An Irish inquiry into alarming death rates among newborns at church-run homes for unwed mothers will hand down its final report on Tuesday, laying bare one of the Catholic Church’s darkest chapters and leading to demands for state compensation.
The Church’s reputation in Ireland has been shattered by a series of scandals over paedophile priests, abuse at workhouses, forced adoptions of babies and other painful issues.
Pope Francis begged forgiveness for the scandals during the first papal visit to the country in almost four decades in 2018.
The remains of 802 children, from newborns to three-year-olds, were buried between 1925 and 1961 in just one of the so-called Mother and Baby Homes, a 2017 interim report found.
Then-Prime Minister Enda Kenny described the burial site at Tuam, in the western county of Galway, as a “chamber of horrors”.
The inquiry was launched six years ago after evidence of an unmarked mass graveyard at Tuam was uncovered by amateur local historian Catherine Corless, who said she had been haunted by childhood memories of skinny children from the home.
The 3,000-plus page report makes for difficult reading, Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said.
“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 on Monday.
Relatives have alleged the babies 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.
Government records show that the mortality rate for children at the homes where tens of thousands of women, including rape victims, were sent to give birth, was often more than five times that of those born to married parents.
“My heart is breaking for every survivor,” said Anna Corrigan, whose two brothers John and William Dolan are recorded as having died at the home for unmarried mothers in Tuam.
“We expect, as we have always expected, truth, justice, accountability resulting in prosecutions should they arise and restitution for survivors,” she told Reuters on Tuesday ahead of the publication of the report.
The Church ran many of Ireland’s social services in the 20th century. While run by nuns, the homes received state funding and, as adoption agencies, were also regulated by the state.
While Irish voters have overwhelmingly approved abortion and gay marriage in referendums in recent years, the Mother and Baby Home scandal has revived anguish over how women and children were treated in the not-too-distant past.
The homes were the subject of the 2013 Oscar-nominated film Philomena, which charted the failed efforts of Philomena Lee to find the son she was forced to give up as an unwed teenager.