Minister for Justice Michael McDowell insisted today that exhuming the body of a baby girl from a communal grave in Dublin 33 years after her death would have created huge implications for other parents.
The unidentified infant, known only as Noleen, was laid to rest in the Little Angels plot in Glasnevin Cemetery along with hundreds of other babies.
She had been found stabbed to death in a laneway in Dun Laoghaire in 1973.
It had been hoped advances in DNA and forensic science could have been used to discover the baby’s true identity and how she met her death.
But Mr McDowell refused the exhumation request from Dublin County Coroner Dr Kieran Geraghty insisting it would involve asking a huge number of people if the grave could be opened.
The Minister revealed the bodies of anywhere between 30 and 700 babies would have to have been dug up.
“Obviously in those circumstances especially as I’d have to seek permission from the parents in question, and because I would have been asked by the Coroner to do DNA testing on all the remains that were exhumed, it would have been an enormous task,” he said.
“And secondly it would have been one which carried with it enormous implications for a lot of people who are strangers to all of this.”
Dr Geraghty wrote to the Minister last Friday seeking the exhumation in an attempt to identify the baby through DNA. He 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.
She claimed she witnessed Noleen being stabbed to death.
Several months ago gardai dug up the back garden of a home in Dalkey after Ms Owen claimed the body of the other baby was buried there. But nothing was found.
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 plot from the1960s on, with around 25 bodies in each grave. Most babies laid to rest there were premature, stillborn or new-borns who died suddenly hours or days after birth.
Mr McDowell said it would have been entirely different if the baby had been buried alone and added that he took on board the views of gardaí, forensic archaeologists, the State Pathologist and cemetery authorities before rejecting the request.
“Taking them all into account at this stage it was not possible to come to the view that an exhumation of this size would have been justified,” he said.
The Dublin Cemeteries Committee, which owns and operates Glasnevin, hand delivered a letter to the Department of Justice detailing its opposition to any exhumation.
Bereaved parents and support groups also contacted the Department regarding their fears over disturbance of graves.
The Minister said babies buried at the communal grave are now buried separately preventing a repeat of the problem.
“I’m afraid you know that you can be wise in hindsight but that was the practice then,” he said. “DNA did not exist in the 1970s in anything like the same way it does now and I’d imagine that in those days there was no likelihood that after an autopsy that the body would ever be the subject of an exhumation order for scientific identification.”