Making Amends for Bethany Home

Irish Times
September 14, 2010

IRRESPECTIVE OF how awful the budgetary situation facing the Exchequer, the Government must find the words and the money to compensate the victims of religious/State care at the Protestant-run Bethany Home in Dublin. Likewise, the Church of Ireland has a moral obligation to respond to this matter by acting in a generous fashion.

An unwillingness to vindicate the rights of children and vulnerable adults in religious-run institutions during the early years of this State amounted to a gross failure of responsibility by political, administrative and religious leaders. Eleven years ago, in a gesture of atonement, a formal apology was issued on behalf of the State. A system of compensation was subsequently introduced, mainly for Catholic-run religious institutions. Now, as new horror comes to light in connection with Bethany Home, the Government has retreated to a defensive, legalistic position. It is not good enough.

The Ryan report confirmed that terrible things were done in these institutions in the name of religious beliefs and social conformity. The State was complicit in facilitating religious/social control. When things went wrong and children died, or when physical, psychological and sexual abuses took place, its inspectors generally looked the other way. In the case of the Bethany Home, the government inspector appeared more interested in preventing proselytising than in reducing infant mortality. At that time, illegitimate children had few legal rights and no social status. They and their mothers were regarded as an embarrassment to those around them and were normally removed from public view.

So far, attention has focused on the very large number of infants and young children who died at Bethany Home in the late 1930s and mid-to-late 1940s. There were 219 child deaths over a period of nearly three decades and these children were buried in unmarked graves at Mount Jerome Cemetery. Complaints of inadequate healthcare and the neglect of infants were not pursued by the State.

Bethany Home opened in 1922 and finally closed in 1972. It was run by an independent evangelical Protestant group and operated as a maternity home, a children’s home and a place of detention for women convicted in the courts of theft, prostitution, infanticide and birth concealment. Initially, it was actively involved in proselytising. But the Church of Ireland has denied any responsibility for the home itself or for anything that went on there. The Department of Education insists that inmates were admitted to Bethany Home on a “voluntary basis” and therefore do not qualify for compensation. A similar, dismissive approach has been taken to former inmates of the Catholic-run Magdalen Laundries by categorising them as “employees”.

It is time to abandon such defensive, legalistic responses and to treat these unfortunate victims of State neglect and religious abuse with the kindness and respect they deserve.


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