Sr Sarto also denied claims that parental consent was not sought by the nuns when vaccine trials were carried out on children.
But according to research revealed by the Irish Examiner last week, death rates at Bessborough in Cork, Sean Ross Abbey in Tipperary, and Castlepollard in Westmeath, ranged from 30% to 50% between 1930 and 1945.
And memoirs by the former chief medical officer, Dr James Deeny, and by former midwife, June Goulding, also referred to a culture of neglect at Bessborough in the 1950s.
Dr Deeny temporarily closed the home after he found that nuns “were quite complacent” about a fatal infection that was killing dozens of babies.
Sr Sarto, who worked at the home from the 1980s as a social worker, defended the death rate on the grounds that unmarried mothers who came to the home were malnourished.
“Ireland was poverty- stricken in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, the girls would come in undernourished and now that they were carrying a child, would need to be built up, they couldn’t be starved,” she told TV3 News.
She refuted repeated claims from adopted people that many adoptions from Bessborough were not legal, saying “they had to go through the legal system”. Sr Sarto also said the centre’s high death rate could be blamed on lack of access to antibiotics before the 1950s.
“If a baby was in the nursery and one of them got ill, it would have spread rapidly through the nursery,” she said. She said she was aware of two deaths during her time at the mother and baby home and that both babies were buried in white coffins.
NUI Maynooth lecturer Ann Matthews has done extensive work on the Bessborough files. She says that after independence, the State fully backed orders running mother and baby homes as they believed unmarried women would have “a greater chance of re-integration” if they were kept out of county homes as had been practice in the past.
She said that many of the women worked as servants after leaving Bessborough so they could pay for their childrens’ foster care.
Like Sister Sarto, she argued to RTÉ’s The History Show that the high death rates could be justified by poverty.
“Ireland was a desperately poor place, it was third world... there were poor, malnourished girls giving birth to poor, malnourished babies,” she said. “Mother and baby homes were conducive to the spread of diseases such as TB, measles, gastroenteritis.”
Both Ms Matthews and UCD’s Diarmuid Ferriter warned it will be difficult to “establish the definitive truth about mother and baby homes”. They called for a “serious trawl” of archival material.