The reaction of the Government to a shocking 2012 HSE report on Bessborough Mother and Baby Home has been instructive.
The revelations contained in the report have clearly put it in an uncomfortable position. Despite the shock displayed once the Tuam babies story went global — it is now clear that the Government had possession of a report showing a higher death rate in Bessborough almost two years earlier.
When the report, compiled as part of the HSE’s examination of the State’s role in the Magdalene Laundries as part of the McAleese inquiry, was made public by the Irish Examiner in June, along with equally disturbing material relating to Tuam Mother and Baby Home, the reaction of Government was to first deny it had ever seen it, then admit that, in fact, two departments had the report before finally labelling the entire study “conjecture”.
Even if you accept the “conjecture” line, it is impossible to get away from the finding on the number of infant deaths at Bessborough.
They are worth repeating. Between 1934 and 1953, Bessborough’s Registration of Deaths ledger records a “shocking” 478 children as having died at the institution.
To put this into context, this death rate is higher than that found by Catherine Corless in Tuam almost two years later – research which led directly to the State inquiry.
If the Government was so horrified by the death rate found in Tuam that it felt compelled to launch a State inquiry, then why was it not similarly moved in 2012?
When the Irish Examiner first revealed details of the HSE report, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs said it had no knowledge of the report. The department has since altered this position, stating that not only did it have a copy of the report, but so did the Department of Health. In a series of responses to parliamentary questions, children’s minister Dr James Reilly has sought to defend the lack of action on the deaths – which are described as “wholly epidemic”, “shocking” and a “cause for serious consternation” – by stating the 2012 report’s findings are “a matter of conjecture”.
It is important to put this “conjecture” line to bed. Firstly, the 2012 HSE report is based on an examination of Bessborough’s own records spanning from 1922 to 1982. These were transferred to the HSE by the order that ran the home — the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary — in 2011. The 478 deaths recorded are taken directly from the order’s own death register. Based on the records, the author outlines a “narrative of patterns and practices of the Sacred Heart Order in the provision of adoption services at Bessboro”.
The records reveal an institution where women and babies were considered “little more than a commodity for trade amongst religious orders”, where “institutionalisation and human trafficking” took place among various religious orders and state-funded institutions and where women were provided with “little more than the basic care and provision afforded to that of any individual convicted of crimes against the State”.
The report is rock solid on the number of deaths listed, but says the question of whether or not all these children died but were instead “brokered” in clandestine adoption arrangements both at home and abroad was one which needed to be examined as part of a forensic investigation. It also says “further investigation is warranted” into the order’s accounting practices.
The records reveal clearly that the order requested payment from adoptive parents for the children they were adopting, while also requiring payment from the natural mothers for the care both they and their children received at the institution.
The author of the HSE report does state that the conclusions of the report were conjecture but, as always, context is everything.
The remark was in reference to establishing the interaction between the state, the order running Bessborough and the order operating the two Magdalene Laundries in Cork, and clearly indicates the Bessborough files reveal enough disturbing information to warrant a full forensic investigation.
“In order to conclusively verify interaction between the State and the Good Shepherd Sisters (who operated Magdalene Laundries in Sunday’s Well and Peacock Lane, Cork) and the Sacred Heart Order, it is imperative that full disclosure of any and all case files, records, institutional accounts and communications between the State and the religious orders be subject to forensic investigation. Until such time the conclusions of any such examination,” states the report.
None of the concerns raised in the Bessborough report are mentioned in the McAleese Report, nor does it appear any further investigation was done into the report’s findings.
The 2014 inter-departmental report on Mother and Baby Homes listed just 25 infant deaths at Bessborough, despite two Government departments being in possession of the order’s own figure of 478.
Dr Reilly has defended these omissions stating the findings were not “validated” and Mother and Baby Homes were outside the remit of the McAleese Committee. “As the issues raised in this draft report regarding death rates in Bessborough were outside the direct remit of the McAleese Committee, the HSE advised that these and other concerns would be examined separately by the HSE. At that time my department advised the HSE that any validated findings of concern from this separate process should be appropriately communicated by the HSE. My department is not aware of any subsequent report on this matter by the HSE,” he said.
This indicates that the department does not feel that a figure of 478 deaths taken directly from Bessborough’s Registration of Deaths transferred to the State by the order constitutes a “validated finding”.
While it is true that Mother and Baby Homes were outside the remit of the McAleese inquiry, that report points out that the committee uncovered material that was, “strictly speaking, outside its core remit” but chose to include it “in the public interest”.
This was because some of this material “may challenge some common perceptions” about Magdalene Laundries.