Catholic and Church of Ireland primates express shame over mother and baby homes

The archbishops of the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland have expressed shame over mother and baby homes.

More than 10,000 women and girls entered institutions for unmarried mothers across Northern Ireland between 1922 and 1990, and a report has revealed claims of inappropriate labour and being stigmatised at the homes, run by Catholic orders and Protestant clergy.

A “victim-centred” independent investigation was ordered by Stormont ministers and should be completed within six months.

The Bishop of Derry, Donal McKeown, said all historic records from the homes should be released in full.

“If anyone is trying to hide records or destroy records, that is a crime. Of course there is no reason why records should be withheld because people want to know who they are,” Mr McKeown told the BBC.

“They mightn’t like what they find out when they discover who they are, the parent may not want to know them, but people have to have access to as much information as possible.”

Catholic Archbishop Eamon Martin and Church of Ireland Archbishop John McDowell said they have reflected on the report with shame, and have issued an apology on behalf of their churches.

Mr Martin said: “For that I am truly sorry and ask the forgiveness of survivors. How did we so obscure the love and mercy and compassion of Christ which is at the very heart of the Gospel? Shame on us.

“The persistence and the powerful testimonies of these same courageous survivors has lifted the lid on this dark chapter of our shared history and exposed our hypocrisy to the glaring light.”

Mr McDowell said: “I acknowledge with shame that members of the Church of Ireland stigmatised women and children in a way which was very far removed from Christian principles and which resulted in an unloving, cold and judgmental attitude towards pregnant women who deserved better.

“The birth of a child should always be a time for happiness, and that many young women experienced it as joyless and cold is a matter for bitter regret. I am sorry and apologise for the role we played in treating unmarried women and their children in this way. They deserved much better.”

Judith Gillespie with Michelle O'Neill and Arlene Foster
Judith Gillespie with Michelle O'Neill and Arlene Foster

Apologies have also been issued by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd and the Presbyterian Church following the research by a team of academics from Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University.

The report features claims from women that they were subjected to labour like scrubbing floors during the final stages of pregnancy and were described as “fallen” and stigmatised.

Some survivors are pressing for a speedy public inquiry but there are concerns surrounding the impact that giving evidence would have on some who suffered life-changing trauma.

In total, more than 14,000 women went through mother and baby homes, Magdalene laundries and industrial homes over a 68-year period.

First Minister Arlene Foster pledged the voices of survivors would be heard “loudly and clearly”.

“First and foremost, we want to offer our personal thanks to those women and their now adult children who came forward to contribute to the research. Your voices were silenced for so many years. That was a significant wrong.”

— Arlene Foster #WeWillMeetAgain (@DUPleader) January 26, 2021

She added: “It was not their fault that they were raped or the victims of incest yet they were the ones who suffered, and it appears to me that those who perpetrated the crime went scot-free.”

Around a third of those admitted were under 19 and most were aged 20-29.

Tuesday’s report examined eight mother and baby homes, a number of former workhouses and four Magdalene laundries, the leader of Northern Ireland’s devolved administration said.

Mrs Foster said: “It is with huge regret that we acknowledge the pain of those experiences and the hurt caused to women and girls who did nothing more than be pregnant outside of marriage, some of them criminally against their will.

“None of us should be proud of how our society shunned women in these circumstances and their experiences while resident in these institutions.”

Retired senior police officer Judith Gillespie led the review and said survivors would finally have control over their own choices.