundamentally incomplete" nature of the final report.
The church had been silent on the issue in the past, but late Tuesday, Eamon Martin, the archbishop of Armagh and the head of the Irish Catholic Church, issued an apology. The church, he said, was clearly part of a culture in which people "were frequently stigmatized, judged and rejected. … For that, and for the long-lasting hurt and emotional distress that has resulted, I unreservedly apologize to the survivors."
Martin and the minister for children, Roderic O'Gorman, spoke with survivors by video to discuss the contents of the report, which is more than 3,000 pages. Martin said he would issue an official state apology in front of Parliament.
Mother and baby homes were run by religious orders, starting in the 1920s, and funded by the government. The last of the institutions, where young women and girls were taken, typically against their will, was closed in 1998.
The commission focused on 18 institutions between 1922 to 1998 and was set up after reports emerged that the remains of nearly 800 babies and children were interred in an unmarked mass grave at a home run by nuns in the town of Tuam in County Galway.
Attention was drawn to the situation by the extensive research of amateur historian Catherine Corless, who pieced together records showing dozens of suspicious deaths of infants and children at the St. Mary's Mother and Baby Home but no graves associated with them. Martin thanked her by name, calling her a "tireless crusader of dignity and truth."
The 18 homes in the report spanned the country and were run by different groups of nuns. The report detailed how 56,000 unmarried mothers and about 57,000 children came through the homes investigated by the commission during a 76-year period.
"In the years before 1960 mother and baby homes did not save the lives of 'illegitimate' children; in fact, they appear to have significantly reduced their prospects of survival," the report said.