Irish prime minister: Unwed mothers and their children paid a heavy price for a ‘perverse religious morality’

In this file photo dated Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020, Ireland's Prime Minister Micheal Martin speaks as he arrives at the European Council building in Brussels. (John Thys/ Pool FILE via AP)

LONDON (AP) — Ireland’s prime minister said Tuesday that the country must “face up to the full truth of our past,” as a long-awaited report recounted decades of harm done by church-run homes for unmarried women and their babies, where thousands of infants died.

Prime Minister Micheal Martin said young women and their children had paid a heavy price for Ireland’s “perverse religious morality” in past decades.

“We had a completely warped attitude to sexuality and intimacy. Young mothers and their sons and daughters paid a terrible price for that dysfunction,” he said.

Martin said he would make a formal apology on behalf of the state in Ireland's parliament on Wednesday.

“We had a completely warped attitude to sexuality and intimacy. Young mothers and their sons and daughters paid a terrible price for that dysfunction.”

The final report of an inquiry into the mother-and-baby homes said that 9,000 children died in 18 different mother and baby homes during the 20th century. Fifteen percent of all children in the homes died, almost double the nationwide infant mortality rate, the report said. Major causes included respiratory infections and gastroenteritis, otherwise known as the stomach flu.

The report said “the very high mortality rates were known to local and national authorities at the time and were recorded in official publications.”

But, the document went on, "there is no evidence of public concern being expressed about conditions in mother and baby homes or about the appalling mortality among the children born in these homes, even though many of the facts were in the public domain.”

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The inquiry is part of a process of reckoning in overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Ireland with a history of abuses in church-run institutions, including the shunning and shaming of unwed mothers, many of whom were pressured into giving up babies for adoption.

Church-run homes in Ireland housed orphans, unmarried pregnant women and their babies for most of the 20th century. The institutions have been subject to intense public scrutiny since historian Catherine Corless in 2014 tracked down death certificates for nearly 800 children who died at the former Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway in western Ireland -- but could only find a burial record for one child.

9,000 children died in 18 different mother and baby homes during the 20th century. The inquiry is part of a process of reckoning in overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Ireland.

Investigators later found a mass grave containing remains of babies and young children in an underground sewage structure on the grounds of the home, which was run by an order of Catholic nuns and closed in 1961.

The commission of inquiry said about 56,000 unmarried mothers and about 57,000 children had lived in the homes it investigated, with the greatest number of admissions in the 1960s and early 1970s.

The last of the homes did not shut until 1998.

“While mother and baby homes were not a peculiarly Irish phenomenon, the proportion of Irish unmarried mothers who were admitted to mother and baby homes or (state-run) county homes in the 20th century was probably the highest in the world,” the report said.

The commission said that the women’s lives “were blighted by pregnancy outside marriage, and the responses of the father of their child, their immediate families and the wider community.

“The vast majority of children in the institutions were ‘illegitimate’ and, because of this, suffered discrimination for most of their lives,” the report added.

The prime minister said the report “presents all of Irish society with profound questions.”

“What has been described in this report wasn’t imposed on us by any foreign power,” he said. “We did this to ourselves, as a society.”

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