Ireland

Refusal of mother and baby home report authors to face Oireachtas ‘deeply regrettable’ – Varadkar

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has urged the members of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission to reconsider their decision not to appear before an Oireachtas committee describing it as “deeply regrettable”.

The head of the now-dissolved commission Yvonne Murphy wrote to the chair of the Oireachtas Committee on Children Kathleen Funchion on Friday declining the invite to appear.

“This is deeply regrettable,” Mr Varadkar said in a statement.

“I had genuinely hoped they would agree and that a date would have been set by this stage. I would urge them to reconsider their decision, and to appreciate the imperative to explain their report and answer questions. The commissioners are best placed to answer how they reached their findings. It is long overdue at this point.”

Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman has also urged members of the commission to reconsider their “disappointing” decision. He also said he would bring proposals to Cabinet “on how the experiences of those who gave evidence before the confidential committee can be recognised and officially reflected. I will engage with the Joint Oireachtas Committee on this point.”

Mr O’Gorman said: “While acknowledging their statement that they did not ‘discount’ the testimony before the confidential committee, attendance before the Joint Oireachtas Committee would have offered a further opportunity to clarify recently generated uncertainty, along with deeper questions regarding how the information contained in the confidential committee testimonies contributed to the general findings of the commission’s report.

“The Government is very conscious of the need to ensure that the lived experiences of the 550 who attended before the Confidential Committee are clearly heard and understood as part of our history.”

“I have stated that I believe survivors, and this belief must be demonstrated.”

Independence

Ms Murphy, a former Circuit Court judge, said the members would not appear before the Oireachtas as its independence “cannot simply be abandoned because its findings are not acceptable to some at a political level”.

In a letter to Ms Funchion, Ms Murphy said “the independence, procedures and safeguards under which the commission carried out its investigation and its carefully considered conclusions would be set at nought by an appearance before your committee and in circumstances especially where prejudgement is already manifest”.

She said the now dissolved commission’s confidential committee report was “an important element” of its final report.

“It is not true to say that the testimonies of the women were ‘discounted’ or ‘discarded’ by the commission. Prof Daly did not say this. Others did,” she said, in reference to comments attributed to Prof Daly at a seminar in Oxford last weekend.

“The accounts given were very much taken into account by the commission” and were reported “in a manner that preserved confidentiality in the lengthy confidential committee report which was, as directed, ‘of a general nature’,” she said.

Ms Murphy also clarified that “there were no threats of judicial review by any of the religious orders which were involved with the institutions,” where the commission was concerned.

Returning to the Oireachtas Committee on Children, she said the commission’s work “could be put in peril by an appearance before some of the committee’s members whose rush to judgement without due process, is already a matter of record,” Ms Murphy said.

“Some members of the Oireachtas committee have already engaged in a public condemnation of the contents of the commission’s final report and of the methodology adopted.

“Regrettably some senior members of the Oireachtas have done that despite having been members of the government that drafted and brought the terms of reference before the Oireachtas for approval.”

Members of the commission “stand over its report which speaks for itself and must be read in its entirety,” Ms Murphy said.

In the six-page letter she noted how “almost as soon as the commission had been established, some organisations that advocated on behalf of interested parties were immediately disappointed that the vehicle of a commission of investigation had been chosen. That opposition continued throughout the lifetime of the commission and beyond and, not unpredictably, those same organisations now call on the government to repudiate the final report.”

The work of the commission was “reflected in its final report and its interim reports and not by commentators who seek to sweep aside its findings,” she said.

Confidential committee

On the confidential committee she said the number who spoke to it was “a tiny proportion of the total number of mothers in the institutions under investigation. 304 mothers gave testimony to the confidential Committee; 18 were in the institutions before 1960. In the period 1960-1998 inclusive, there were 24,207 mothers in the institutions investigated – the experiences of 1 per cent of those are reflected in the confidential committee report.”

While the value of the confidential committee report “should not be underestimated” it could not be taken “as a definitive history of mother and baby homes and associated topics. As already set out, only a very small number of former residents gave testimony.”

Some statements to the confidential committee gave details that were “at variance with the testimony available to the commission from other sources. This was also true of some of the testimony given to the commission of investigation by both former residents and people who were involved in running the institutions.”

None of this was “to suggest in any way that witnesses set out to mislead the commission; it is an indication of the potential shortcomings in such evidence, given many years after the event; this testimony required people to recall a traumatic period in their lives,” she said.

“In the absence of evidence that would withstand scrutiny and cross-examination, the commission was unable to reach factual conclusions that many people apparently wished that it had reached,” she said.

Acknowledging that, while a small number of witnesses to the confidential committee had put their stories into the public domain, “the great majority were concerned to ensure that their stories were confidential”.

Similarly “the great majority of witnesses before the confidential committee have not commented publicly on the report. The commission is conscious of the many witnesses who told the confidential committee that confidentiality was of vital importance to them. By definition, they will not come forward to the media and their views will not be heard, nor are they represented by any spokesperson or advocacy group,” she said.

Ms Murphy also pointed out that the commission “was not required to provide a complete account of each person’s experiences as relayed to the confidential committee,” she said.

It was “as directed by Government”, she said a “report of a general nature” where “details of any kind that might possibly lead to identification of the witness were excluded or were written in such a way as to preserve confidentiality”.

‘Not true’

The former commission members “reject any suggestion that the confidential committee report is inaccurate,” she said.

It was also “not true to suggest that the commission found there was no abuse in the institutions. Many of the chapters (including the confidential committee report) contain graphic accounts of the abuses that women and children underwent, in county homes, mother and baby homes, and as boarded-out children. They also document the callous disregard shown towards the appalling levels of infant mortality.”

It found that “women in county homes were abused, that there was emotional abuse of women in particular when they were giving birth. Most importantly, it found that they should not have been in the institutions but should have been at home with their families.”

Ms Murphy said the commission was “concerned that very little of that extensive evidence has been read, or if read, has been ignored, and there has instead been a rush to judgement, without due consideration being given to all the evidence presented.”

Its report “did not say that there were no ‘forced’ adoptions. In paragraph 34 of its recommendations, it said that it did not agree with the suggestion that all adoptions be renamed ‘forced adoption’ and went on to give its reasons. It acknowledged that many mothers had few options. Some of them had no option other than adoption,” she said.

“Some commentators, including leading politicians, have criticised the ‘tone’ of the report as ‘cold’ and ‘legalistic’,” she said.

“The commission of investigation was engaged in a formal legal process and carried it out having due regard to the constitutional and statutory requirement to fair procedures. The report is necessarily written in sober, straightforward, non-emotional language. This is normal for official reports and should continue to be so.”

Criticism

On January 12th last, six months ago this weekend, the report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission was published and was met by instant criticism.

The commission was chaired by Ms Murphy, a former Circuit Court judge who also led inquiries into the handling of clerical child sex abuse allegations in Dublin’s Catholic archdiocese and Cloyne Catholic diocese.

Dr William Duncan, former professor of law at Trinity College Dublin and a former member of the Law Reform Commission, and Prof Daly, former professor of Irish history at UCD, were the other members of the commission.

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