Bessborough: We have right to know the truth

Adoption campaigners have called for an audit of all records in the hands of the State but there has been no willingness at official level to comply, says Conall Ó Fátharta
Bessborough: We have right to know the truth

A DOCUMENT showing that the religious order that operated Bessborough Mother and Baby Home altered records is just one of thousands of records the Commission of Investigation will have to examine in order to get to the bottom of how these institutions operated.

Rumours that records were altered in mother and baby homes have been rife in adoption circles for years. These latest revelations raise more questions about the vast number of records now in State hands.

The document, outlining a number of changes made to records relating to vaccine trials, has been in the possession of the HSE — and now Tusla — since 2011.

The changes were made to files in 2002 — just weeks after a discovery order from the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (CICA). Its examination of the issue was shut down in 2003 following a Supreme Court ruling, but it is being re-examined by the current Mother and Baby Homes Commission.

Its task is a difficult one given the volume of material it will have to sift through. HSE social workers were advising in 2011 that it had neither the staff, nor the resources, to deal with the amount of work that came with the transfer of tens of thousands of files that came from the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in 2011.

Adoption campaigners have called on numerous governments to audit all records in the hands of the State. Open the records and see what they reveal. However, there has been no willingness at an official level for this to happen.

Despite having no idea what is contained in the records, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) says an audit of these files “would yield little useful information”. Yet repeated media exposés would point to the opposite being the case.


This newspaper has recently revealed evidence of illegal adoptions, as well as disturbing discrepancies in how deaths were recorded.

An investigation by this newspaper last summer showed the Government was well aware of serious concerns around mother and baby homes in 2012.

A HSE report into Bessborough from that year warned that death certificates may have been falsified at the institution so children could be “brokered into clandestine adoption arrangements, both foreign and domestic”. The report also revealed a higher infant death rate than Tuam distilled from the order’s own death register.

The reaction of Government was to first deny it had ever seen it, then admit that, in fact, two departments had actually seen the report before finally labelling the entire study “conjecture”. This is despite the fact that infant death figures were taken directly from the order’s own death register.

The media storm surrounding the tireless research of local historian Catherine Corless in relation to the Tuam home eventually led to the setting up of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission in 2014. However, the HSE’s own examination of the records uncovered a higher infant death rate in Bessborough some two two years earlier. Questions have to be asked whether an audit on foot of this discovery would have been a worthwhile exercise.

A memo from 2012 obtained by this newspaper showed that an archive of material relating to the Tuam Mother and Baby Home uncovered by a senior social worker was so shocking that senior HSE figures recommended that the minister be immediately informed so that “a fully fledged, fully resourced forensic investigation and State inquiry” could be launched. It was launched — three years and many headlines later.

This newspaper also revealed that the DCYA was told by an Adoption Authority (AAI) delegation in June 2013 that there “may be thousands” of illegal adoptions.

The AAI specifically named one religious-run former adoption agency — St Patrick’s Guild in Dublin — as being “aware of several hundred illegal registrations”. Despite this, the agency was not included in the current inquiry into mother and baby homes.

Despite all of these revelations and more, there has never been a full audit of all files held by the State and accredited adoption agencies. Yet, the Government has stuck to its opinion that an audit is not necessary.

Today’s revelations are also difficult to dismiss as historic.

While the vaccine trial involving children from Bessborough Mother and Baby Home took place in 1960/61, the changes made to records relating to the trial are recorded as having occurred in 2002 — when the CICA asked to see them.

According to the third interim report of the CICA, it sought discovery of records relating to vaccine trials from the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary on 22 July 2002. Affidavits were sworn by the Order in October and November 2002 and in January, April and June of 2003.

The document listing the changes made to some of the 20 files relating to to those involved in the Bessborough vaccine trial opens with:“8.8.02 Checked the 20 files” and is immediately followed with the entry: “9.8.02 Made the changes”.

These changes are then listed. They include the alteration of discharge dates of mothers (by a period of one year and two years), the changing of discharge dates of children, the changing of admission dates of mothers, the alteration of the age of a mother (by two years), the alteration of dates of adoption, the changing of baptism dates and location of baptism, and the insertion of certain named locations and information into admission books.

A data protection request released to vaccine trial victim Mari Steed in 2011 also confirms this timeline. A file containing details about both her and her natural mother was created by the Order on 6 August 2002. This was done following a request “for Solicitor re Vaccine”. Ms Steed’s natural mother is listed as “No 19 on Doctor’s List” with a house name of ‘Philomena’. The record lists “All Counties DUBLIN” above discharge information pertaining to her mother.

The document listing the alterations states that the information relating to Dublin is recorded as having been “inserted” into the original file.

“No 19 [house name redacted] Crossed out the Indoor Reg entry as it is corssed (sic) out in the Book. Inserted DUBLIN after All Counties.” Another entry in the document reads: “No 17 [house name redacted] Changed nm [natural mother] disch from x/x/60 to x/x/62”.

Given that the trial took place between December 1960 and November 1961, this change has the effect of placing the mother in Bessborough at the time of the trial and when any vaccinations took place. If she was discharged in 1960, as the file originally stated, she could not have been present to give consent for her child to be used in the trial.

On another file, a natural mothe’rs discharge date is changed from a date in August 1960 to a date in August 1961. This change also places the mother in Bessborough at the time of the trial.

The Irish Examiner put a series of questions to the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in relation to the document and the changes listed. It declined to to answer any of the specific questions asked.

A statement from Ruairí Ó Catháin solicitors representing the Order stated that it had “no immediate knowledge of any specific event” concerning alterations made to records.

”We are in contact with the Commission in regard to the Mother and Baby Homes Investigation, which is having our full co-operation. For the present, as is appropriate, we will be dealing directly with the Commission on all related matters,” said a statement.

In a separate statement, the order said it wished to “categorically state that no documents were altered”.

“In your recent correspondence you are suggesting that something illegal or inappropriate had occurred in regard to the documents to which you refer. This is entirely untrue; and we will continue to deal directly with the official Commission on all such matters,” said a statement.

The Mother and Baby Homes Commission faces an onerous task to try and find answers for thousands of natural mothers and adopted people who are desperately seeking them.

It has copied all the records relating to Bessborough and is currently analysing them alongside the other 17 institutions being examined. A report is expected in February of 2018.

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