Babies of unmarried parents were treated as "an inferior sub-species" for decades in Ireland, Irish prime minister Enda Kenny has admitted, as a State inquiry was announced into religious-run institutions used to house pregnant mothers.
"It is not an exaggeration to say that in many cases their treatment, and that of their babies, was an abomination," the Taoiseach said in an emotive statement to the Dail.
The Republic's Children's Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan said the special commission will investigate the deaths of babies at mother-and-baby homes across Ireland in the wake of the discovery of a mass grave in Tuam containing almost 800 babies' remains.
He said the inquiry will cover the infant mortality rate, vaccines, medical trials, the geographic spread of these institutions and the legal complexities.
Mr Flanagan conceded that the question of compensation ultimately may arise and could not be ruled out. "But dealing with matters of compensation at this stage is premature," he told the Irish Independent.
The planned commission of inquiry was given a guarded welcome by the opposition parties, human rights organisations and by campaigners for adoption equality last night. The Catholic bishops also welcomed the move and apologised for the church's role in mistreating unmarried mothers.
"Sadly we are being reminded of a time when unmarried mothers were often judged, stigmatised and rejected by society, including the church," a bishops' statement said.
"It is important that the commission, and all of us, approach these matters with compassion, determination and objectivity. We need to find out more about what this period in our social history was really like and to consider the legacy it has left us as a people," the bishops added.
The Catholic bishops also said that the investigation should inquire into how these homes were funded and how adoptions were organised.
The children's minister also said as much of the inquiry as possible will be conducted in public. But he said there may be legal difficulties about confidential personal information and constraints caused by data protection laws.
Mr Flanagan said the preliminary examination of the vast array of facts would form the basis of the Commission of Inquiry.
A report of this examination, involving officials from eight government departments and institutions, is expected by June 30 and the minister hoped that the Commission can be established before the Dail and Seanad take summer holidays in late July.
The Commission may be headed by a judge or former judge and the minister said an emphasis will be placed on delivering a timely report at a reasonable cost to taxpayers. The minister indicated that the Protestant-run Bethany Home in Dublin, whose survivors have long campaigned for redress, should be included.
Up to 35,000 unmarried mothers are believed to have spent time in 10 homes run by religious orders in Ireland from the foundation of the State up to the 1980s. This inquiry follows massive national and international publicity about a home in Tuam, Co Galway, run by the Sisters of the Bon Secours where the remains of 796 infants are believed to be buried.
The Taoiseach said the inquiry will examine the shameful past of Irish society rather than apportion blame.
"This was Ireland of the twenties to the sixties – an Ireland that might be portrayed as a glorious and brilliant past, but in its shadows contained all of these personal cases, where people felt ashamed," he said.
The latest issue follows controversies about clerical sexual abuse and the treatment of women in the Magdalene Laundries. Mr Flanagan said the inquiry must see the complex issues in the context of the times in which they occurred.
"I believe that Tuam should not be looked at in isolation because over the last century we have had mother-and-baby homes right up and down the country," Mr Flanagan said.
Tanya Ward, chief executive of the Children's Rights Alliance, said the inquiry was a first step in establishing the truth about the mother-and-baby homes.
"Uncovering the dark history of how we treated unmarried mothers and their children is vital for us to truly acknowledge and understand our past," she said.
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