Cardinal Vincent Nichols, above, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales has apologised for its part in the ‘hurt’ caused to young unmarried women who were pressured into handing over their babies for adoption in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
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.
Alison, one of the women in the documentary, said:
Because I was young, I felt I had to do what I was told.
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.
The Church of England also expressed regret for the hurt caused in a statement given to the Guardian.A spokesman said:
What was thought to be the right thing to do at the time has caused great hurt. That is a matter of great regret.
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 2011, the Catholic Church in Australia apologised for the forced adoption of 150,000 babies in Catholic-run hospitals.
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.
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.