The recent report into the Mother and Baby Homes (published on 12 January 2021) was both controversial and shocking. It was based on the testimonies of over 500 women who recounted their experiences of living in the homes whilst pregnant and subsequently (in the majority of cases) having their babies adopted.
The homes were run in the main by religious orders though the report does reference two Protestant homes and four county homes not affiliated to religious institutions. It was commissioned by the Irish Government and the time span covered was 1922 to 1998.
In the interview above with Pat Coyle of Irish Jesuit Communications, Gerry O’Hanlon SJ, theologian and former Irish Jesuit Provincial, discusses the implications of the report for Irish society in general and Catholics and the Catholic Church in particular.
Gerry O’Hanlon says his initial response to what he read in the report was one of being completely overwhelmed. This was followed by a deep sadness for the way women and children were stigmatised, ostracised, and shamed in Ireland post-independence.
He welcomes the fact that the report contextualizes what happened down the years noting that misogyny was rife across Europe where unmarried mothers were stigmatised whilst those who had fathered the children were cleared of all responsibility.
And that it also focuses on the unique characteristics of the Irish context where matters were exacerbated by the symbiotic relationship between the Catholic Church and the Irish state after the 26 counties gained independence from British Rule.
He explores in particular the patriarchal role played by the Church down years and the impact of that on women. And he outlines the challenges that the Church must be prepared to face if it is to have credibility when addressing women today and honouring the women in this report.
In particular, he focuses on the issue of women’s ordination and says the exclusion of women in this regard is difficult to justify.
He believes that the force of culture is very important and says the Catholic church, without doubt, played a powerful role in shaping the culture of those years.
But there were other cultural forces at play too he says, as is indicated in the report. It is vital that we acknowledge these forces and grasp the full significance of them if we are to learn lessons for the future, he believes.
“Too many people believe that a liberal and enlightened education will alleviate our ‘blind spots’ but that is not the case,” he says. “Many well-educated people saw nothing wrong in the way the vulnerable women and children of the report were treated. If we don’t acknowledge the force of culture we may well ignore our own blindness to serious cultural deficiencies and find ourselves held to account by future generations.”
Returning to the women at the heart of this report, Gerry O’Hanlon says that along with apologies there must be justice and restitution from Church and state.