Catholic Church Apologises for Role in "Forced Adoptions" over 30-year Period

By Harriet Sherwood
The Guardian
November 2, 2016

Women from a Leeds support group. From left, standing: Jill, Margaret , and Alison; seated: Janet, Margaret, Beryl, Kate and Sue all had children adopted at a young age. In the 30 years after the Second World War, half a million women had a child adopted most were babies born to unmarried mothers. Photograph: Matt Frost/ITV

The head of the Catholic church in England and Wales has apologised for its part in the” hurt” caused to young unmarried women who say they were felt pressured into handing over their babies for adoption in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols acknowledged the “the grief and pain caused by the giving up of a child through adoption”, adding: “Sadly for unmarried mothers, adoption was considered to be in the best interests of the mother and child because of the associated stigma and the lack of support for lone parents.”

A documentary telling the stories of some of the women – who gave up an estimated half a million children during a period when the Catholic church, the Church of England and the Salvation Army ran “mother and baby homes” and adoption agencies in the UK – is to be broadcast on ITV on 9 November.

In a statement at the end of the programme, Nichols apologises for the church’s role, saying: “The practices of all adoption agencies, whether religious, charitable or state, reflected these attitudes and were sometimes lacking in care and sensitivity. We apologise for the hurt caused by agencies acting in the name of the Catholic church.”

The documentary, Britain’s Adoption Scandal: Breaking the Silence, relates the stories of several women whose babies were given up for adoption over the 30-year period. Adoption reached a peak in 1968, when more than 16,000 babies born to unmarried mothers were handed over to new families.

Some women in the programme said they were offered no alternative to adoption and were sometimes mistreated. The women speak of their shame and guilt, but add that decisions were taken about them and their children without proper, informed consultation. “Because I was young, I felt I had to do what I was told,” says Alison, one of the women in the documentary.

Angela, who became pregnant at 18 and was sent to a Catholic mother and baby home in Essex, said: “You had committed the ultimate sin, and as a Catholic it was the worst thing that could possibly have happened to you. So, yes, it did feel like punishment.”

Another young mother, Margaret, who was sent to a Salvation Army maternity home in Leeds, said: “First of all, I’d like people to know that you didn’t give your babies away. They were taken from you, and you didn’t have a choice.”

She recalls a member of staff coming to collect her baby. “And she [said], ‘Don’t be silly, you’re doing what’s best’, and took him from my arms and went, and you’re just left in that room crying and not one person came to you. She didn’t come back to me after she’d taken the baby.”

The Church of England also expressed regret for the hurt caused in a statement given to the Guardian. “What was thought to be the right thing to do at the time has caused great hurt. That is a matter of great regret,” said a spokesperson, although no statement from the church had been provided to the ITV programme in advance of the preview transmission.

The issue was highlighted in the 2013 film Philomena, starring Judi Dench. It told the true story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman who searched for her son for 50 years after being pressured by nuns to hand him over for adoption in 1952, when she was a teenager.

In 2014, Lee met Pope Francis before a screening of the film at the Vatican. She said: “I have always put great faith in the church and the goodwill to put the wrongs of the past right. I hope and believe that his Holiness Pope Francis joins me in the fight to help the thousands of mothers and children who need closure on their own stories.”

In 2011, the Catholic church in Australia apologised for the forced adoption of 150,000 babies in Catholic-run hospitals.

In Britain, religious institutions ran 150 mother-and-baby homes in the postwar years. St Pelagia’s home for destitute girls in Highgate, north London, founded by an order of nuns, organised the adoption of thousands of babies before it closed in 1971. Young women were obliged to work in the laundry in return for their keep. In 1976, the main responsibility for handling adoptions was moved from voluntary organisations, which were mainly religious, to local authorities.

Carolynn Gallwey, of Bhatt Murphy Solicitors, is one of a team of lawyers demanding an inquiry into the handling of adoptions up to 1976. “These women … are entitled to have their experiences recognised, and the only way to that is through a public inquiry,” she said.

The Catholic Children’s Society – called the Crusade of Rescue until 1985 – pointed to different social attitudes in the postwar decades. “When you look back to the 1940s, 50s and 60s, in society in general and in terms of government policy, there was very little support for unmarried mothers, or mothers who were married but had a child by a different man,” said chief executive Rosemary Keenan. “Society’s attitudes have changed.

“From looking back at our records from sample years, we estimate that 75% of mothers that came to our organisation kept their babies. But it would have been difficult for them because of the values of wider society. Most women were in a very desperate situation and would have felt pressure from many sources.”

The Crusade of Rescue had lobbied for a change in law to allow adopted children and birth mothers to discover details about the circumstances of the adoption, she said. Since 1975, adopted children have had the legal right to obtain their birth and adoption records.

Responding to the account by one of the women featured in the television documentary, the Salvation Army said: “We sincerely sympathise with Margaret’s painful memories and can only confirm that her experiences would be different today.”

C of E organisations involved in adoption had also helped adopted children trace their birth mothers, according to a spokesperson. Many of the postwar organisations no longer existed, but current independent organisations “linked to but outside the structures of the Church of England still work for the best interests of children and have helped in tracing mothers and children.”

Britain’s Adoption Scandal: Breaking the Silence will be broadcast on ITV at 9pm on Wednesday 9 November








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