Apologising for past wrongs or misjudgments is always a little tricky – particularly if the apologiser wasn’t actually responsible for the event in the first place. Cardinal Vincent Nichols’s sensitive apology for the Church’s part in adoption policy of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s is kind, humble, Christian and graceful. But of course it was reported in a way that somewhat de-contextualised the subject.

The BBC (and the Guardian) ran with headlines about the head of the Catholic Church apologising for its part in “forced adoptions” in times gone by. This made it sound as though the Catholic Church was uniquely responsible for snatching babies from their mothers’ arms and placing them with waiting adopters.

The headlines and the outlines of the report omitted a significant qualifier, for Cardinal Nichols adds: “Sadly for unmarried mothers, adoption was considered to be in the best interest of the mother and child because of the associated stigma and lack of support for lone parents.” (The pre-recorded television programme, Britain’s Adoption Scandal, was due to be broadcast on November 9.)

That’s to say, the Catholic Church conformed to the social policies that were considered to be the best solution to an unwanted child – as then described – at the time. Everyone in authority believed this was for the best: the young mother could “put her mistake behind her” and get on with her life; the baby could be placed within a stable family unit.

There certainly were pressures amounting to coercion in many instances and it took a very determined single mother to stand her ground and raise her child. David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, born in 1948, was the child of just such a brave single mother. I interviewed him about his upbringing and he spoke with admiration for his mother – and for the good stepfather whom his mum subsequently married. (Interestingly, he’s a strong supporter of intact families.)

Many young mothers must have suffered grief when being parted from their babies and it’s right they should tell their story. But social context always has to be taken into account when we are looking retrospectively at any issue.

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