The publication of the Report into Mother and Baby Homes has helped shed light on what happened to vulnerable women and their children within the walls of those homes and beyond. This Report holds a mirror to aspects of our past which are difficult and distressing, and we can no longer shy away from some extremely painful truths about how, collectively and individually, we fell short in our care of vulnerable women and their children. The Commission’s Report highlights a failure, over a seventy-year period, of our society and its culture to acknowledge the dignity of every person. People can now see how it was a failure on the part of communities and families to appreciate what it means to be human. In terms of the social history of our country since Independence, both Church and State now have reason to offer profound apologies to all women and children who passed through these homes, to their families, and to the people of the country.
As I said during the week “a genuine response is required: ours – as a Church and a society – can only be a full apology, without any reservation.” There were many ways in which people of faith on this island failed to reflect the gospel values which we espoused and still espouse. As the report indicates, Mother and Baby Homes provided a refuge – a harsh refuge in some cases – when few families were willing to provide any refuge.
One of the most striking aspects of the personal testimonies in the Report is the shame felt by women who became pregnant outside marriage, and the stigma of illegitimacy so callously attached to their children. Some have carried this burden with them their entire life. This was particularly egregious. And it is even more painful for women who in many instances were the victims of violence, of verbal and emotional abuse.
The behaviour of some religious who operated these institutions was wrong, and a shameful betrayal of trust. All joy and hope appear to have been leeched from the response to these pregnancies and births. Part of the life of faith had become sterile, and many lived in the shadows of what might be best described as a grey world, a life other than what we now recognise as the full life offered by God to everyone.
Equally in terms of the prevailing attitudes of the wider society the Church had a responsibility to instil the values of compassion and care, but in so many instances failed to do so despite the individual good work and practice of so many religious and lay people – women and men.
As a society and a church, we lost sight of the gift that is every child. We kept before us some children and their needs, while others came to be treated as problems. While we are shocked that these places existed, it is a damning indictment of Irish society that they continued to exist for so long. It is to be hoped that understanding our past might give us the moral courage to do something in the present to change the shameful reality that right now other people are still in danger today.
While there were some who, at that time, spoke out, these were few and far between. Still, it is important to remember the many discreet – even hidden – kindnesses, of women and men, religious and not, who brought humanity and warmth into difficult situations in very austere settings. Their work remained unseen as they lived out the call of Jesus not to let their left know what their right was doing (Matt 6:3).
The Report is not yesterday’s news. Do we now live in a land where every person is protected, where all are safe? Sadly, that is not the case. Migrants are trafficked into Ireland and not a few women are forced into lives of prostitution. Others are housed fifteen to a room by unscrupulous landlords. I am also thinking of people constrained to live in hotel rooms, and of our immigrants in detention and direct provision centres, people – young and not so young – who find themselves addicted to drugs and preyed upon by callous merchants of dependency. There are thousands of children in this country who have no place they can call their home, with families who do not have a front door to call their own. There are still travellers who live in inhuman conditions; there are children in the care of the HSE who do not have an allocated social worker. Are we listening to the voices of those who care for people with special needs? The list can go on and on: there is much to be addressed before we can feel secure in the knowledge that the scale and depth of the suffering revealed in the Mother and Baby Home Report and County Homes belong to a different society. This is an ongoing responsibility. Some will say: ‘it comes down to money.’ Might our contemporary sin be that of substituting economics for conscience, of declaring that we just cannot afford proper facilities or care for our vulnerable people? We must also advance legislation to provide access to information for former residents and their families.
In the Lord’s Prayer – which we will pray in this Mass and which we pray throughout our lives – we pray, “forgive us our trespasses.” This is not an easy way out, but an acknowledgement of our own failures and of our need of repentance and change. It is not adequate to say, “That was done by others, it has nothing to do with us.” As a country we must address the rightful concerns of the survivors by reburying infants who died in these Homes in a respectful and dignified way. Furthermore, our Christian faith asks us to take up the cross not impose it on others. What is asked of us is to support others in carrying and lightening the burden that has been imposed by previous generations.
Today’s readings show the different ways that the call of discipleship reaches us. Eli perceived that it was the Lord who was calling Samuel. In the Gospel the call comes through the mediation of another witness. No matter what way the call to follow the Lord comes to us, St Paul is clear that we do not experience the Holy as disembodied spirits. Our bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit.” God became one of us. An embodied spirituality must help us oppose any exploitation of people. May the Lord who opened the ears and heart of Eli to discern Samuel’s call, make our ears attentive to his call to us. May he fill our hearts with his compassion, and strengthen our wills to do his will – for the good of all, especially the vulnerable and the poor, the little ones to whom he sends his Son, and those who would follow him.
Archbishop Elect Dublin
Administrator of Ossory