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Sisters of Charity give up ownership rights to National Maternity Hospital

An order of nuns have said they are to give up any ownership rights to the new National Maternity Hospital.

After deep concern that the Religious Sisters of Charity would dictate medical care at the 300 million euro facility on the St Vincent's Hospital campus in Dublin, the sisters confirmed they were completely relinquishing involvement in the site.

The shares held by the nuns will be transferred to a new company called St Vincent's.

The Sisters of Charity said they had spent the last two years trying to find the best way to give up their ownership of the St Vincent's Healthcare Group (SVHG), which includes St Vincent's University Hospital, St. Vincent's Private Hospital and St Michael's Hospital, Dun Laoghaire.

"Just as our Founder Mary Aikenhead saw the need in 1834 to establish a hospital to meet the needs of the sick and poor, we believe that it is in the best interests of the patients and children born in the National Maternity Hospital today that they be provided with modern maternity and neonatal services that are women and infant centred and integrated within the Elm Park campus," Sr Mary Christian, the leader of the order said.

"It is now time for us to relinquish completely our involvement in SVHG.

"We are confident that the board, management and staff of SVHG will continue to maintain a steadfast dedication to providing the best possible acute healthcare to patients and their families in line with the values espoused by Mary Aikenhead."

The potential involvement of nuns in the running and governance of a maternity hospital had caused deep unease in some medical circles and among the public.

The controversy arose after details of a confidential deal emerged between the Sisters of Charity, the St Vincent's Healthcare Group, medics and management at the National Maternity Hospital and the Department of Health to build the new maternity hospital at St Vincent's.

It would have seen the nuns give land at Elm Park for the new hospital but retain ultimate ownership under a complex corporate structure.

It prompted leading obstetrician Dr Peter Boylan, a former Master of Holles Street, to resign from the board of the current National Maternity Hospital.

The St Vincent's Healthcare Group (SVHG) said the decision was a major development and reflected the wonderful legacy to healthcare that the Sisters of Charity have left.

Chairman James Menton said: "The Sisters have always held the highest ambitions for the provision of world class healthcare services in Ireland and have successfully achieved and sustained this.

"They also see the need for the proposed development of the new National Maternity Hospital integrated within the Elm Park campus and want to do everything possible to ensure this vital facility for mothers and babies is developed as quickly as possible."

Mr Menton said the healthcare group was absolutely committed to upholding the vision and values of Mary Aikenhead, dignity, compassion, justice, quality and advocacy.

The Sisters of Charity said St Vincent's, the new charity being created, will replace the order as the shareholders in SVHG.

The nuns will receive a "nominal or peppercorn" payment for transferring ownership to the new company and t he two nuns who are currently on the SVHG board will resign.

T hey also said St Vincent's will not be subject to undue influence by individuals or from any source and it will not seek to generate any profit or surplus or remunerate directors for their work.

As part of the transfer of ownership the Sisters of Charity outlined the ethos of the new National Maternity Hospital.

"Upon completion of this proposed transaction, the requirement set out in the SVHG Constitution, to conduct and maintain the SVHG facilities in accordance with The Religious Sisters of Charity Health Service Philosophy and Ethical Code, will be amended and replaced to reflect compliance with national and international best practice guidelines on medical ethics and the laws of the Republic of Ireland," the nuns said.

At the heart of the controversy over the Sisters of Charity involvement in maternity services were concerns that nuns or the Catholic Church hierarchy could dictate what medical treatments or procedures were carried out.

Dr Boylan questioned whether they could influence whether women could have terminations if their life is at risk, seek IVF treatment, sterilisation or contraceptive care.

Ambiguity deepened when Bishop Kevin Doran said the Sisters would have to obey church law as owners of the hospital, regardless of how the facility is funded, and that governance rests with the pope.

One section of land on the Elm Park Campus, where the St Vincent's Private Hospital originally stood, is to be bought by the St Vincent's Hospital Group as part of the deal.

In a statement, Dr Rhona Mahony, Master of Holles Street, and Judge Nicholas Kearns, deputy chairman of the National Maternity Hospital, said they believed the Sisters never intended to influence medical care.

"It was our clear understanding that the nuns never sought to exercise clinical control over the hospital and that the independent ethos of the new National Maternity Hospital would be preserved on relocation," they said.

"We have worked closely with St Vincent's University Hospital for generations and we would like to acknowledge the outstanding contribution of the Sisters of Charity to Irish Healthcare over so many years."

Health Minister Simon Harris said the nuns' decision was historic.

"It directly addresses concerns regarding the question of religious influence in the new National Maternity Hospital and further illustrates the constructive role of the Sisters to facilitate this landmark project," he said.

Dr Boylan told the RTE Radio's Today with Sean O'Rourke that the Sisters of Charity had taken a brave decision.

He said it was "noble and honest and a genuine contribution to the care of women".

"A lot of credit needs to be spread around. I certainly feel vindicated in my views, but I don't feel personally responsible for the decision made by the Sisters of Charity," he said.

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