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'Many still don't know where loved ones are buried': Irish abuse conference happening in Boston

Minister Katherine Zappone will deliver a keynote speech at the event which is exploring adoption and institutional abuses.

Site of the former Bon Secours mother and baby home in Tuam, Co Galway.
Site of the former Bon Secours mother and baby home in Tuam, Co Galway.
Image: Laura Hutton/RollingNews.ie

IRELAND’S RESPONSE TO adoption and institutional abuses will be the focus of a conference held in Boston today and tomorrow.

Survivors, activists and experts will attend the conference, which will examine if and how Ireland might adopt a ‘transitional justice’ approach to dealing with its legacy of adoption and historical abuse.

Transitional justice is a framework that has been employed in many countries to attempt to achieve peaceful democracy after widespread political repression and violence.

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Dr Katherine Zappone will open the conference today and deliver a keynote address.

Last week Zappone confirmed there will be a full forensic examination of the site of a former Bon Secours mother and baby home in Tuam, Co Galway. Between 1925 and 1960, 796 children died at the home.

Many people who were forced to live in Magdalene Laundries, county homes, mother and baby homes, children’s institutions and psychiatric hospitals were subjected to sexual, physical and emotional abuse, and labour exploitation.

Systematic abuse in Church-run institutions in Ireland has been the subject of several State inquiries over the past 20 years.

Illegal adoptions 

It is estimated that approximately 100,000 children born to unmarried mothers in Ireland were adopted (both legally and illegally) and boarded out between 1922 and 1998.

In a statement released ahead of the conference, Justice for Magdalenes Research said: “Many of the individuals and family members of those who were abused are still unable to access their personal records or to discover the whereabouts of graves, and the State is imposing secrecy over the administrative records relating to the abuses.”

Co-organiser Dr James Smith, Associate Professor of English and Irish Studies at Boston College, said holding the conference at the university “offers a neutral space for conversations that are still difficult to hold back in Ireland.”

“Since 1999, the Irish State has offered apologies and financial payments for some historical abuses, but it has failed to establish truth-telling mechanisms, including the provision of access to records and archives. Without truth-telling, there can be no guarantee of non-recurrence.”

Incarcerating women and children 

Speaking ahead of the conference, Dr Katherine O’Donnell, conference co-organiser and associate professor at UCD School of Philosophy, said:

Twentieth-century Ireland incarcerated vulnerable women and their children in a network of related Church-run/State-funded institutions at a rate higher than any other country, including the Soviet Union.

“This is a very recent history and the legacy of suffering is all pervasive,” she said, adding that the principles of transitional justice could help Ireland “to address present day problems inherited from the recent past and allow us to move towards a more inclusive and caring future”.

The conference will discuss the key findings of the Clann Project Report, published two weeks ago by JFM Research, the Adoption Rights Alliance and global law firm, Hogan Lovells. 

The report draws on 77 witness statements, extracted from conversations with 164 people who were separated from their family members through Ireland’s forced, secret adoption system and related historical abuses.

The Clann Project makes eight recommendations, including that the Irish State provides a statutory right to information for adopted people and others affected by historical and institutional abuse, introduces a new process of investigation open to all stakeholders and makes access to information its primary goal, and establishes a national repository of all institutional records.

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About the author:

Órla Ryan

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