Ireland lays bare the scandal of baby deaths at church-run homes

Relatives have alleged the infants at mother and baby homes were mistreated because they were born to unmarried women.

Tens of thousands of women, including rape victims, were sent to the mother and baby homes to give birth [File: Stringer/Reuters]

Thousands of children died in homes for unmarried mothers and their offspring that were run by Ireland’s Catholic Church from the 1920s to 1990s, an inquiry has found, an “appalling” mortality rate that reflected brutal living conditions.

Tuesday’s 3,000-page 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.

Some 9,000 children died at the homes between 1922 and 1998, when the last one closed, according to the inquiry’s findings. The figure represents about 15 percent of all who entered the institutions, with no single explanation for such a high rate of mortality.

“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,” Ireland’s Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Roderic O’Gorman, said in a statement.

The government will issue a formal state apology to the many thousands of women and children affected and provide financial recognition to the specific groups identified in the report, O’Gorman added.

It will also advance long-promised laws to support excavation, exhumation and, where possible, identification of remains at burial sites at the homes where children as young as newborns were buried, he said.

‘Enormous societal failure’

The publication of the report follows a five-year investigation by the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation.

Tens of thousands of women, including rape victims, were sent to the homes to give birth. Government records show the mortality rate for children at the homes was often more than five times that of those born to married parents.

Relatives have alleged that the babies at homes were mistreated because they were born to unmarried women who, like their children, were seen as a stain on Ireland’s image as a devout Catholic nation.

The institutions, which doubled as orphanages and adoption agencies, were established across Ireland throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

While run by nuns, they received state funding and were also regulated by the state.

Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Monday said the report into the institutions’ history made for difficult reading.

“One of the things that hit me was the extent to which this was an enormous societal failure and an enormous societal shame that we have a stolen generation of children who did not get the upbringing they should have,” he told national broadcaster RTE.

Tuam ‘chamber of horrors’ prompts probe

The commission was formed in 2014 after evidence of an unmarked mass graveyard at an institution in Tuam, in the western county of Galway, was uncovered by amateur local historian Catherine Corless.

Corless found death certificates confirming that nearly 800 children had died at the site, but there were no burial records.

She said she had been haunted by childhood memories of skinny children from the home.

Excavations in 2017 revealed “significant quantities of human remains” in 20 underground chambers in a decommissioned sewage tank on the site’s grounds, the commission said in an interim report.

Then-Prime Minister Enda Kenny described the burial site at Tuam as a “chamber of horrors”.

The grim revelations have further tarnished the Catholic Church’s reputation in Ireland, which has been shattered in recent years by a series of tragedies that include abuse at workhouses, forced adoptions of babies born out of wedlock and priests who have sexually assaulted children.

During the first papal visit to the country in almost four decades in 2018, Pope Francis begged for forgiveness for the scandals.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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