When the Pope celebrated mass in Ireland in 2018, a vast field in Dublin’s Phoenix Park was transformed into a grid of “pilgrim corrals” to control the expected massive crowds, which never materialized. Out of ten people in my section, two nuns told me about a priest at home who had abused a young woman.
Another pilgrim, who came from Belfast for the occasion, said her aunt was sent to a religious institution as a teenager because she was pregnant. Her son was taken away. On her deathbed, her aunt always asked the priest for forgiveness.
The Pope had come for the World Meeting of Families. During the gathering of the Catholic hierarchy and the faithful, news broke of nuns arrested in Scotland for abuse at the Smyllum Park orphanage they ran, where hundreds have died. The charges stemmed from the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry. The same order, the Daughters of Charity, ran Ireland’s largest mother-child house.
“The institutions were imported from Britain,” said the nuns in the corral. While the Vatican imposed its influence through religious orders, it is true that Britain laid the foundation for what I call the Industrial Complex of Shame, through the workhouse system imposed from of the 1700s that punished the vulnerable and separated children from their parents.
Over the past decade, surveys in Ireland have revealed the legacy of state-funded religious institutions, from industrial schools to Magdalene laundries. Canada and Australia have faced a similar history of institutional abuse and forced adoption. Now, with investigations into abuse in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland set to release final reports, a calculation is overdue in Britain.
In 1999, the Irish state apologized to those abused as children in religious institutions, launching a decade-long investigation. Catholic orders received compensation for the payment of a fraction of the compensation, with gag rules imposed on survivors receiving compensation. The state recently attempted to seal the investigation records of child abuse for 75 years. But breaking silences catalyzed change in Ireland and beyond.
The inquiries in Ireland also led to one of the UK’s largest public inquiries. Created in 2012, the historical investigation of institutional ill-treatment in Northern Ireland uncovered systemic abuse in children’s residential institutions operating between 1922 and 1995. This year, after a tireless campaign by survivors, a reparations program began.
In 2015, the independent investigation into child abuse covering England and Wales has been set up. As Boris Johnson claims money is “piled on the wall” to investigate historic child abuse, an “epidemic” is uncovered, with thousands of allegations leading to convictions. The Inquiry’s Truth Project heard from 5,000 survivors.
Systemic abuses impact generations. I have spent the last few years, while working on a book, talking with survivors of Irish institutions. Métis and disabled children were sent to “rejection rooms”. Mothers were labeled “delinquents” and forced to do penance. Thousands of children labeled “illegitimate” have died at shocking rates in these institutions, disappearing in anonymous graves. Mothers are always looking for where their babies have been buried. Millennials my age were born in these “houses”, the last in operation until 2006.
The final report of the Commission of Inquiry into Mother and Baby Homes in Ireland is due next month, with new legislation offered to keep the records he gathered and a database of women and their children that could help people find each other. Survivors face barriers to information even about their own identity.
The commission was established five years ago, after a local historian discovered that hundreds of children had died in an institution, where the remains of infants were found in sewer chambers.
The Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, based in England, have established mother-baby homes in Britain and Ireland. The commission called his affidavit on the burials of thousands of children who died in its Irish institutions “misleading”. The nuns who ran these institutions are still alive.
A culture of secrecy continues. Avoiding accountability takes priority over transparency. Last year, the Pope’s representative in Britain even refused to testify as part of the child abuse investigation.
In 2016, the UK government rejected requests for a public inquiry into the forced adoption of thousands of potential children into mother-baby homes run by the Catholic Church, Church of England and Salvation Army. . In the same year, an inter-ministerial task force was set up by Stormont to investigate mother-baby houses, Magdalene laundries and office abuse in Northern Ireland, including cross-border trafficking in children. People born in the Marianvale mother and baby in Northern Ireland were sent across the border and illegally adopted.
Eunan Duffy, a Marianvale survivor campaigning for a full legal investigation, called the task force a “farce.” Amnesty International denounced it as “chambolic”, having delayed the meeting of the victims and being without a chair since 2018 until a former police officer takes over this year. The final report, promised last year, has yet to be released. “They will delay and deny,” said Duffy. He thinks survivors should have more of a say in these investigations.
Although the surveys are flawed, this is no excuse to look away. Systemic change requires transitional justice. Christine Buckley, a survivor who spoke out against abuse in Irish institutions, spoke out in hopes her children’s generation would never allow it to happen again. Without accountability for “historic” abuses, why would an institution expect to be held accountable for how it treats the most vulnerable today?