A request by a coroner to exhume the body of a baby girl from a communal grave 33 years after her death was tonight turned down by the Justice Minister.
Michael McDowell said he did not believe making the order for exhumation from the communal Little Angels plot in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery would be warranted.
Dublin County Coroner Dr Kieran Geraghty wrote to the Minister for Justice last Friday requesting an order to exhume the body of the baby girl who was buried unidentified in the communal plot after being discovered stabbed in a laneway in Dublin’s Dun Laoghaire in 1973.
Mr McDowell said: “In making this decision, I would like to emphasise that I am not in any way minimising the tragedy of this baby’s death but I cannot stand over an exhumation project which would cause such extensive distress and face such an uncertain outcome.”
The coroner had reopened the inquest 33 years after the baby’s death following representations from solicitors acting for Cynthia Owen. The baby, who died from stab wounds was discovered on April 4, 1973 in Lee’s Lane in Dun Laoghaire and was buried unidentified.
Ms Owen came forward claiming to be the mother of the baby just over a decade ago. The woman, who is now in her 40s, has claimed the baby was one of two she gave birth to as a young teenager as a result of sexual abuse in the 1970s. Several months ago gardaí dug up the back garden of a home in Dalkey after she claimed the body of the other baby was buried there. But nothing was found.
Ms Owen had welcomed the request by the coroner to exhume the baby saying it could lead to the truth of the death coming out.
Mr McDowell said having weighed up all the relevant circumstances and technical information available he did not believe making the order under the Coroners Act of 1962 was warranted, proportionate or justifiable.
Around 50,000 infants were buried in the Little Angels communal spot from the 1960s onwards. There are generally up to 25 bodies in each grave. Most of the babies buried there were premature and stillborn, but a number were newborns that died soon after birth.
In a statement the Justice Department said: “It is, however, evident that what would be involved in this instance would amount to a mass exhumation of infant remains, on a scale never contemplated or anticipated under the 1962 Act. Many other babies are buried in the specific plot in question and would require to be exhumed and tested for DNA matches.”
The department said it was clear adjacent plots would have to be disrupted and potentially a large number of graves disturbed.
“It is obvious that the distress to the next of kin of the many children involved could be enormous,” the department stated.
“It is also clear that the scale of the exercise from a technical standpoint would be daunting, could last some months, and would be fraught with complications. Moreover, considerable uncertainty exists as to whether evidence of any material value to a prosecution could successfully be obtained from the exercise.”
The minister consulted with Garda authorities, the chief executive officer of Glasnevin Cemeteries, as well as seeking the advice of the State Pathologist, the Forensic Science Laboratory and the Garda Technical Bureau.
The Department also received correspondence from bereaved parents and support groups representing them over the possible exhumation and disturbance of the bodies of the children in the mass grave.
The Dublin Cemeteries Committee, which owns and operates Glasnevin Cemetery, also hand-delivered a letter to the department detailing its opposition to any exhumation.
Mr McDowell said he had taken into account correspondence from legal representatives and the serious allegations regarding the tragic death of the unidentified baby.
The coroner said he had contacted many experts before requesting the order, and said it might allow for DNA profiling which could assist gardai with their investigation. He said there was some evidence the baby may have been buried in a position that would aid with preserving the body for DNA purposes.