Catholic bishops apologised for the "hurt caused by the Church" as Taoiseach Enda Kenny ordered a wide-ranging investigation into what he branded the "abominable" way mothers and babies were treated in religious-run homes.
The probe will look at death rates and burial practices at the homes, as well as illegal adoptions and vaccine trials.
The bishops’ conference said in a statement: “The investigation should inquire into how these homes were funded and, crucially, how adoptions were organised and followed up.
“We also support the Irish Government’s intention to publish legislation on ‘tracing’ rights for adopted children and their mothers with due regard to the rights of all involved.”
The bishops’ statement added that the scandal reminds us “of a time when unmarried mothers were often judged, stigmatised and rejected by society, including the Church”.
Eamon Martin, coadjutor Archbishop of Armagh, described the move as “a very positive thing”.
The bishops’ apology came as Taoiseach Enda Kenny told the Dáil the treatment of women and babies in the homes was in many cases “an abomination”.
Calling for all-party consensus on the probe, whose terms of reference will be decided next month, Mr Kenny said if it is not handled well, “in many ways, Ireland’s soul will lie, like the babies of so many of these mothers, in an unmarked grave”.
It is thought about 35,000 unmarried mothers spent time in 10 homes run by religious orders in Ireland.
Children’s Minister Charlie Flanagan would not commit to the probe being led by a judge, and stated the terms of reference were still being determined.
“It’s absolutely essential that we establish the facts and in this regard, it’s a time for sensitivity rather than sensationalism, a time for seeking the truth rather than indulging in speculation,” said Mr Flanagan.
A Garda scoping exercise is also under way, and any criminal investigation would run in parallel with the state probe, Mr Flanagan said.
The action was sparked by revelations that the remains of 796 babies lie in a mass grave, some in a septic tank, at a Bon Secours home in Tuam, Co Galway.
Mr Kenny said the Protestant-run Bethany Mother-and-Baby Home “has to be investigated”.
Susan Lohan of the Adoption Rights Alliance, which has been campaigning on the issue for well over a decade, gave a cautious welcome to the commission of investigation and said it must have wide-ranging powers.
“It must be very wide in scope and include, but not be limited to, the burial of children and mothers at mother-and-baby homes, illegal clinical trials and the key issue of examining the scale of forced and illegal adoptions,” said Ms Lohan.
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