Fergus Finlay: Mother and baby home report only first step towards justice

People who have long fought for the truth  should be given the power now, with whatever legal and technical support they need, to force the State to deliver on its long-overdue promises
Fergus Finlay: Mother and baby home report only first step towards justice

A pair of girls' shoes on the railings of Bessborough House during a candlelight vigil. Picture: Howard Crowdy

I remember reading the Ryan Report, every single page of it. It took a long time, not just because it was so huge, but because I had to keep stopping for breath. Literally, I had to take a walk, clear my head, and try to come to terms with what I had just read.

I can still remember the anger, the desire almost, to strike out at the perpetrators of generations of abuse, the certainty that it would be impossible to ever make it right.

And the shame. What was uncovered in the Ryan Report happened in our name. We funded the abuse, we gave the religious orders involved impunity. We didn’t just turn a blind eye, we actively sought not to see it happening.

We thought we woke up, the day Ryan was published, to an absolute determination that that sort of abuse could never be allowed to happen again. But of course it did, again and again.

The survivors of institutional abuse, whose stories were told in that report, are still fighting for justice. In many cases they’re fighting for the right to grow old in comfort and dignity. And, despite apologies and official remorse, bureaucracy is still letting them down.

I don’t know what’s in the report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation. I haven’t read the leaks from the report because I regard it as utterly shameful (a) that someone chose to leak it and (b) that a Sunday newspaper decided that being first with the story mattered more than the survivors.

As I understand it, the Government at top level agreed that survivors should have the first opportunity to be briefed on the report and to begin to absorb its contents. It is, after all, the story of their lives and the lives of their loved ones. It is sickening that they have been denied that chance and I won’t read it before they have been briefed, on a point of principle.

I do expect the report to be honest because it will carry the name of Judge Yvonne Murphy, who wrote a searing report into abuse in the Dublin diocese. Because it will be honest, it will be painful — another reason why survivors should be the first to have access to it, to whatever extent they want to.

I’ve met some of the survivors over the years and I’ve been in some of the places that will undoubtedly feature, in particular Bessborough.

Although I’ve never been to the site of the mother and baby home in Tuam, I’ve read an awful lot of what the incredible Catherine Corless has written. If ever there was an example of truth written to power, it is in her astonishing work.

Catherine Corless: If ever there was an example of truth written to power, it is in her astonishing work. File picture: Hany Marzouk
Catherine Corless: If ever there was an example of truth written to power, it is in her astonishing work. File picture: Hany Marzouk

When you do meet survivors, the qualities that strike you most are honesty and courage. And love. Survivors have stuck together because they need each other. They fight sometimes too, but they stand up for each other because, at the end of the day, you have to have survived to know what other survivors have been through.

Of course, not all survived. Carmel Cantwell’s brother died in Bessborough in 1960. His name was William and his mum, who still lived there, was told he had died and was buried immediately. But that was a lie.

William was alive when his mum left Bessborough. He died later. She had pleaded to be involved in his care as a baby and in his burial when she was told he died, but she was lied to and lied to and lied to — including, many years later, when she tried to find his final resting place.

I found it hard to listen to Carmel telling William’s story, and that of her mum, without choking. That story — and the obvious, patent love she has for her mother and brother still — has driven Carmel to this day.

Carmel Cantwell whose brother died shortly after he was born in Bessborough in 1960. File picture: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Carmel Cantwell whose brother died shortly after he was born in Bessborough in 1960. File picture: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

We know from earlier interim reports of the commission that a shocking total of 904 babies died in Bessborough. However, the commission could only account for the whereabouts of 64 of those babies. The Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary, inexplicably, don’t know what happened to the others — although they operated the home from its foundation to the end and still own the property. That’s why the name of that religious order makes me shiver every time I hear it.

Not just in relation to William, but in relation to what you might call “the big picture”; members of that order have lied over and over again.

The same is true in relation to Tuam, St Patrick’s on the Navan Rd, Castlepollard, and all the other homes. The religious involved have been interested only in one thing — covering up what they did in the past.

And that may be because, in any objective terms, what happened in those homes was a crime against humanity. Carmel’s mother had her son stolen from her. Carmel had her brother stolen from her. And William, the little boy they never knew, had his identity stolen — for ever. Wherever he lies now, there’s never been a flower on his grave because the nuns made that impossible.

And they did it thousands of times, to thousands of children, throughout most of our lifetimes — with money and authority we, the citizens of Ireland, gave them.

You could write for a long time about the litany of scandals that have blackened our history in the last century. The individual stories, such as Joanne Hayes or Ann Lovett or Majella Moynihan. The institutions, like the industrial schools, the Magdalene laundries, the mother and baby homes, and the adoption agencies.

There are two threads running through all those stories. They were crimes against women and they were crimes against children.

Now, presumably, apologies will be made and work will be undertaken on how to address the future. The apologies will be delivered by men, in solemn and no doubt sincere ways.

The planning for the future will be done by men.

We’ve been here before. Apologies have turned bitter as reparation has proved impossible to deliver. We can’t, surely, let that happen again.

If the Government is serious about doing it right this time, the legislation it introduces will establish a statutory basis for an oversight and implementation body, with the power to compel annual reports of progress on reparation, redress and reform. That implementation body — which must have legal powers (that can’t be stressed enough) — should be chaired by a woman and consist only of women.

People who have long fought for the truth — like Catherine Corless and Carmel Cantwell — should be given the power now, with whatever legal and technical support they need, to force the State to deliver on its long-overdue promises.

Justice demands truth. It demands accountability. It demands reparation. So the publication of a detailed, truthful and painful report is only the first step on the road to justice. We shouldn’t be afraid to take the next steps. The babies we abandoned, and their mothers, are entitled to no less.

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