Relatives have alleged the infants at mother and baby homes were mistreated because they were born to unmarried women.
Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin has offered a formal apology in the country’s parliament for the treatment of unmarried mothers and their babies in a network of church-run institutions from the 1920s to the 1990s.
A government-commissioned report published on Tuesday found an “appalling” mortality rate of around 15 percent among children born at mother and baby homes, reflecting brutal living conditions at the sites and laying bare one of the Catholic Church’s darkest chapters.
Some 9,000 children died at the 18 homes – the last of which closed in 1998 – covered in the report.
The institutions, which doubled as orphanages and adoption agencies, were established across Ireland throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
They were run by nuns but received state funding and were also regulated by the state.
“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 a county home,” Martin told parliament on Wednesday.
“I apologise for the shame and stigma which they were subjected to and which, for some, remains a burden to this day. The state failed you.”
The government has pledged to provide financial recognition to the specific groups identified in the report.
It has also promised to 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.
The findings on Tuesday came on the back of a five-year investigation by the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation and detailed a litany of distressing practices in the institutions examined.
It revealed how many infants were taken from mothers and sent overseas to be adopted, while a number of children were vaccinated without consent.
Anonymous testimony from residents compared the institutions to prisons where they were verbally abused by nuns, while women suffered through traumatic labours without any pain relief.
Relatives have alleged babies were mistreated at the homes because they were born to unmarried mothers who, like their children, were seen as a stain on Ireland’s image as a devout Catholic nation.
The inquiry said those admitted included girls as young as 12.
A coalition of survivors’ groups on Tuesday said the report was “truly shocking”, but it had mixed feelings because it did not fully account for the role the state played in running the homes and in separating single mothers from their babies.
“We must not overlook the fact that the Government and the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches ran the Homes together hand in glove,” the coalition said in a statement.
“What they did represents a damning indictment of Church and State.”
The religious order that ran a care home for unmarried mothers in the Irish town of Tuam, where almost 800 children died, on Wednesday said the order “did not live up to our Christianity when running the home”.
“We failed to respect the inherent dignity of the women and children who came to the home. We failed to offer them the compassion that they so badly needed,” it said.