Commission cop-out for callous Catholic Church

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

With controversy and debate sparked by the release of the Commission of Mother and Baby Homes Final Report, Michael Tuohy considers how some of the content is offensive to victims and survivors of these institutions.

When I finished reading the 3,000 page report on the Catholic Church run Mother & Baby Homes that have marred our recent history so much, I could not believe my eyes. Taoiseach Mícheal Martin apologised on behalf of the state to survivors of the Mother & Baby Homes recently, and said that “the report gives survivors what they have been denied for so long: their voice, their individuality, their right to be acknowledged”. I could not disagree more with this assessment of the report. It was a cop-out, plain and simple, and every bit of this investigation has been poorly handled. No actual care for survivors has been put into this report, and scant regard was given to them when details of the report were leaked to journalists. The commission’s report often reads like a blunt instrument of legal balance and detached historical listing. If it cannot be proven in a court of law it cannot be accepted; if there are no documents, we cannot by any means believe the testimony of survivors. There is little restoration in a process that took six years, cost €11.5 million, and yet left survivors outside the door when it was leaked and released. No inclusion, no printed copies for those who were interviewed, no audio summary for those who can hardly see. There’s even an unsupported line that the Eighth Amendment in 1983 created more public tolerance towards unmarried women. 

The report identifies seven vaccine trials that were conducted without compliance to the regulatory and ethical standards of the time. The attempts of the commission to discover the details of these are very welcome. However, the commission’s statement that, “There is no evidence of injury to the children involved as a result of the vaccines” is not in any way defensible. For example, 1964 saw the trial of the Wellcovax live measles vaccine at the Sean Ross mother and baby home in Roscrea. This vaccine (albeit later batches) would be withdrawn from use in the UK in 1969 due to an unacceptable adverse reactivity. The State actively supported using the women forced into these homes as unwilling test subjects for vaccines that caused adverse effects in them - state-sponsored mutilation and murder, to put it bluntly. 

The report struggles very badly with the idea of coercion, stating: “There is no evidence that women were forced to enter Mother and Baby Homes by the Church or State authorities. Most women had no alternative.”, and then finally concluding that responsibility for the harsh treatment of unmarried mothers in Ireland lies mainly with the fathers of the children and “their own immediate families” but supported by and condoned by the State and the churches. It says many of the homes provided a refuge, even if harsh, while the families provided no refuge at all.

But what does all this mean? If you have no alternative but to do something, are you not “forced” to do it? The report finds that unmarried pregnant women were “forced to leave home” and many were “forced to give birth” in the county homes that were just workhouses by other names. But it still claims that they were not forced by Church and State either to enter these places or to give up their babies for adoption. Coercion, as anyone familiar with domestic abuse can tell you, comes in many forms. And the most important one in the Ireland I grew up in was spiritual. That power, for the vast majority of us, was wielded by one institution and one institution only: the Catholic Church.

The overwhelming reality of that world was that the Church had the monopoly on damnation and salvation. It is very hard for people born in a secular Ireland to understand what that meant. Most people really believed in hell, in the devil and in sin.  If you leave this out, it is very easy to blame, as the report broadly does, the treatment of unmarried mothers on the harshness of their families and on the fathers of their children. But the driving force of this cruelty was spiritual terrorism. There was no such thing as “society” as distinct from this dominion of damnation, no neutral State beyond its reach. It pervaded everything and invaded each of our bodies. The brutal institutions of social control – industrial schools, Magdalene asylums, and mother and baby homes – were the outward signs of this inward terror. They expressed in bricks and mortar the malign bully that lived inside our souls. It was the church that placed, and kept, it there. Why did these abusive institutions survive so long? How could babies be buried without even the most basic recognition of their existence? Because people were afraid of bishops and priests and nuns and the authority they held, not just over this life, but over the next.

It is nothing but shameful to try and push the blame on to the Irish population when these things were happening with the full knowledge of the Church and the State. This report can only be described as a cop-out. Though important information was discovered through its creation, it only focuses on 18 institutions out of potentially hundreds. It does not take into account any testimony from survivors that is not backed up by internal documents given by the Church. Even at that, with all the evidence it does bring up, the authors of the report chose to overwhelmingly blame Irish Society for the horrors committed by Church members, in Church run homes, financially supported by the State, and almost certainly with the full knowledge of the state as to what was going on behind those dark walls. Further independent reports into every institution must be sanctioned by the State immediately so that we may know the full story of these homes, as this report is merely a shoddily concluded, morally inept view into the pure depravity of the Church. The full story is yet to be told. 

The Church robbed the Irish state of potentially prosperous lives for generations. They robbed Mothers of their children in overwhelming numbers. In all, 15 percent of the approximately 57,000 children who were in the 18 institutions investigated by the Mother and Baby Homes Commission died during their time there. Over 9,000 infants. The report found that the homes “did not save” the lives of “illegitimate” children in the years before 1960; in fact, “they appear to have significantly reduced their prospects of survival”. The burial locations of many of these children still remain a mystery. The percentage of those sold off into adoption to profit the Church may never be known. 

Right now, we need to focus on being there for survivors and helping them deal with the emotions this trauma brings back. We need to focus on making sure these survivors are well looked after by the state and by their local communities. We need to find each and every burial site and DNA test remains until we know who every child murdered by the church was, so that their families may have some closure. We then need to re-bury these infants at no cost to the Victims, State or Tax-Payers. The Church needs to pay up. Once all of this is done we must completely Blitz the hold the Catholic Church has on our Nation until it is no longer present. Make them pay every cent they should to the State and reinvest this money into our nation’s future. Take away their hold on our schools and hospitals. Take every bit of land that doesn’t directly have a Church on it. Take down every public monument to the Church. Lastly, we must place memorials around the country at the sites of these torture houses. We must never forget the horrors Irish Women and their children were subjected to.