Justice is priceless for these mothers | Ireland | The Times & The Sunday Times
 The Sunday Times

Justice is priceless for these mothers

The heartbreaking loss of a child cannot be measured in monetary terms


Elizabeth Anne O’Dwyer was the only child of an unmarried west of Ireland woman who placed her in an orphanage at six years of age. On reaching fifth class she was removed from school and sent to various Magdalene laundries to serve as an unpaid skivvy. At 21, she escaped from the notorious laundry at High Park in Dublin’s Drumcondra, run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity and Refuge. Elizabeth’s escape was brief but long enough for her to be raped and impregnated in a crime she never reported to gardai because, she says now, aged 70: “Sure, who was going to believe a laundry girl?”

Pregnancy condemned her to confinement in St Patrick’s mother and baby home on the Navan Road, run by another order of Catholic nuns, the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul. Her “gorgeous baby” was born on March 2, 1969, in St Kevin’s Hospital (now St James’s). She called him Michael David Murphy. Afterwards, mother and son were returned to St Patrick’s, where, apart from feeding times, they led enforced unconnected existences.

Eight weeks after the birth, Elizabeth was required to sign a form entitled “mother’s consent to adoption”. The signing, which contravened a compulsory six-month lacuna for consent to be valid under the Adoption Act 1952, was witnessed by Sister Austin, a Daughters of Charity nun. Three weeks later, the boy was “spirited away from her”, according to Elizabeth’s solicitor, Carl O’Mahony. When I asked Elizabeth what was her last memory of him, she sobbed and apologised that, to this day, she finds it hard to talk about her final memory of him.

He vanished from her life at the end of May 1969. Back in High Park more than four months later, Elizabeth was again presented with an adoption document, this time by a Sister Columba of Our Lady of Charity and Refuge. According to Elizabeth, the nun threatened that, if she refused to sign, she would “end up on the street”.

Life went on, and so did Elizabeth. Married and widowed twice, she had eight other children, including a daughter who died tragically young. But she never forgot Michael David. Mairead O’Leary, a consultant psychiatrist, said in a court affidavit that Elizabeth often thinks about her first-born and “feels deeply ashamed and embarrassed” that he was adopted.

In 2008, with the help of another of her children, she went looking for him but all that remained of her son was a memorial plaque in Glasnevin cemetery and an urn of his ashes kept by the mother of his five children. He had died four years earlier, collapsing with an epileptic convulsion in a city street and fatally banging his head on the ground. Elizabeth is united with his children. They and a portion of ashes their mother has shared are her enduring connections to the child she lost.

Speaking in the Dail last month after the Commission of Investigation into mother and baby homes verified the existence of numerous children’s remains in sewerage chambers at a former Tuam home, the taoiseach said the babies of single mothers were treated “akin to some kind of sub-species”. So, too, were their mothers.

This state, which was in cahoots with the religious institutions operating the system, was unabashed about its policy of wrenching children from their mothers. In 1974, the then justice minister Patrick Cooney told the Irish Adoption Workers’ annual conference: “I think that we are all agreed that the consensus opinion in our society is to the effect that adoption is better for the illegitimate baby than to be cared for by its mother.”

This from a state that refused to collect €13bn owed it by Apple in unlevied taxes

The state would say it is making amends by establishing the commission, which is chaired by Yvonne Murphy, the judge who produced milestone reports on child sex abuse in the Catholic dioceses of Dublin and Cloyne. On Tuesday, children’s minister Katherine Zappone published Murphy’s interim report, which she has had since last September. Predictably, political attention has converged on the government’s reluctance to adopt its recommendation that it reopen the Residential Institutions Redress Board for unaccompanied children in mother and baby homes. The government has intimated the country cannot afford to reactivate the scheme, which has cost €1.24bn. “As a society, we will need to make major decisions about what we spend our money on in the future,” stated an explanatory note issued by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. This from a state that refused to collect €13bn owed it by Apple in unlevied taxes. I do not believe it is deliberate, but this stance perpetuates an innuendo that survivors are gouging the exchequer. It feeds a simmering public ennui with victims and their rights to redress, while ignoring the fact that the average award was just €62,250, plus the obscenity that €200m of the bill went to legal firms.

Because the focus has been on the money — as it always is in public discourse — another of the commission’s recommendations has been allowed to creep under the carpet, though many survivors will find it sickening. It is the proposal that the government introduce an amnesty from prosecution to “encourage” those with information about births and adoptions to hand it over. Pragmatic it may be, but letting congregations go scot-free after already indemnifying 18 orders under the 2002 redress deal for a paltry €128m contribution would be to pile further disrespect upon survivors.

Money is rarely their motivation: it’s healing they want. But to be healed, they need to know from where and from whom they have come. Healing was Elizabeth’s motivation when she sued the Daughters of Charity, the Sisters of our Lady of Charity of Refuge, and the HSE. The Daughters of Charity had its case struck out in the High Court on the grounds it was statute-barred. Elizabeth went as far as the Supreme Court, unsuccessfully arguing that she only discovered proof of the nuns’ role in Michael David’s adoption — which the congregation had denied — when she obtained documents under a data protection request.

The Court of Appeal said: “No one who has heard the narrative in this case could be other than deeply moved by the poignant and tragic facts” but it had to deal with the law.

Zappone has mooted transitional justice as a remedy but putting wrongdoers above the law in return for information can never masquerade as justice. It is the same sort of paternalistic perversion Murphy found in Cloyne, when church authorities offered complainants a listening ear instead of notifying gardai about the criminals who molested them.

The government may consider monetary redress a luxury it cannot afford. Justice, however, has no price.

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