Children's Minister Katherine Zappone has said the State Commission has found no physical or documentary evidence of systematic burials at Bessborough, but considers that it is highly likely that burials took place there.
Speaking at a press conference to mark the publication of the fifth interim report by the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, Dr Zappone said many people will be disappointed by the lack of answers to the many questions they have.
The Commission did not consider it feasible to excavate the full 60 acres involved, let alone the rest of the 200-acre estate on which the there has been extensive building work since the institution closed, she said.
The interim report states that it seems to have been assumed that children who died in the institution were buried in a small burial ground in the grounds of Bessborough.
The report says: "The vast majority of children who died in Bessborough are not buried there; it seems that only one child is buried there. More than 900 children died in Bessborough or in hospital after being transferred from Bessborough.
"Despite very extensive inquiries and searches, the Commission has been able to establish the burial place of only 64 children. The Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary who owned and ran Bessborough do not know where the other children are buried."
In relation to Tuam, the Commission found that it is clear that many of the children who died in the Tuam Home are buried in the underground chambers. The report states that these chambers were not a recognised burial ground or purpose-built burial chamber and that it did not provide for the dignified interment of human remains.
The Commission made “strong criticisms” of Galway County Council and concluded that Galway County Council members and staff "must have known something" about the mass burial in Tuam.
Their report said: "The Board of Health and its sub-committees sometimes held their meetings in the Home.
Council employees must have known
"Employees of Galway County Council must have known about the burials. County Council employees would have been in the grounds of the Home quite frequently as they carried out repairs to the building and possibly also maintained the grounds."
Crucially, the Commission concludes that there is little basis for the theory that rather than having died, the children were ‘sold’ to America.
The report examined the burial arrangements in the institutions under investigation by the Commission. Dr Zappone brought the report to Government yesterday securing approval for its publication.
Speaking to reporters, the Minister said “This is a significant piece of work from the Commission that addresses important issues relating to the burial arrangements at these institutions. The Commission is collating a huge amount of material and examining the matters before it in a way never before possible.”
“This report reflects the sheer depth and complexity of the work the Commission is undertaking. I know that that many former residents and their family members have been patiently awaiting this report and believe that it will assist in bringing clarity to this matter”.
Dr Zappone said the Commisssion's final report will be due by February 2020.
The report makes no specific recommendations but calls on anyone who may have information relating to the Tuam site to come forward and speak with them.
“I would like to endorse this request by the Commission and would strongly encourage anyone with any information relating to the Commission’s terms of reference contact them immediately,” Dr Zappone said.
“My message today is that there are a lot of questions that are not answered, I feel deeply for the families who may not get the answers they are seeking. In a lot of cases, the evidence is not there.”
“I know some families will be very disappointed that some questions have not been answered, we are disappointed too,” she added.
The report also examined the burial practices in a number of other institutions including Bessborough, Bethany Home, Castlepollard and Sean Ross Abbey.
In Sean Ross Abbey, there is a designated child burial ground in the grounds of the institution. The Commission has undertaken a geophysical study and subsequently a test excavation of the site and the results of this excavation are currently being examined. The Commission will report on this in their final report.
Labour Spokesperson on Justice and Children & Youth Affairs Seán Sherlock has said that the report's findings in relation to Bessborough Mother and Baby Home raise more questions than answers.
He has demanded "further clarity" from Minister Zappone as to what happens next.
"The Minister states it is highly likely that burials took place there. Is the door now being closed on geo-thermal and geo-physical testing on the site? The Minister should provide further clarity on what is proposed for Bessborough given that burials did take place there," he said.
“We need to hear from how the Government proposes to respond to the recently discovered map showing a burial plot at the fringes of the site towards the N40?” he said.
The Irish First Mothers group said the workings of the Collaborative Forum were "kept officially confidential" from the affected community of mothers and other survivors.
They said: "The views of this government-selected group are not representative.
"This forum was created by Government to bypass the true voices of survivors as solicited by the department itself in consultative meetings involving up to 150 survivors during 2017.
"This PR stunt by the Minister and government is no substitute for immediate action to put in place substantive redress which enables survivors to rebuild the remainder of their lives after State brutality.
"The Government should instruct Judge Murphy to immediately bring forward an interim report on redress-related issues.
"The Minister should put supports in place now - not next year."