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Catholic Church in England and Wales apologizes for 30 years of ‘forced’ adoptions

The Leeds Birth Families Group. (from left in the back row) Jill, Margaret and Alison, and (from left in the front) Janet, Margaret Beryl, Kate and Sue. All had children adopted at a young age. (Courtesy of ITV)
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Angela Patrick’s 8-week-old son was sleeping peacefully on that day in 1964 when he was taken out of her arms.

The new mother — then 19 — had been living in a Catholic home near London for unmarried women who had committed the ultimate sin and become pregnant. Two months after giving birth, a taxi took her to an adoption charity, where a woman carried Patrick’s baby, Paul, into a room to meet his potential new parents.

“She came back in and she didn’t have my baby with her,” Patrick said, tears filling her eyes as she recounted the day in a new documentary. “She said, ‘You can go when you’re ready.’”

During the 30 years after World War II, more than a half-million women — many unmarried — had a child put up for adoption. A number of religious organizations, including the Catholic Church, the Church of England and the Salvation Army, oversaw these adoptions, before a 1976 change to the law gave the responsibility to local authorities.

Several decades later, in the new ITV documentary, the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales apologized for its role in the adoptions, which many of the women say were coerced.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, said the practices of adoption agencies at the time were “sometimes lacking in care and sensitivity.”

“We apologize for the hurt caused by agencies acting in the name of the Catholic Church,” Nichols said.

“Sadly for unmarried mothers, adoption was considered to be in the best interests of the mother and child because of the associated stigma and the lack of support for lone parents,” Nichols added.

The documentary, “Britain’s Adoption Scandal: Breaking the Silence,” tells the stories of some of the women who gave up their babies for adoption during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. It is scheduled for broadcast on ITV on Nov. 9.

About 60 women were interviewed for the documentary. Many of them said they thought they did not have much of a choice at the time. An unmarried mother was considered unfit to care for a baby alone, one of these mothers, Veronica Smith, said in a phone interview with The Washington Post.

Smith was 23 years old and unmarried when she became pregnant and was sent to a hostel run by the Catholic Church in Southern England. One week after her daughter was born, the infant was handed over for adoption. For many years, Smith buried the memory of her pregnancy, and of her daughter. But in the early 1990s, “I had a breakdown, and it all came tumbling out,” Smith said. She had to have therapy and psychiatric care.

“I feel angry with my mother, the church, myself for being so compliant,” Smith, now 75, said. “I was on this conveyor belt, you know. Once the decision was made, you couldn’t get off.”

One of the other mothers interviewed, Jill, recalled in the documentary that people would frequently tell her, “Well, if you love your baby, you’ll give your baby up.”

Another mother, identified only by her first name, Margaret, who was sent to a Salvation Army maternity home in West Yorkshire, England, described the shame and guilt she felt at the time.

“I would like somebody to say sorry,” she said, but added, “why would anybody say they’re sorry? I was the one that did wrong.”

The documentary was reminiscent of the 2013 film “Philomena,” based on a 2009 book about an Irish teenager who was sent to a convent after becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Her son, Anthony Lee, was handed over to a new family at age 3 and taken to the United States, where he grew up, never seeing his birth mother again.

Now-infamous Irish unwed mothers’ center was ‘evil’ orphanage for American man

Similar adoptions peaked in 1968, when more than 16,000 babies born to unmarried mothers were adopted by new parents, the Guardian reported. In recent years, women and advocates have called for an official apology on behalf of Parliament for the pain and grief caused by the adoption practices over the 30-year period.

In Australia, where an estimated 150,000 women had their babies offered up for adoption against their will between the 1950s and ’70s, the prime minister delivered a national apology to the victims in 2013.

Two years earlier, Smith co-founded a group called Movement for an Adoption Apology in Britain to advance the cause of a parliamentary apology. In a mission statement, the group wrote that unmarried, pregnant women of the time period were not given information about the welfare services, including housing and financial help, available at the time.

“There was no question of these women being found to be unfit mothers; they were simply prevented from becoming mothers at all,” the group wrote. “This experience so traumatised many of these women that they have suffered years of mental and/or physical ill health ever since, and many were unable to have more children.”

Smith said she hopes the documentary helps urge Parliament to issue a formal apology, to give those mothers reassurance “that they weren’t bad women.”

“We don’t want compensation. We just want acknowledgment,” Smith said in a phone interview.

A team of lawyers is now calling for an inquiry into the handling of such adoptions before 1976, Smith said.

“These women were told not to speak about what had happened to them,” Carolynn Gallwey, a lawyer with Bhatt Murphy Solicitors, said in the documentary. “But now they’re entitled to have their experiences recognized. And the only way to do that is through a public inquiry.”

In a statement to the Guardian, the Church of England expressed regret for its role in the adoptions. “What was thought to be the right thing to do at the time has caused great hurt. That is a matter of great regret,” a representative said.

Looking back on the day she was pressured to give up her son for adoption, Patrick said she doesn’t even recall crying when she left the charity.

“It was just sort of a horrible noise I was making,” Patrick said. “I remember looking at other people and thinking: ‘You don’t know. You have no idea what I’ve just been asked to do.’

“For you it’s just a normal day, and I’ve just had to give up my baby,” she added.

Three decades later, on Jan. 19, 1994, Patrick received a letter from her son, Paul, she told the Guardian in a 2012 article. She sobbed uncontrollably, and the mother and son reunited soon after. She would later write a memoir about the pregnancy, the adoption, and the reunion with Paul.

“When it came to it, we just hugged and didn’t let go,” she said.

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