DUBLIN — Ireland should seize Catholic Church assets and prosecute religious orders for their role in running shelters where 9,000 children died and thousands more were taken from their unmarried mothers, opposition politicians demanded Wednesday.
Prime Minister Micheál Martin read an official state apology in parliament following Tuesday’s publication of the findings of a five-year investigation into defunct Mother and Baby Homes.
That report detailed cruel conditions and exceptional infant mortality rates in the institutions. But it found little evidence to back up survivors’ claims of physical abuse and forced adoptions, two key complaints.
Opposition lawmakers accused Martin of paying lip service to the scandal and not taking seriously the state’s responsibility for the human rights violations committed in the 18 homes, the last of which closed in 1998.
Several lawmakers criticized his contention, emphasized in the 3,000-page report, that Irish society itself was to blame for permitting the myriad abuses. The report found that the women’s own families had rejected them because of their out-of-wedlock pregnancies, leaving the homes as their only refuge.
“These crimes were perpetuated by a reactionary Catholic Church and a confessional state. This was done by the powerful to those who were vulnerable,” Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald told Martin. “Any idea that ‘we did this to ourselves’ is deeply insulting to victims and survivors. It is a cop-out.”
Jennifer Whitmore, spokesperson on children’s issues for the Social Democrats, noted that more than 5,600 pregnant women sent to the facilities were aged 12 to 17.
“Nearly 12 percent of the women that went through the doors of those homes were children. They were raped,” Whitmore said.
Her party colleague, Holly Cairns, told Martin: “The last thing survivors need is inadequate apologies from more men in positions of power. They deserve justice. They deserve genuine contrition from church and state. And they deserve complete and unreserved redress.”
Martin said the government intended to pass legislation that would allow surviving residents of the homes to access their own records for the first time and, in the process, gain the ability to trace their long-lost mother or children.
“Access to one’s own identity is a basic right,” he said.
Several Catholic Church leaders issued statements of regret Wednesday but stopped short of making commitments to provide financial compensation to former residents.
The Bon Secours Sisters, who ran a residence in Tuam, County Galway, where nearly 800 newborns and children died and were buried in unmarked graves from the early 1920s to the 1950s, said: “We 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. We were part of the system in which they suffered hardship, loneliness and terrible hurt,” said the statement, issued in the name of the Bon Secours’ leader in Ireland, Sister Eileen O’Connor. “We acknowledge in particular that infants and children who died at the home were buried in a disrespectful and unacceptable way. For all that, we are deeply sorry.”
The church has failed to pay out fully on previous commitments to compensate tens of thousands of Irish citizens who, as children, suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of church officials in workhouses, schools, orphanages and parishes.
Catholic authorities have long argued that their Irish institutions are asset-rich — including ownership of an extensive land bank, hospitals and many of Ireland’s primary and secondary schools — but cash-poor. They have transferred ownership of scores of properties to state hands as part of incomplete compensation agreements.
Socialist lawmaker Bríd Smith told Martin that the government should “tell the institutions — who have built their wealth on the bones of dead babies — that their assets will be frozen unless they agree to deliver a decent redress.”
Martin was wrong to seek to deflect “the core responsibility from the state and religious institutions on to society, to fathers and families. On to everyone,” she said. “If you make everybody responsible, then no one is responsible.”
Cairns said any church and state officials still living who were responsible for maintaining homes where abuses occurred should face criminal punishment.
“The scale of infant deaths is incomprehensible. It borders on mass murder,” she said.
“The religious orders profited from this horrendous cruelty and systematic abuse. That an organization which facilitated the worst kinds of human rights violations imaginable still has any hand, act or part in our schools and hospitals is deeply disturbing,” she said. “We must ensure that justice is vigorously pursued and that people and organizations who committed these crimes are pursued and prosecuted.”