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Historian Catherine Corless watches Taoiseach Micheal Martin speak during a government webinar meeting for survivors and supporters of Church-run 'mother and baby homes' in Tuam, Ireland, Jan. 12, 2021.

CLODAGH KILCOYNE/Reuters

A new report has shed light on one of the most disturbing periods in Ireland’s relationship to the Catholic Church with revelations about how thousands of unwed mothers were mistreated by nuns and priests at more than a dozen “mother and baby homes” from 1922 to 1998.

The report, released Tuesday by a government-appointed commission, examined 18 homes that housed a total of 56,000 mothers and 57,000 children over the years. The conclusions made for grim reading.

Most of the women lived in cramped quarters and suffered physical and emotional abuse by nuns who berated them for getting pregnant. Infant mortality rates in the homes were well above the national average and the report said 9,000 children died, many without any burial records. Several dozen children were also used as guinea pigs for scientific experiments to develop vaccines for polio, measles and diphtheria.

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“The report describes a dark, difficult and shameful chapter of very recent Irish history,” said Micheal Martin, Ireland’s Taoiseach or Prime Minister. “It holds up a mirror to aspects of our past which are painful and difficult, and from the present perspective often hard to comprehend.”

Thousands of infants died in Irish homes for unmarried mothers and their offspring run by the Catholic Church from the 1920s to the 1990s, an inquiry found on Tuesday, an 'appalling' mortality rate that reflected brutal living conditions. Reuters

Mr. Martin is expected to make a state apology this week in parliament and the government is considering compensation for the survivors. Officials also plan to excavate some of the remains and help survivors access details about their mothers and children.

Archbishop Eamon Martin, the head of the Irish Catholic Church, issued an apology on behalf of the church late Tuesday. “I accept that the church was clearly part of that culture in which people were frequently stigmatized, judged and rejected,” he said in a statement. “For that, and for the long-lasting hurt and emotional distress that has resulted, I unreservedly apologise to the survivors and to all those who are personally impacted by the realities it uncovers.”

The commission spent five years studying the homes and its report included accounts from nearly 900 survivors who would testify only if they remained anonymous. Several described the appalling conditions and emotional abuse they suffered after being brought to the homes, usually by family members who feared the shame of a child born out of wedlock.

“I was told by a nun: ‘God doesn’t want you … ‘You’re dirt,’ ” one witness told the commission. Others said they’d been “slapped, beaten and punched, with nuns shouting at them that this was their penance for sinful behaviour.”

Family members turned on them as well. One woman recalled discovering that she was pregnant at 14 and being told by her mother: “Nobody will want you now.” The woman said she was locked in her room and then taken to one of the homes.

Nearly all of the mothers – some as young as 12 years old – gave up their children for adoption or foster care, often under extreme pressure. When one mother said she wanted to take her baby and move to England, the report said that a nun replied: “That doesn’t happen here. You’ll do what we tell you and that’s it. You’re not keeping that baby. You’re going nowhere with that baby. You’re going home and the baby is going somewhere else.”

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Around 1,600 babies were sent abroad for adoption, mainly to the United States. Some survivors said the adoptions were arranged in exchange for fees or donations, although the commission said it was impossible to prove or disprove the allegations. In most cases, grown-up children were prevented from tracking down information about their birth mothers and many have faced lifelong discrimination. “The psychology of being a bastard is deep in the Irish psyche and has stayed with me throughout my life,” said one man who was born in one of the homes.

Ireland wasn’t alone in establishing homes for unwed mothers but the commission said, “the proportion of Irish unmarried mothers who were admitted to [mother and baby homes] in the 20th century was probably the highest in the world.” And while the conditions and mortality rates were known to government and church officials for years, nothing was done. “No publicity was given to the fact that in some years during the 1930s and 1940s, over 40 per cent of ‘illegitimate’ children were dying before their first birthday in mother and baby homes,” the report said.

The mortality rate in one of the largest homes, Bessborough, hit 75 per cent in 1943 and nearly 1,000 children died there during the 76-year period. Bessborough “failed to keep a register of infant burials and the burial location of the majority of children who died there is still unknown,” the report said.

The commission was appointed after amateur historian Catherine Corless uncovered a mass grave in a sewage system at the Bon Secours mother and baby home in Tuam in 2014. The report said that 802 children died at Tuam between 1921 and 1961, and most were just a few months old. “No register of burials was kept and it is likely that most of the children who died in Tuam are buried inappropriately in the grounds of the institution,” the report said.

On Tuesday, Ms. Corless told Irish broadcaster RTE that the government must do more to find out what happened. “We need to know what happened in those deaths,” she said. “Why so many babies died? How did the burials take place? Who was responsible for putting the bodies of babies and toddlers into sewerage areas?”

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