Following on from yesterdays post today I'll give the second part of a recap of the scandals that are plaguing the Mother and Baby Homes.
Bessborough House Mother and Baby home run by the Sacred Heart Sisters of Jesus and Mary opened in 1922. TV3's documentary spoke to a woman names Helen Murphy who was born in Bessborough in 1962. Helen Murphy had been placed for adoption. She left Bessborough at seven months old and spent much of her grown life feeling rejected while not knowing her true history. Unfortunately by the time her search for her birth mother came to fruition Murphy found out that her mother had died just three weeks prior however she was reunited with her sister. Again Helen Murphy maintains she was one of the lucky ones who made it out but she believes that the only way we will know the true extent of the number of children buried at Bessborough is by excavating and exhuming the site. Murphy also wants light shed on the conditions in which the mothers were treated at Bessborough.
June Goulding, a midwife who worked in Bessborough in 1951 sheds light of some of this treatment that she saw during her time there. She told the programme that there was no kindness, no empathy and that the mothers were treated like outcasts and criminals. She outlines how on attending one particularly difficult birth and noticing that there was no foetal heartbeat the nun stated that the woman would still have to suffer through. The woman in question went through 36 hours of labour to give birth to a nine pound stillborn baby. June Goulding's 1998 book The Light in the Window details further the working conditions of heavily pregnant women and girls who tarred roads, tended to gardens, polished floors etc. often well into their labours. When they were in labour they were given no painkillers, no stitches and no antibiotics for infections that occurred.
In 1951 Dr. James Deeny (Chief Medical Officer) became suspicious of the high mortality rates for children in Bessborough and conducted investigations. Despite seeing nothing out of the ordinary in his examination of the building and wards he decided to examine the children himself. Dr. Deeny found that every child had a purulent infection of the skin and green diarrhoea that someone had intended to cover up. In an unprecedented move, Dr. Deeny sacked the matron/head nun and temporarily closed Bessborough.
Which brings us to Sr. Sarto, Sr. Sarto is the Mother Superior of Bessborough and is, to say the least, an interesting woman. Over the next couple of weeks I intend to post about both her and Dr. Deeny but for quite different reasons. Sr. Sarto appears intent of defending her order and the church at all costs. She says of the nuns under her charge " I don't think it's fair. We had a good staff, some of them are still with us. I think it's sad that it has come to this". Sr. Sarto has a list of reasons why the child mortality rate was high: lack of antibiotics, close proximity etc. However before Dr. Deeny's involvement Bessborough had a child mortality rate of up to 51% with 100 out of 180 children dying in one year before Dr. Deeny's investigation. After Dr. Deeny reopened the home the child mortality rate plummeted to under 2% with yearly deaths never getting above single figures. Sr. Sarto is still indignant that this news is currently breaking "We gave our lives to looking after the girls" she says "and we're certainly not appreciated for doing it".
Mike Millotte, who was also interviewed, wrote Banished Babies in 1997, a harrowing read which outlines the extent to which children and babies were adopted and sold, sometimes out of Ireland. He details that often a mother would have her child for two years in a Mother and Baby Home before they were separated and the child taken away with often no more than an hours notice. Money changed hands for these adoptions and often couples were asked for ongoing donations for years afterwards. Despite the 1952 Adoption Act deeming money for adoptions being illegal the process was still ongoing. At least two thousand children were exported to the United States over a twenty year period after World War II. Many of these children were sold to American couples who had been deemed unsuitable candidates as prospective adoptive parents in their home country. The criteria for adoptions from Catholic Mother and Baby Homes was that prospective parents be Catholic, Mass-goers and obviously wealthy enough to afford the extortionate fees and subsequent donations to the convent.
The degree to which the mothers in the homes consented to these adoptions raises many questions. Sr. Sarto maintains, in the face of large amounts of evidence, that all these adoptions were legal and consensual. However, Mike Millotte found in many cases that the mothers did not have their rights explained to them, no other options were up for discussion and many who did sign adoption papers felt they had no other options under heavy duress. Furthermore no counselling or psychological services were ever offered to the mothers. There is an interesting note on the Adoption Rights Alliance of Ireland's website referring to Sr. Sarto which states that in 2005, Sr Sarto "secretly join(ed) an on-line adoption support group and summons some members to her office to question their posts and begins personally harassing other members via phone and letter". The entire timeline of shame can be found here and is well worth reading for a concise history of adoption out of Mother and Baby Homes amongst other aspects of Ireland's shameful history.
I thought this would be a two parter but I'm splitting again into a three parter as I want to go into further detail than is in the TV3 documentary about the vaccine trials that children in Mother and Baby Homes were subjected to. Also lest I be accused of anti-Catholic bias (again) I'll deal with the programmes findings on the Church of Ireland's Bethany Mother and Baby Home.