Baby Homes Commission: Report date must not be missed again

The Moriarty Tribunal, into certain ‘Payments to Politicians and Related Matters’, was established in 1997 and took nearly 14 years to reach its conclusions — and even after that decade-plus commitment to thoroughness some of its findings remain contested and are still the subject of Supreme Court proceedings.

Though it’s almost eight years since that tribunal finally published its conclusions, in March 2011, something that might look vaguely like an appropriate response from our justice system is awaited.

Three years ago this month the Mother and Baby Homes Commission began its work after the discovery of infants’ remains at the former Tuam Mother and Baby Home meant this national scandal could no longer be brushed under the carpet.

The commission, under Judge Yvonne Murphy, was to report this month and, even if it is far too early to compare it with the Moriarty Tribunal, the decision to grant it a new publication date next February suggests that it understands the leeway established by precedent.

Its complex investigations delve into terribly painful, sensitive matters, so delicacy and patience are required. It is possible too that its investigations are not always supported by open, honest co-operation.

That, however, is only one side of the equation.

The commission is also obliged to establish what went on, and how it was allowed happen, in one of the darkest episodes in how vulnerable — shorthand for poor and/or born outside marriage — women and children were treated by religious agencies entrusted by the State to give them protection and shelter.

As is now clear, many of these outrages had the tacit endorsement of this society which was more than happy to look the other way.

This blind eye was as significant as the callousness of some of those running or working in the homes in the early decades of this Republic’s existence.

Despite what we might like to think, and despite how we imagine ourselves far better than that today, these scandals remain, in historical terms, very much within touching distance.

Children from the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork were buried in unmarked or paupers’ graves just as the Irish soccer team cut such a dash at Italia ‘90.

The scandal is so fresh that Judge Murphy’s commission can make a public appeal for information on the burial of a “large number” of children who died at Bessborough between 1922 and 1998.

Anyone who might dismiss this process as an anti-clerical witchhunt need only refer to the official figures.

An unpublished HSE report on Bessborough, written in 2012, spoke of a “staggering” number of child deaths there.

Infant mortality between 1934 and 1953 was “a cause for serious consternation” even though no deaths were recorded after 1953.

However, 470 children died in that 19-year period — one child every fortnight for almost two decades.

There is no setting in which a comparable death rate would be tolerated today.

Therefore, it is absolutely vital that the commission meet its new reporting date early next year.

If it cannot, then very serious questions must be asked about this society’s capacity to look at itself, warts and all, in the mirror.

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