LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Ireland’s Catholic primate feels “embarrassed and guilty” about a report on religiously-affiliated Mother and Baby homes in Northern Ireland.
The report published on Tuesday documented accounts of women being made to feel ashamed about their pregnancy and an “authoritarian and judgmental” atmosphere at the facilities. In addition, testimony spoke about “unsympathetic and sometimes cruel” staff working at the institutions, with women expected to be involved in cleaning, polishing floors and domestic laundering even into their final trimester of pregnancy.
The report came just two weeks after a similar report was published about the Mother and Baby Homes in the Republic of Ireland.
Mother-and-baby homes and the so-called Magdalene laundries were common features across the island of Ireland in the 20th century. The state-funded, Church-run facilities were used to house unwed pregnant women and other “fallen women” and have been criticized for their harsh conditions.
The Northern Ireland report found that at least 10,500 women – most between 20 and 29, but around a third under 19 — were sent to the facilities between 1922 and 1990.
“The month of January 2021 will go down in history as the time when the people of Ireland – north and south – came face to face with a stark reality of our past which we preferred would remain hushed and hidden – the way we stigmatized and harshly judged many vulnerable pregnant women in crisis and treated them and their children in such a cold and uncaring manner,” said Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, the primate of All Ireland. “We made them feel guilty and ashamed.”
Armagh is located in Northern Ireland, although the archdiocese extends across the border.
“As a Catholic Church leader in Ireland, it is I who now feel embarrassed and guilty over the way in which we in the Church contributed to, and bolstered, that culture of concealment, condemnation, and self-righteousness. For that I am truly sorry and ask the forgiveness of survivors,” Martin said.
The archbishop said the “persistence and the powerful testimonies” of survivors of institutional abuse has “lifted the lid on this dark chapter of our shared history and exposed our hypocrisy to the glaring light.”
The Anglican Archbishop of Armagh, John McDowell, also offered his apologies for the conditions in Anglican-run facilities.
‘Having had a chance to read the relevant chapters of the report, I acknowledge with shame that members of the [Anglican] Church of Ireland stigmatized women and children in a way which was very far removed from Christian principles and which resulted in an unloving, cold and judgmental attitude towards pregnant women who deserved better,” he said.
“The birth of a child should always be a time for happiness, and that many young women experienced it as joyless and cold is a matter for bitter regret. I am sorry and apologize for the role we played in treating unmarried women and their children in this way. They deserved much better,” added McDowell.
The Rev. David Bruce, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, said the report shed “much-needed light on a dark era in Northern Ireland’s history.”
“We deeply regret and unreservedly apologize for the damaging effects of institutional care, in which the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, or its members, played a part. We pray that those who still live with the memories of those days will know and experience the peace of God which may only be found in Christ’s love,” Bruce said in a statement.
Arlene Foster, the head of Northern Ireland’s government, has promised an investigation into the Mother and Baby Homes, to be completed within six months.
“It is with huge regret that we acknowledge the pain of those experiences and the hurt caused to women and girls who did nothing more than be pregnant outside of marriage, some of them criminally against their will,” Foster said.
In his statement, Martin said these Church-run institutions obscured the love and mercy and compassion of Christ.
“Shame on us!” the archbishop said.
“The story of Mother and Baby Homes and Magdalene Laundries in Ireland – north and south – touches the lives of countless families across this island. No doubt it will rekindle troubling memories and raise difficult questions for many of us,” Martin said.
“However, we can all play a part in the journey towards healing and reparation. We can also ensure that lessons are learned for the present and the future. No mother or child today should be made to feel unwelcome, unwanted or unloved. No father today should shirk his responsibilities. No priest or bishop or religious sister or any lay member of the Church today should deny the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus. No family today should shun their child to protect some misguided notion of “respectability” in the parish and community,” the archbishop continued.
“We still have so much to learn and so much work to do.”
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome