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Unmarried pregnant women abused in church-run homes in Ireland to get record-breaking compensation

Lists of the names of dead children at an unmarked mass grave at the site of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home run by the Bon Secours sisters. (Niall Carson/PA Images/Getty Images)
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LONDON — Thousands of unmarried women and their children born out of wedlock who were shunned by Irish society and sought refuge in state-owned homes — where many were then abused by nuns and officials of the Roman Catholic Church — will be eligible for compensation from a new multimillion-dollar initiative the Irish government has established “in acknowledgment of suffering experienced.”

Known as “mother and baby homes,” the controversial institutions were widespread in Ireland from the 1920s to the 1990s. They housed mostly young women who were cast out by their families for bearing children deemed illegitimate in a largely conservative religious society.

About 34,000 people are thought to be eligible for what the government calls the “Mother and Baby Institutions Payment Scheme,” which is being funded with an estimated $900 million, the government said Tuesday. The compensation program will be the largest plan of its type in the history of Ireland, it added.

“There is no payment or measure that can ever fully compensate or atone for the harm done through the Mother and Baby Institutions,” said a statement from Roderic O’Gorman, the Irish government minister responsible for children’s affairs.

“What we have set out today is the next chapter in the State’s response to the legacy of those institutions, and its commitment to rebuilding the trust it so grievously shattered.”

Irish leader apologizes for cruelty to unwed mothers and babies at homes run by the state and Catholic Church

A government-commissioned report this year found that infant mortality at the institutions was in many years double the national average. Some 9,000 infants died — 15 percent of all those who were born in the system. Most of the babies who survived were offered up for adoption, including in the United States, often without full maternal consent. The report also detailed instances of physical abuse at the hands of nuns, including beatings and withholding of pain relief during labor.

One story that gained international prominence was that of Irish mother Philomena Lee, whose son was born in a mother and baby home in the 1950s and was sent for adoption in the United States at age 3. Her narrative was depicted in a 2013 movie starring Judi Dench, and she continues to make legal challenges and champion the rights of survivors.

The payment plan follows a “detailed consultation” with survivor and human rights groups, the government said, and will be open for applications in late 2022.

The ‘mother and baby home’ at Tuam, Ireland, where friends just ‘disappeared, one after the other’

All mothers who spent time in the homes will be eligible for payments, the amount increasing according to their length of stay. All children who spent six months or more in the institutions and did not receive redress from other programs will be eligible for payment, also on the basis of their length of stay. Others also will gain enhanced medical benefits in Ireland, the government said.

No evidence of abuse or any medical evidence will be required to get the payment, with survivors and former residents of the homes now living overseas also qualifying for some financial compensation.

“The Scheme will take a holistic and non-adversarial approach to ensure that survivors and former residents are not re-traumatised by their engagement with it,” the Irish government said.

However, some commentators have lambasted the government’s approach, criticizing the six-month minimum time limit for children.

Máiréad Enright, a researcher in feminist legal studies at the University of Birmingham, on Twitter called it a “flawed scheme that misrecognises the nature of the harm suffered.” She said the six-month minimum residency in any of the institutions left out “those who suffered very serious harms over a short period.”

Conor O’Mahony, a legal professor at University College Cork, also wrote online that he was “incredibly disappointed” with parts of the plan that appeared to exclude some children who lived in foster homes.

O’Gorman acknowledged that there are limits to financial compensation. Some survivors may be seeking more from government officials or other forms of acknowledgment for their pain — whether an apology or a public memorial. But he said that the government payment plan “represents a significant milestone in the State’s acknowledgment of its past failures and of the needless suffering experienced by so many of its citizens.”

In January, Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin formally apologized “for the profound generational wrong” and the state’s complicity in the “dark, difficult and shameful” treatment of unmarried women and their babies over the 20th century. He said there had been a “failure of empathy, understanding and basic humanity.”

The issue came to the fore this year after the long-awaited publication of a 3,000-page report from Ireland’s Commission on Mother and Baby Homes, which investigated conditions for the 56,000 unmarried mothers and 57,000 children who passed through the system at 18 homes run by the state and by Catholic charities from 1920 until 1998, when the last facility was closed.

Although the 2021 report directed much blame at the Catholic Church, it also stressed that some of the homes were operated by the local health authorities. During a 2018 visit to Ireland, Pope Francis apologized to mothers estranged from their children in church-run homes and begged forgiveness for the multitude of abuses suffered by victims.

In Ireland, the once-dominant Catholic Church shared power with the government overseeing daily life by running schools, hospitals and social welfare programs. But in recent years, the Irish have steadily rejected directives from the church, overturning constitutional prohibitions against divorce, birth control, same-sex marriage and abortion.

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