State’s reaction is to deny, delay, and to buy silence

The Taoiseach is following the well-trodden path of treating the Magdalene laundries, mother and baby homes, and illegal adoption as separate scandals, writes Conall Ó Fátharta

State’s reaction is to deny, delay, and to buy silence

The Taoiseach is following the well-trodden path of treating the Magdalene laundries, mother and baby homes, and illegal adoption as separate scandals, writes Conall Ó Fátharta

Magdalene laundries, mother and baby homes, industrial schools, illegal adoptions — Taoiseach Leo Varadkar listed them all out to the Pope in Dublin Castle this summer.

He told the Pontiff that the sorry litany of scandals “are stains on our State, our society and also the Catholic Church”.

In doing so he trod a well-worn path of previous governments of treating all these issues as if they are distinct and separate scandals, instead of part of the same story.

Instead of examining and investigating the bigger picture of how unmarried and vulnerable women and children were treated in a sprawling network of interlinking institutions, private agencies and state authorities, we break it down into separate scandals.

Focus on the narrow and obscure the broader picture. It’s a well-worn path by successive governments.

Identifying all of these issues as individual scandals deflects from what this is really about — namely the collusion of Church and State in the construction of a system of confinement of single women and the removal of their children.

What flows from this are the related practices which have shocked the world — like Tuam — but also the spectre of forced and illegal adoption, infant trafficking, alteration of identities and records, medical and vaccine trials, infant mortality and the use of infant remains for anatomical research.

Mother and baby homes, Magdalene laundries, industrials schools — these not are not individual aberrations. They are one story, one scandal which, when seen in their totality, tell us about the fundamental character of the State — right from its very foundation.

Narrative, and the controlling of a narrative, has always been an important method of limiting the impact of this story.

Scandal is a word used in relation to the treatment of women and children in Ireland for decades. The reaction to scandal hasn’t changed much down the generations.

The research of Catherine Corless and the shocking revelations at Tuam were the match that lit the touchpaper. We had the usual procession of TDs and ministers expressing shock and outrage about this latest “scandal”.

Seventy years earlier, in 1945, the same word was used by parliamentary secretary to the then minister for local government and public health, Dr Con Ward, in relation to an 82% infant death rate at the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home. That rate had been reported to state inspectors.

It briefly led to the government of the day banning pregnant women being sent to the home and led Dr Con Ward to write to then Bishop of Cork, Daniel Cohalan, to express fears about a “public scandal” over the figures.

The key word here is “public”. A scandal is one thing to an Irish Government, a public scandal is a very different animal.

Even in Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone’s letter to Pope Francis, she stressed that the issue of mother and baby homes only came to “public attention” in Ireland during the summer of 2014.

In short, for the Government’s narrative, the start date for dealing for the “Mother and Baby Homes scandal” was 2014. With a start date of 2014, it looks like the reaction to revelations at Tuam was swift.

Of course, there is a different narrative which focuses on institutional rather than public knowledge. This narrative reveals that whether it's magdalene laundries, mother and baby homes or illegal adoptions, the State reaction is marked by deny, delay and when an issue becomes “public” in a manner that can no longer be controlled, launch an inquiry— but a limited one. A redress scheme which buys silence with compensation usually follows.


Three years before Catherine Corless’ revelations about a mass grave in Tuam sent shockwaves around the globe, the Cabinet was grappling with how to deal with another part of this story — the Magdalene laundries.

Even in 2011, the issue of mother and baby homes — and how to limit calls for inquiries into such institutions — were on the agenda of the Cabinet.

In a memorandum for Government seeking permission to establish what became the McAleese Committee, concerns were expressed that if there was an inquiry into Magdalene laundries, it could lead to calls for inquiries into abuses in mother and baby homes, psychiatric institutions, and foster care settings.

Controlling the narrative and limiting the scope of the Magdalene inquiry was the order of the day. Some seven years later, the mother and baby home system and the treatment of more than 40 vulnerable adults in a foster care setting are now the subject of State inquiries.

By 2012, the HSE was expressing stark concerns about the mother and baby home records it had uncovered.

The McAleese Committee had requested records relating to the 10 Magdalene Laundries be examined by the HSE.

Permission was granted to include two mother and baby homes in this trawl — Bessborough in Cork and Tuam in Galway. This decision was “based on potential pathways references by the advocacy group Justice For Magdalenes (JFM)”.

Prof Jim Smith of Boston College and JFM group had written to the chairperson of the inquiry, then-senator Martin McAleese on February 21, 2012, outlining a circular he had discovered relating to a 1948 Government survey which revealed “disturbing” infant death rates in excess of 50% at the Tuam Mother and Baby Home.

Within eight months, HSE staff in Cork and Galway had turned up enough shocking material that concerns were being expressed about whether or not these issues warranted a State inquiry in and of themselves.

By October 2012, such was the level of consternation the material was causing, an internal memo was prepared by Dr Declan McKeown — consultant public health physician and medical epidemiologist of the medical intelligence unit in the HSE — and relayed the details of a teleconference with then assistant director of children and family service Phil Garland, who was co-ordinating the HSE project for the McAleese Committee and then head of the medical intelligence unit Davida De La Harpe.

The note outlines concerns raised by the principal social worker for adoption in HSE West who had found “a large archive of photographs, documentation and correspondence relating to children sent for adoption to the USA” and “documentation in relation to discharges and admissions to psychiatric institutions in the Western area”.

It notes there were letters from the Tuam mother and baby home to parents asking for money for the upkeep of their children and notes that the duration of stay for children may have been prolonged by the order for financial reasons.

It also uncovered letters to parents asking for money for the upkeep of some children that had already been discharged or had died.

The social worker, “working in her own time and on her own dollar”, had compiled a list of “up to 1,000 names”, but said it was “not clear yet whether all of these relate to the ongoing examination of the Magdalene system, or whether they relate to the adoption of children by parents, possibly in the USA”.

At that point, the social worker was assembling a filing system “to enable her to link names to letters and to payments”.

“This may prove to be a scandal that dwarfs other, more recent issues with the Church and State, because of the very emotive sensitivities around adoption of babies, with or without the will of the mother.

A concern is that, if there is evidence of trafficking babies, that it must have been facilitated by doctors, social workers etc, and a number of these health professionals may still be working in the system.

The report ends with a recommendation that an “early warning” letter be written for the attention of the national director of the HSE’s quality and patient safety division, Philip Crowley, suggesting “that this goes all the way up to the minister”.

“It is more important to send this up to the minister as soon as possible: with a view to an inter-departmental committee and a fully fledged, fully resourced forensic investigation and State inquiry,” concludes the note.

The Department of Children and Youth Affairs has said the minister was never made aware of the issues surrounding Tuam in 2012.

In tandem with this, in September 2012, a 20-page report had been prepared on Bessborough. It revealed that the HSE was in possession of a death register maintained by the Order that ran the institution between 1934 and 1953.

The report outlined that the almost 500 deaths recorded in this period were “shocking” and “a cause for serious consternation”.

It also expressed concern that death certificates may have been falsified so children could be “brokered into clandestine adoption arrangements, both foreign and domestic” — a possibility the HSE report said had “dire implications for the Church and State”.

The report notes that the records reveal a culture “where women and babies were considered little more than a commodity for trade amongst religious orders” and that they were “provided with little more than the basic care and provision afforded to that of any individual convicted of crimes against the State”.

It also highlights the “intricacies of Bessborough’s accounting practices”, and that “detailed financial records and accounts were not handed over to the HSE by the Sacred Heart Order”.

This report was seen by both the Department of Health and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

Given the level of concerns surrounding what was being found in relation to both institutions, Dr McKeown began work on a briefing paper on the situation for Mr Crowley. This was also forwarded to the then national director of children and family services at the HSE, Gordon Jeyes on October 19, 2012.

In one of the drafts of this paper, marked “strictly confidential”, Dr McKeown states that the records show that one child was sent to a US couple in 1957 in return for a cash payment.

Dr McKeown also said that the adoption records contained in the archive showed clear examples of multiple illegal adoptions which were not processed by the Adoption Board — then the regulatory body for adoption at the time.

Dr McKeown also revealed that letters from “senior Church figures requesting the nuns to identify babies for adoption to the USA” — indicating that the Catholic Church hierarchy was also directing this practice.

“The archives need to be examined for clinical, accounting and ethical irregularities, of which there are numerous clues in the material already uncovered.

“Additionally, there may be legal or criminal issues underlying the documentation, and it is critical that these potentials are outruled as soon as possible, given the increased public interest in the issue of adoption practice in Ireland, particularly in the 1950s,” he wrote.

None of these concerns appear in the final HSE submission to the McAleese Committee which was only concerned with the institutions in so far as referrals from to and from Magdalene Laundries.

In a cover letter attached to a draft of the HSE report sent to principal officer at the DCYA and member of the McAleese Committee Denis O’Sullivan on November 1, 2012, Dr McKeown states that that “adoption, birth and registration and the recording of infant mortality” in relation to the mother and baby homes were issues that may require “deeper investigation” and had been referred to Mr Crowley.

As a result, they would “no longer form part of the core investigation into the Magdalene system”.

Six days later, Mr O’Sullivan emailed Gordon Jeyes on November 7, 2012, to advise that any issues around mother and baby homes were outside the remit of the McAleese Committee.

“Material included beyond that is beyond the scope of our work — eg, the scope does not extend to an examination of other places of refuge eg mother and baby homes, other than in the context of referrals from Magdalene laundries.

If there are separate and validated findings of concern emerging from such additional research, obviously they should be communicated by HSE and through a separate process.

It’s unclear where the HSE investigation went from here, if anywhere.

No investigation was launched. Nothing happened.

The McAleese Report was published. It included none of the concerns around mother and baby homes as they were outside its remit.

Within two years, Tuam was making headlines around the world. The Government launched another inquiry into the treatment of women and children — this time it was to be called the Mother and Baby Homes inquiry.

From the outset, it was criticised for being too narrow and limited only to institutions labelled mother and baby homes. Calls for the probe to be widened to include adoption agencies and other institutions went unheeded. Adoption would be addressed in so far as it related to the 14 named mother and baby Homes. Calls for the inquiry to focus on the scale of forced and illegal adoptions across the board fell on deaf ears.

Three years later, in May of this year, illegal adoption was to become the newest “public scandal”. Once again a piece of the same story was viewed in isolation.


It was announced in a blaze of publicity at a press conference in May with Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone — 126 cases where births were illegally registered between 1946 and 1969 had been discovered in the records of former religious-run adoption agency St Patrick’s Guild.

The media followed suit declaring the discovery Ireland’s “adoption scandal” like this had come out of the blue.

Of course, the issue of not just illegal birth registrations, but all forms of illegal adoptions has been around for years. That such issues had happened with St Patrick’s Guild had also been known for years.

You can go back more than 20 years and find references to St Patrick’s Guild in the news for all the wrong reasons.

Of course, the minister rightly acknowledged that the issue of illegal birth registrations had been known before the Tusla discovery.

However, we were quickly given the new narrative, this time was different, whereas previously we had suspicions, now we had facts.

While there have been suspicions about the practice of incorrect registrations for many years, it has been extremely difficult to uncover clear evidence of the practice because of the deliberate failure by those involved to keep records.

“The 126 cases announced by the minister on 29th May represent the first time this threshold of a high level of certainty has been reached,” the DCYA told this newspaper in June.

The DCYA went even further and said that where such evidence is found, the State’s responsibility, “is to inform the individuals concerned.” This is a unique statement for the DCYA in the sense that it is both untrue and quite the U-turn all in one.

Firstly, the 126 cases are not the first time we have found evidence of illegal registrations. The DCYA and multiple ministers have been aware of the issue for years and have chosen to do nothing.

Take the case of Tressa Reeves — who recently settled a case against St Patrick’s Guild and the State — on this very issue.

Tressa’s son, was the victim of an illegal registration facilitated by St Patrick’s Guild. Her story first appeared in the Irish Examiner in 2010. Tressa had evidence of this since 1997. The former Adoption Board, now the Adoption Authority of Ireland (AAI), knew about her case since 2001. In the years that followed, three former children’s ministers were informed of Tressa Reeves’ case.

If, as the DCYA says, the State had a responsibility to tell those victims of illegal registrations the truth about their identity, why didn’t it see fit to do this for her son?

After all, all Tressa asked for, for more than a decade, was that the State tell her son the truth. It took until 2012 — and a threat of further negative publicity — for this to happen.

Remarkably, despite full knowledge of St Patrick’s Guild’s involvement in such practices, it was the very first adoption agency accredited under the Adoption Act 2010.

However, if Tressa’s case wasn’t enough evidence for the DCYA, its own regulatory body had been telling it about the issue for years also.

Following the Irish Examiner’s story on Tressa Reeves, the AAI committed to an audit of its records. It found approximately 99 illegal registration cases, while a further 20 were identified in the following years. This has subsequently risen to 131. Not all of these cases refer to St Patrick’s Guild.

In a report prepared for the DCYA in June 2011, the AAI said it considered carrying out a more comprehensive audit of the cases it uncovered, but because of the transfer of senior personnel and the “pressure on resources of the imminent establishment of the Adoption Authority no further action was taken”.

In June 2013, an AAI delegation told the DCYA again of there being “at least 120 [confirmed] cases” of illegal registrations found as the result of the 2010 audit.

It even name-checked St Patrick’s Guild for the department, stating that the agency was “aware of several hundred illegal registrations”, and that it was “not seeking the people involved” but were, rather, “waiting for people to contact them”.

The AAI went further, stating its belief that this could well be the tip of the iceberg and that there “may be thousands” more.

In 2015, the DCYA was again notified by its regulatory body about the issue of illegal registrations. This time the AAI sent three reports — including a spreadsheet of 90 specific cases it believed were likely illegal registrations.

Clearly, the department has been put on notice about this issue and, indeed had been told about specific cases, for years and has chosen to do nothing.

The department has defended the lack of action on the 90 cases it was notified about in 2015. It said these were cases “where the appearance of irregular activity suggested the possibility of an incorrect registration having occurred”, before pointing out that the 126 cases found by Tusla this year were confirmed cases of illegal birth registration.

“The 126 cases currently being dealt with by Tusla were confirmed, once a rigorous process was completed to ensure that the State could be as sure as possible that these individuals’ births were, in fact, illegally registered,” said the department.

Why were three separate reports — including a spreadsheet of some 90 cases — sent by the very body that regulates adoption not subjected to the same “rigorous process” that Tusla’s cases were? Do the concerns of the AAI, the regulatory body for adoption, count for nothing?

Just five months after the June 2013 meeting, then children’s minister Frances Fitzgerald told the Dáil she “had no plans to initiate an audit of all [adoption] files”.

She also claimed that all adoptions “which the Irish State has been involved in since 1952 have been in line with this [Adoption Act 1952] and subsequent adoption legislation”.

This claim was repeated on two separate occasions by her successor, Charlie Flanagan. Both made the claim despite the fact that no State agency had ever examined all the records.

This claim is also supported by the AAI, which said that “to its knowledge”, all adoptions carried out by the regulatory body “have been conducted in accordance with the relevant legislative framework for adoption”.

“Certain illegal birth registrations have been found to have occurred but these were conducted outside the legislative framework for adoption and can therefore not be classified as adoptions,” said the AAI in a statement.

However, as the Irish Examiner revealed last week, we now know that some illegal registrations also resulted in adoption orders.

Jackie Power (named changed to protect identity) was instructed as a 16-year-old in Bessborough to sign a false name on an adoption consent form. All of the paperwork that followed — including her son’s birth certificate and the adoption order — are made out in false names.

St Patrick’s Guild could have been included in the Mother and Baby Homes inquiry in 2014 on the back of the AAI’s notifications to the DCYA but it was not. However, the cases found by Tusla were reported to the Commission this year. Once again, the inevitable was delayed.

When the Irish Examiner published details of the 2013 meeting in 2015, it asked the DCYA did it not think that the AAI’s belief that thousands of people in the country had their identities falsely registered — a criminal offence — warranted investigation?

The department declined to respond to the specific questions asked, but said a full audit of adoption records would be “of very limited benefit”.

It is important to note that the only way information generally becomes available is when someone with knowledge about the event comes forward…

“There is little, if any, supporting information in relation to these arrangements...Accordingly, an audit of all adoption records would be of very limited benefit in establishing the number of illegal registrations that took place,” said a statement.

Recently, Ms Zappone has acknowledged the cases found by the AAI and says “a validation exercise is underway” in relation to them. However, she didn’t say that these cases had been found as far back as 2010. This action could and should have been taken years ago.

The DCYA’s view that an audit of the records would be of little use has also been shown up as without foundation. Indeed, the 126 cases Tusla found were specifically marked “adopted from birth”. No detective work was required.

The DCYA has now committed to “a scoping exercise” led by independent reviewer Marion Reynolds and involving the Adoption Authority of Ireland (AAI) and Tusla. This exercise will clarify whether or not a full audit – which up to now was deemed a waste of time — is necessary.

The DCYA has now declined to reveal how this scoping exercise will work. It won’t say what sample of records will be examined or what methodology is being used.

Of course, the real point of the scoping exercise is to delay and buy time. Like the decision at Tuam, we all know there is no real decision to be made. These matters require a full and thorough investigation.

The report of the scoping exercise originally due at the end of October, won’t be with us now until mid-December. Word is the December deadline won’t be met either.

Everyone knew the right call was the fullest possible exhumation at Tuam and other sites like it. As with illegal adoptions, everyone knows that the fullest audit of adoption records is also the right decision.

Even the DCYA knows this. A note of a meeting between representatives of the department and the AAI and prepared by the department’s adoption policy unit, contains an acknowledgment that evidence of illegal registrations was not confined to St Patrick’s Guild.

It was stressed that a full investigation of these issues would be “onerous, requiring massive resources”.

Indeed Tusla itself has raised concerns about a further 748 cases from St Patrick’s Guild. These cases contain evidence of names being changed, payments being made to the agency, placements of children with no corresponding adoption order, and other “irregularities”.

So everyone knows — the DCYA, Tusla and the AAI — that this is an issue that requires a full investigation of all adoption records held by the State. Yet it persists with a scoping exercise that the public has been given no information about and which will please no one.


Another tale of denial and delay is yet another arm of the same story — the Magdalene laundries. It’s now taken as fact that the State was directly involved in referring large numbers of women to the Magdalene laundries and, indeed paying the religious orders for the privilege.

That the State was involved in the laundries was taken as accepted fact by a number of groups and survivors who spent decades campaigning on the issue. As with much of this story, their voices went unheard.

In the early 2000s, the then-government refused to include the Magdalene laundries in the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse and the resulting redress scheme.

This stance was defended by then education minister Michael Woods in 2002 on the grounds that the laundries were “entirely private institutions, in respect of which public bodies had no function”.

This was the line of the Government and it was stuck to rigidly.

By 2009, the country was reeling from the revelations of the Ryan Report and the Government was again facing down calls to examine the Magdalene laundries. The line remained the same.

This time, then education minister Batt O’Keeffe said categorically that the “State did not refer individuals to Magdalen laundries nor was it complicit in referring individuals to them”.

He also said that they “were not subject to State regulation or supervision”.

Of course, survivors and campaigners knew this was categorically untrue. In 2010, Justice For Magdalenes (JFM) made an application to the Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) seeking an inquiry into the State’s failure to protect the human rights of girls and women detained in the Magdalene laundry system.

Later that year, the IHRC issued a recommendation to government to immediately launch a statutory inquiry into abuse in the laundries.

With the Government failing to respond, JFM went to the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT), which in June 2011 recommended the same course of action to the Government as the IHRC.

The Government finally relented and launched an interdepartmental committee to look into the issue — the McAleese Committee.

The McAleese report was published in February 2013 and confirmed what everyone knew. Indeed it said that over one-quarter of all referrals to Magdalene laundries were made or facilitated by the State.

Despite this, an apology took two weeks to come.

The report itself and the redress scheme put in place in the aftermath of the State apology have been subjected to enormous scrutiny and criticism in the five years since.

It took until 2018 for the Department of Justice to allow a small cohort of women access to the redress scheme. They had been wrongfully excluded. Some had gone to the High Court to fight for access, while revelations by this newspaper and a scathing report by the Ombudsman following a year-long investigation eventually led the Department of Justice to grant them access.

However, campaigners say women are still not getting the full range of healthcare provisions promised to them.

When Taoiseach Leo Varadkar addressed the Pope and asked him to use his “office and influence” to ensure that “justice and truth and healing” is granted to survivors of institutional and clerical abuse, he specifically name-checked the Magdalene laundries.

However, at the same time his Government recently told the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) that there is “no credible evidence of systematic torture or criminal abuse being committed in the Magdalene laundries” and that it has no intention of setting up a formal state inquiry into the matter.

Indeed the Government has been accused of “walking back” the state apology offered by then taoiseach Enda Kenny in 2013, now claiming, repeatedly, that the report made “no finding” in relation to state liability with regard to Magdalene laundries.

It continues to cite the McAleese Report as the de facto narrative of how the Magdalene laundry system operated in Ireland.

That would be fine if researchers could access any of the material in order to challenge the findings of the McAleese Report. However, they can’t.

The archive has been held in the Taoiseach’s own department for “safekeeping” since 2013. It is exempt from Freedom of Information and the department told the Irish Examiner it has “no plans” to open it up to public inspection. We must simply accept that the McAleese Report as we find it.

So while Mr Varadkar is quick to call on the Pope to use his “office and influence” to offer “justice and truth and healing”, he declines to use his own office to open the archive so people can challenge or confirm the findings of an investigation into the Magdalene laundry system.

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