The adoption registration scandal has reopened a dark episode in our recent past. Mike Milotte—an award winning journalist and author of Banished Babies: The Secret History of Ireland’s Baby Export Business—explores the background to this scandal, and the implications for an Irish state still unwilling to fully account for it.
It is over 20 years since a spotlight was first turned on Ireland’s adoption system with the revelation in 1996 that over 2,000 babies had been taken from their unmarried mothers in the 1950s and ‘60s and exported secretly to America for adoption. At first the State denied any knowledge of this baby trafficking, and no-one else admitted involvement. But we now know it was organised on an industrial scale by Ireland’s nuns, sanctioned by their Archbishop, administered by civil servants, and approved by politicians who tried to keep it secret.
We know, too, that many of these children were handed over to people who had already been rejected by the American welfare system as unsuitable for adopting American children, yet who had no difficulty in procuring children from Ireland. And we know that both Church and State authorities in Ireland were fully aware that this was happening but did nothing about it, for fear of attracting publicity. Child welfare was the last thing on their minds.
In the years since then we have learned about the mass graves in mother and baby homes where the bodies of hundreds of ‘illegitimate’ children were unceremoniously disposed of. We can expect further harrowing tales of the neglect to which many of these helpless infants were subjected while in the ‘care’ of the nuns.
And now we are being told that an unknown, and probably unknowable number of birth records were ‘misregistered’ in years past. The State remains typically coy as to what lay behind this practice but it is abundantly clear that it was a deliberate ploy for facilitating illegal adoptions—a concept the State has huge difficulty in accepting. Simply stated, people who wanted children but couldn’t adopt legally would procure a child born to an unmarried woman—usually through a third party like a midwife, doctor, priest or social worker—and would have the child registered as their own; an illegal act of falsification, deception and forgery that the anodyne word ‘misregistered’ comes nowhere near to describing.
As the natural mother’s name wouldn’t appear on the official Register of Births, her anonymity was guaranteed—as of course was that of the father whose good fortune in this regard is often overlooked. But the practice seems to have been demand-led with the real winners those who acquired babies without ever having to be professionally vetted. And those who organised the deception could command a high price for their services since they were involving themselves in serious law breaking for someone else’s benefit.
The loser, of course, was the child whose true identity—something most of us simply take for granted—was entirely obliterated with all sorts of future implications, not least the inability to establish any sort of family health history.
This two-decades-long series of revelations from Ireland’s dark and secret adoption story should cause monumental outrage. Yet these episodes represent just the tip of a much bigger iceberg, one that Church and State still refuse to acknowledge, let alone own.
The simple, if unpalatable truth is that for decades the Irish authorities—religious and secular—presided over a regime of forced adoptions in which unmarried mothers and their infant children were more often victims than beneficiaries, and where laws designed to protect the vulnerable were flaunted at will while those who should have shouted halt deliberately averted their gaze.
Sins of the Church
The right to adopt children was first introduced in Ireland in the early 1950s. Before that thousands of children born to unmarried mothers—women who were denied any means of supporting their ‘illegitimate’ offspring—had been ‘boarded out’ by the religious-run homes where they resided, often put into domestic servitude or forced to perform hard manual labour at an early age. The fate of these children has never been recorded.
Adoption was supposed to have been a more humane alternative, but from the outset the Irish government allowed the Catholic Church to take control of the emerging adoption system. Given a fee hand, the religious quickly shaped it into yet another weapon in their arsenal for subjugating women.
Unmarried girls who became pregnant were regarded in Catholic social teaching as ‘fallen women’ and ‘grave sinners’ with severe ‘moral problems’ whose ‘spiritual fabric’ had to be ‘repaired’. Their ‘illegitimate’ children were said to be ‘destined for suffering and failure’, and the mother, regarded as ‘one step away from prostitution’, had to ‘take upon herself the responsibility for these evils’.
The nuns, of course, could argue that these attitudes were widespread in Irish society and they were only reflecting this collective hostility to unmarried mothers. But the Catholic Church, of which the nuns were a key element, was the sole arbiter of public morality and public antipathy to illegitimacy’ reflected church teachings, rather than the other way round. The nuns were a large part of the problem, masquerading as providers of the solution.
On the other hand, the Church had nothing to say about the men who fathered these children—many of them, no doubt, priests. The men in question were regarded as foolish victims of sinful, wanton women, guilty only of letting their natural urges get the better of them.
While most of the men walked away to be foolish another day, the unfortunate women who found themselves at the mercy of the nuns had their own perfectly normal female sexual urges decried and stigmatised. The full extent of the harm done by the nuns’ endless prurient haranguing can only be guessed at, but for sure, many young women who entered these places healthy and vigorous came out with their self-esteem shattered, their hopes ruined. Many felt unable to tell anyone, later partners included, that they had had a baby, adding a dark and destructive secret to an already intolerable burden of imposed guilt and shame.
It was hardly surprising, given the prevailing attitude to the women in their charge, that the nuns insisted they knew best when it came to determining each baby’s future. Countless women who went through this cruel regime have testified that they were given no alternative but to hand their baby up for adoption.
Mothers who might have spent as much as two years with their child in a mother and baby home could be given a few hours’ notice of the fact that adoptive parents had been found and they were to part with their baby immediately. Not infrequently the child had to be torn from the arms of its distraught mother for whom not even a consoling word, let alone professional counselling, was on offer.
Yet Irish adoption law states quite simply that for an adoption to be legal, the natural mother has to have given her consent, and that consent has to be both fully informed and freely provided. The mother also has to be told of her right to withdraw consent right up to the end of the process. But these fundamental requirements—basic human rights in other words—were more often than not dispensed with by the nuns who, notoriously, would stick a piece of paper in front of a young mother, already cowed into submission, and order her to sign on the dotted line. After that no going back was allowed.
In some cases, there is even evidence that signatures on these critical consent documents were forged—sometimes crudely and even with spelling mistakes, so confident were the nuns in their untouchability. Yet all these papers were notarised by a solicitor who would sign and stamp the documents ‘confirming’ that s/he witnessed the mother signing.
The upshot of all this is to call into question the legality of the very adoptions themselves, a terrible vista that the State will do everything to keep covered.
The Adoption Board, which issued all adoption orders, never looked behind these signatures or questioned the extent to which consent was genuinely informed or freely forthcoming. When one woman complained to the Board that she had never signed anything, although her son was still taken from her and adopted, her pleas for an inquiry were ignored for years. When an investigation finally did take place—21 years after the adoption—it was quickly established that her signature had been forged.
The police recommended that the nun responsible, Sr Hildegard McNulty, head of Sean Ross Abbey, be prosecuted. Thanks to official tardiness in investigating, the nun was by then 80 years old and the DPP declined to put her in the dock.
Compelling ‘consent’ and forging signatures weren’t the nuns’ only crimes. The law also criminalised charging money for arranging an adoption, making this an offence punishable with a hefty fine and a spell behind bars. Yet it seems the nuns saw themselves as above the law in this respect as well and felt free to extract whatever they could from many pliant couples who came to them desperate to adopt.
Sr Hildegard knew more than most about just how lucrative the adoption business was. Her order, the Sacred Heart nuns, exported around 850 babies to America and the old nun told a social worker before her death in 1995 that income from these adoptions was the greatest source of cash for the mother and baby home under her control. She also admitted to destroying the evidence when a Garda investigation into an unrelated adoption matter seemed imminent.
Astonishingly, the State authorities have never shown the slightest interest in investigating the murky financial aspects of adoption in Ireland, and although evidence of nuns charging exorbitant but unitemised and clearly fictitious ‘expenses’ while arranging adoptions first came to light two decades ago, no effort was made then or since to seize their accounts or go after other documentary proof of criminality. They’ve been given twenty years to shred the evidence and keep another appalling vista at bay.
In July 2011 the Catholic Church in Australia issued an apology for its role in administering what are acknowledged there to have been forced adoptions involving thousands of children from Church-run homes. Descriptions of how these children’s mothers were treated will be immediately recognisable in Ireland. The women said they were ‘alone and frightened and were not told about their rights to revoke adoption consent.’ In addition, they said they were ‘pressurised to sign adoption papers before consent could legally be obtained.’ And ‘in some cases documents are said to have been forged.’
If such disregard for fundamental women’s rights is what leads to a ‘forced’ adoption, then Ireland should be somewhere close to the top of the world’s forced adoption league table. Yet, for all the official bluster about dealing with this shameful past, the term ‘forced’ hasn’t even made it into official discourse.
In truth, this running sore in Irish life is unlikely to be healed until the adoption system under which so much wrong and cruelty was allowed to happen is publicly recognised as part of the continuum of church-state abuse against women and children, no less misogynistic in its design and intent than the historic denial of contraception, divorce and abortion, and no less damaging in its effects on many of those subjected to it than the Church’s physical and sexual abuse of children that so rightly scandalised the nation.
We still have a long way to go.