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The harsh side of the Church on show in Philomena is not the full story

The work done by Frank Duff highlights the fact that, although forced adoptions were widespread in Ireland, there were those who did much to help single mothers

By on Thursday, 7 November 2013

Dame Judi Dench with Philomena Lee (PA)

Dame Judi Dench with Philomena Lee (PA)

A new film Philomena is now on general release. Based on a true story written by Martin Sixsmith and titled The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, the film is the heartrending story of a young Irish girl, unwed and pregnant, who is forced by the nuns who are looking after her to give up her son, named Anthony, for adoption. I won’t divulge what happens next but, directed by Stephen Frears and with Dame Judi Dench in the title role, it is bound to attract unwelcome publicity for the Church, especially in Ireland.

I haven’t seen the film yet but this blog is in no way an attempt to whitewash the nuns’ behaviour. I won’t even dwell on the obvious point that attitudes were different then and that the nuns should be seen in the context of their times. They were hard-hearted and unchristian, whatever the historical circumstances. I am not criticising all such adoptions, many of which might have been for the best; I am merely suggesting that this case sounds particularly inflexible and harsh.

It is the more so because such practices, though widespread in Ireland of the time, were not the only option for girls in Philomena’s predicament; as the Catholic Commentary blog points out, one man had been inspired to open a hostel in Dublin as early as 1930, for the sole purpose of keeping unmarried mothers with their children. This was Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary, which ran the Regina Coeli hostel according to Duff’s wish that there should be “a home-like feeling about the place” and that the surroundings should be as beautiful as possible. At the “Mater Dei” unit within the hostel, one of the mothers cared for the babies while the others took jobs to help pay for the household costs.

At the time such a response was almost unknown and in the early days of the new lay movement Duff was criticised for the Legion’s policy. The Sisters in Roscrea, who were caring for girls like Philomena, would not have approved. But like saints throughout history Duff, whose Cause for sanctity is being investigated, cared passionately for the spirit rather than the letter of the law. As well as founding a hostel for single mothers, he and the Legion had already established a hostel to rescue prostitutes from the streets and, in a gesture far ahead of its time, he had also arranged a social venue where people of same-sex orientation, already ostracised by society, could relax without fear of police persecution.

In 1970, forty years after the opening of the Regina Coeli hostel, Frank Duff wrote presciently: “I find it a little difficult in my own mind to make a broad differentiation between the determined separating of the unmarried mother from her child and the relieving of the unmarried mother from her unwanted child by way of abortion. Deep down it seems to me that these two processes have an identical root. This root would be the denial of the fact that a spiritual relationship of the supremest order exists between a mother and her child, inclusive of the unborn child.”

Statements like this, comparing the censorious attitude of the Church towards illegitimacy to a modern secular approach to unwanted pregnancy, would not have endeared Duff to the Irish clerical establishment who were suspicious of any lay initiative, like the Legion of Mary, that they did not control. For those who would like to know more about the deeply apostolic life of this quiet and unassuming civil servant, Finola Kennedy’s Frank Duff: A Life Story would be a good place to start. Duff believed that the Church, the “Mystical Body of Christ”, summoned all its members to vocation, lay as well as clerical. As early as the 1950s he warned that “in Ireland we were thrown back on a caricature of Christianity.” He would have been certain that the forcible separation of unwed mothers from their babies was part of this “caricature”.

When watching the film Philomena, with all Dame Judi Dench’s acting gifts on full display, it is worth remembering that this strict and punitive side of the Church as it then was, is not the whole story and that in every age of the Church’s history there are men and women like Frank Duff working ceaselessly to incarnate the mercy and love of Christ.

  • Disillusioned and lapsed

    Times were different then would indeed be an excuse if we were only referring to the 1950s. However, how does one explain the fact that nuns lied to an elderly woman and her dying son in the 1990s, lies that prevented them ever meeting in spite of their desperate attempts to do so, other than to cover up the shameful and despicable treatment of these young women and the selling of their babies to wealthy Americans. Redemption and absolution comes only after full confession and sorrow. Stop making excuses.

  • PaulF

    Disillusioned, lapsed, and poisoned with bitterness?
    If you can’t forgive, you can’t be forgiven. Matthew 6:14,15

  • NatOns

    No woman is forced to have an abortion in Ireland – at least not yet.

    And no force is applied to the woman to make her have an elective abortion abroad; the State simply does not provide this choice of service .. as it does not provide other comparable services e.g. sex-selective conception or female circumcision (again, not at the moment).

    My understanding of the United Nations is that it cannot compel States to make available these services (indeed it opposes, theoretically, at least one of them); therefore a woman is not compelled to go abroad to have her daughter circumcised nor is she compelled to go abroad to abort her foetus, nor will the United Nations compel Ireland to offer these to its citizens (the Irish Government will gladly introduce them, and other like services, as it sees fit).

    It was, btw, the State that made haphazard use of voluntary agencies to care for unmarried mothers, adoption, and some women locked in the criminal justice system. None of these were instituted, formed or required by the Catholic Church, no, not even in Ireland; whether Protestant, Catholic or humanitarian. So it was the State’s regulation in the United Kingdom, then in Ireland, that relied on voluntary services – and left them to the dirty work, and to the dire consequences.

    http://www.derekleinster.com/

  • NatOns

    The same must be said of doctors who lied, of social workers who lied in the same manner, and of government bureaucrats who formed the lies to be told.

    No, none of this had anything to do with the discipleship of the Catholic Church; it was the professional advice, the State’s regulation, and – believe it or not – considered the best practice .. even for voluntary agencies (such as Religious Sisters).

    Stop making excuses, indeed, but then we must also stop making uninformed accusations; there is no excuse for despicable treatment, yet not all professional advice is despicable even if it seems harsh – even today; note well, D a l, the Religious Sister depicted in the Philomena drama, for example, is a dreadful fiction, here the real life equivalent was totally different, though the situation was true enough .. any adoption agency’s books would be full of these pitiful instances until the 1970s (if they have been retained as the records of the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary have) .. but who will believe that Sr Hildegard McNulty actually sought to help Mr Hess (the adopted son) and his mother (Philomena) despite the restrictions still at work until her death – indeed, who will even try to uncover or understand the mundane truth when set against a brilliantly-crafted and moving Hollywood villain movie.

    ‘Sister Julie said: ‘The film company confirmed to us in writing at an early stage of production that a second meeting with Sister Hildegarde would be incorporated into the film and dramatic licence was the reason given to us.’ She said Sister Hildegarde, who died in 1995, had in fact been instrumental in reuniting many mothers with their children.’

    http://johnib.wordpress.com/tag/sister-hildegarde-mcnulty/

  • Alba

    Some 63000 people were sterilized under eugenic policies during the Social Democratic governments in Sweden. Thousands of children were sent to Australia with the approval of British governments until the late 60s. Some men and women entered the religious life because at the time in their countries there was “nothing else”. We know better now, or do we?

  • NatOns

    Or duffery old age either .. Welcome to my world, JL, welcome to my world ..

    ;o)

  • NatOns

    As could each one of us in our worldly judgements, no doubt. Ah! if only life were that simple .. or the human flesh so sound .. to write a Mea Culpa to go before us (and sincerely be done with it). Thank God for the Word made flesh!

    {:0]

  • Julia Nutwood

    Disillusioned and lapsed…I have just been to see “Philomena” and googled it. Both the Guardian and Independant newspapers admit that the part about the nuns refusing to reunite the mother with her son in the 1990’s is fantasy…as is the report that these babies were sold to rich Americans. No money was involved.

  • Watchdogdu66

    Why has my post disappeared, we are truly invisible.

  • luckyjim

    As a secularist I believe all humans should strive for the maximum degree of humanity and consideration for others. I see precious little of this in the behaviour of the nuns in the Philomena story. burning adoption records also suggests to me an admission of guilt!

  • heyjude999

    The Catholic church (nuns) or any church should have no say in adoptions

  • NatOns

    Naturally not; that is the difference between the Hollywood treatment and the reality.

    First, no one forced unmarried mothers into the care of nuns; in Britain and Ireland the saecular prison reform system could also offer maternity care (for the ‘immoral’), as could the state run Poor Houses (for the indigent) and asylums (for those marked out as ‘incapable’), these bleak and unwelcoming options were the alternatives to the staggering freedoms of the religious/ charitable foundations or the neglect of giving birth without medical attention.

    Second, the Religious Orders did not destroy the State required documentation, you’ll find that these were all handed over – as the law demanded – when the Orders ceased to provide such care (that way too many of these were subsequently lost, destroyed or marked unknown’ is a matter for State Records); private memoranda, personal notebooks etc, were not State documents but the property of the user .. yet even many of these were turned over for the records.

    Third, no child was taken from the mother without her prior consent – though her future was dire if she tried to keep the bairn, and .. as records then and now indicate, their ability to cope alone was more often than not detrimental to the infant (or at least was deemed so by the social work professionals).

    This undramatic – but no less harrowing – truth is not what the novelist or film maker would care to present; and it was not presented in Philomena. Similarly, what was not present was an assessment of how well unmarried mothers coped with a child without State funded health care, education and prolonged unemployment benefits; or at least without family or friends, well placed influence, or reliance on immoral earnings. Nor do we see the dilemma that faced the Religious and the Social Workers dealing with these stark realities, the demands of the various Governments to minimize the cost of care, and the drive to utilize the ‘Populate the Empire’ movement for £10 (no questions accepted and none answered) – as with severely handicapped children, believe it or not, the ‘caring’ advice was to let the child go, forget about the child, treat it as dead (and to staff, don’t talk about the child, don’t encourage bonding, and emphasise the negative impact).

    A trawl through the remaining archives will turn up many of these facts, and let me assure you much worse besides, for even a skim through the e-world can offer you an insight – I can offer only past professional experience of those woeful systems in England and Ireland.

  • iarla baby

    Wrong Julia. IN 1966 I was sold from Bessboro Sacred Heart Convent in Cork along with a three year old girl for three hundred pounds to strangers who drove away in a car with us to Galway and almost destroyed our lives with their abuse.

  • iarla baby

    Wrong. I had personal dealings with Hildegarde on three occasions and she was a defiant Bully who lied frequently and refused -mostly – to reunite families.

  • iarla baby

    Forgiveness is a two way street. It is better to ask to be forgiven.

  • NatOns

    Many old style Social Workers/ Matrons were exactly as you describe Sister Hildegarde – tyrants. Sometimes it was mere personal taste, but for the greater part it was the public aura expected (or rather demanded) of the job – like the cane-swirling teacher. She, like way too many Religious, no doubt entered into the spirit of the profession – discipline, order, results – when taken to extreme this is not what anyone considers the purpose of the caring services but it got the job done .. no excuses accepted, tolerated or given (and without extra expense or falderall).

    http://bealing.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/matron.jpg

    Today’s revolving door Child Care Homes, Youth Offender Centres and Single/ Problem/ Court-Order Parent Support charities offer a much more personalised and personable service, yet society does not truly trust them to deliver what it expects of this person-centred style. If you don’t believe me look at the endless Police Reports, the Social Services Reforms, and the political perplexity in regard to single-parented, social-agency, or slippery-slope children. Now I don’t favour a return to the Battle-Axe or the Hatchet-Faced professional, but the alternative is every bit as dire in its consequences: a Police Record (often the length of ones arm) ready-made for use.

    ‘The coordinator is required to collate information on all instances of absence and missing, ensuring records for individuals from children’s and other care homes can be distinguished and reviewed. This will provide the necessary information for them to investigate the circumstances, identify locations the individual was found, and review repeat occurrences, in order to identify trends and risk of harm. Consideration must be given to children missing education, persistent absence from schools, and youth offending service data on absconding and breaching to build a picture of local absence and missing trends’

    http://www.acpo.police.uk/documents/crime/2013/201303-cba-int-guid-missing-persons.pdf

  • iarla baby

    Your point of view is so misguided -and long winded -as to be laughable. At least todays ‘social workers’ are professionally trained and don’t preach a religion they themselves do not practice. I have worked in childcare and am glad to report that todays services in respect to the treatment of children have gone a long way to atone for the dreadful abuses – sexual and otherwise- perpetrated against children by the religious not only in this country but all over the world. And , I shudder to think of the screams of babies from Africa to South America where the religious are now focusing their power. No doubt we will be awash with revelations in the coming decades.

  • NatOns

    Apologies if have been long winded or misguided. Today’s social workers are, contrary to your assumption, trained in preaching a religion that they themselves do not practice: Politically Correct Documentationalism – as vile a man-made and humanity-sacrificing faith as you’d care to meet. You need not look to Africa or South America to hear the shrieks of babes and families drowning under this belief-system, take a walk to your local revolving-door Child Care Home or Youth Detention Centre or Family Court, the politically corrected language smarms all over you .. yet the experience of degrading, careless, inhuman (but politically correct) professional manners howls just as loudly today (and with far less justification) than against yesterday’s truly hard-pressed charities.

    http://www.forced-adoption.com/whydotheydoit.asp

  • kentgeordie

    Well said NatOns. I don’t think it would be hard to prove that the modern politically correct exaltation of the individual has caused far more human misery than all the misdeeds of the Catholic Church.
    See my comments on Benson’s ‘humanitarianism’ in the Lord of the World, in another thread.

  • iarla baby

    You despise the vulnerable.

  • NatOns

    You may think so, some of them might know my worth better – or at least still benefit from my understanding and efforts (whether they know of it today or not). I offer only an appreciation of one who has worked for such missing, abused, unwanted souls – whether that is to despise them is for others to decide. However, do not trust your source of information to me – and my past – but peruse the freely available data on-line .. that is shocking enough, even to me (without the harrowing reality).

  • NatOns

    Wil-co! kg. RH Benson is still well worth the read .. dusty though the words must be .. it is a pity his (and other now neglected author’s) work has not yet made it properly into the audio world of the 21st century (for shame Catholics, for shame).

    ;o)

  • mvic

    What? Please tells us more. I’m sorry to hear your story.

  • http://www.WhoNeedsNewspapers.org/ Paul Steinle

    See the film, Ms. Phillips, before you write about it, please.

  • Geoff Andrews

    Perhaps the boy was better off in America. By being subject to the evil off the nuns he was saved from being an alter boy and falling into the hands of the evil priests

  • pram lynn

    what is most astonishing to me is that in 2004 onwards the Catholics were still withholding information until Sixsmith helped unearth it .

  • blueiiris

    You are factually wrong on both counts. Please reread guardian/independent articles; money was very much involved, and both mother and son went multiple times and were both refused. Adoption “donations” were the convents largest revenue stream. Babies were “sold to the highest bidder”. The film mentions just 1 visit by Michael to the convent to find his mother. The newspaper cites 2 visits, Virtually crossing paths with her “He went back to Roscrea, first in 1977 and again in 1993, to plead with the nuns to tell him how to find his mother. They turned him away.”

  • SirLouie

    Watch the film first, then write a review.

  • Dolorosa