Real Philomena calls for changes to Irish adoption laws

DUBLIN Fri Jan 24, 2014 11:19am EST

Actor Steve Coogan from the film'' Philomena'', an Oscar Best Picture nominee, arrives with Philomena Lee, whose life was featured in the film, at the 25th Annual Producers Guild of America Awards in Beverly Hills, California January 19, 2014. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

Actor Steve Coogan from the film'' Philomena'', an Oscar Best Picture nominee, arrives with Philomena Lee, whose life was featured in the film, at the 25th Annual Producers Guild of America Awards in Beverly Hills, California January 19, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Fred Prouser

DUBLIN (Reuters) - The 80-year-old Irish woman who inspired the Oscar-nominated film "Philomena" launched a campaign calling for access to adoption records on Friday, hoping her story will highlight the plight of tens of thousands.

Philomena Lee's 50-year search for the son she was forced to give up as a teenager has struck a chord with movie fans across the world and received four Academy Award nominations last week, including one for actress Judi Dench, who plays Lee.

Launching the "Philomena Project", Lee called on Dublin to legislate for the release of more than 60,000 files withheld by the state, private adoption agencies and the Catholic Church that are the sole source of many adopted peoples' identities.

Lee, who like many unmarried mothers in 1950s Ireland was forced to work in convent laundries while their children were put up for adoption, said access to records would have provided a different outcome to her story.

"It would have meant an awful lot to me, I would have found him. He died thinking I had abandoned him and never found out that I was truly looking for him as he was looking for me," said Lee, who was unable to find her son before his death.

"I think a lot of people my age are very reluctant to come forward. I would advise them sincerely to come out with their stories because a lot of their babies are looking for them and they (the government) won't tell them their origin."

A report last year into the notorious Magdalene Laundries where women and girls were subjected to an uncompromising regime of harsh discipline and unpaid work shone a light onto a dark chapter of Ireland's past that Prime Minister Enda Kenny described as "a national shame".

The report's findings followed investigations into clerical sex abuse and state-abetted cover-ups that have shattered the authority of the church in Ireland and rocked the Catholic Church's reputation worldwide.

The government has said it is preparing a bill to deal with the tracing of adoption information. But the Adoption Rights Alliance accused ministers of simply paying lip service, as a 1998 Supreme Court ruling would still deprive adopted people of the right to know their origins.

The Adoption Rights Alliance, which will work alongside the "Philomena Project", said sufficient changes would move the south of Ireland in line with Northern Ireland where, under British law, adopted people have access to their records.

"There is a moral imperative on the government's part to act and act soon before more mothers die. In pretending to protect those mothers' rights, they are in fact trampling all over the human rights of adopted people," the group's co-founder Susan Lohan said.

"By preventing adopted people from discovering this information, they're in clear breach of so many international covenants, so I suspect we're going to have to bring the government kicking and screaming all the way to the UN."

(Editing by Hugh Lawson)