Irish govt apologises for 'mother and baby homes' scandal

Dublin (AFP) –


Irish prime minister Micheal Martin on Wednesday formally apologised for the treatment of unmarried women and their babies in state and church-run homes, where thousands of children died over decades.

But campaigners for the survivors of the homes denounced the official report into the scandal as a "cop out" that played down the role of the church and the state.

Martin told the Dail lower chamber of parliament that residents had suffered a "profound generational wrong" at the so-called "mother and baby homes".

On Tuesday, a six-year-long inquiry concluded 9,000 children died in the institutions, operating in the historically Catholic nation as recently as 1998.

The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes (CIMBH) said 56,000 unmarried women and 57,000 children passed through the institutions over 76 years.

Infants suffered an "appalling" 15-percent mortality rate, while the mothers suffered emotional abuse in "cold and seemingly uncaring" conditions.

"I apologise for the shame and stigma which they were subjected to and which, for some, remains a burden to this day," Martin said.

"I want to emphasise that each of you were in an institution because of the wrongs of others," he added.

The report revealed "significant failures of the state, the churches and of society", he said.

- 'Shame and stigma' -

The CIMBH report examined 18 homes -- a mixture of general "poorhouses" and those expressly for women and children.

They housed unmarried women who became pregnant, were unsupported by partners and family, and faced severe social stigma owing to the mainstream Catholic dogma of society.

Children born in the institutions would often be separated from their mothers and put up for adoption, severing family ties.

On Tuesday evening, the country's most senior Catholic cleric, Primate of All Ireland Archbishop Eamon Martin apologised "unreservedly" for the role of the church in the homes.

"I accept that the church was clearly part of that culture in which people were frequently stigmatised, judged and rejected," he said.

- A 'cop out' -

The CIMBH was established in 2015 after an amateur historian uncovered evidence of a potential mass grave of infants at one such home in the west Ireland town of Tuam.

Its findings were highly anticipated by survivors, but there have already been accusations it minimises the role the church and state played.

A summary said responsibility for harsh treatment of the women "rests mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families" but was "supported by... the state and the churches".

While it said there was "no evidence" in most cases that women were made to give their children up for adoption or were forced to enter the homes, it admitted that "most women had no alternative".

But campaigners denounced the report as a "cop out".

"The families were pressurised by church and state," Paul Redmond, chair of the Coalition of Mother and Baby Home Survivors, told AFP.

"It was official policy in this country right up to 1974 to essentially separate single mothers and their children."

Between 10,000 and 15,000 "illegally adopted" from the homes have been "completely ignored" in the findings.

The report said "a comprehensive review of adoption" was not in its remit.

- 'Sense of oppression' -

The nearly 3,000-page report details harrowing testimony of residents' treatment at the hands of religious orders.

"'I was told by a nun: 'God doesn't want you... 'You're dirt'," reads one widely cited portion of evidence.

"In the personal testimonies of how many women ended up in these institutions, the priest, the doctor and the nun loom large," Martin said on Wednesday.

"The sense of oppression, even at this distance, is overwhelming."

Children died from "respiratory infections and gastroenteritis" at alarming rates, which were officially recorded at the time.

They were sometimes buried in unmarked graves.

The report also highlighted a total of seven unethical vaccine trials on children in the institutions between 1934 and 1973.

Martin on Tuesday said the report "opens a window onto a deeply misogynistic culture in Ireland over several decades" and said society would "need to confront" its complicity in the institutions.

"We had a completely warped attitude to sexuality and intimacy, and young mothers and their sons and daughters were forced to pay a terrible price for that dysfunction," he added.