OMAGH, Northern Ireland (Reuters) - Catherine Droogan turns 40 this year. That’s one of the few personal details she can be sure of.
Adopted at four weeks from a convent in eastern Ireland, Droogan doesn’t know who her parents were or where she was born. She is not even certain who actually named her Catherine.
Lying on her kitchen table in the Northern Ireland town of Omagh is a one-page document that the state has given her about her parents, containing what’s known as “non-identifying information”. It took her a year to get from Ireland’s health service and tells her that her father was a blue-eyed factory worker in his early 20s, and her mother was a catering assistant who liked to read and dance. There are no names or addresses.
International laws say all children should know their parents and be able to establish their identity. But adopted people in Ireland have no automatic right to their birth records, and no legal right to tracing services. Pressure to change this has risen since “Philomena”, an Oscar-nominated movie, was released last year. It tells the true story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman whose son was sold as a toddler by nuns to a U.S. couple.
“When I was younger I thought someday there will be this big reunion. As I got older, I got a bit of sense. But just to know who I am is my biggest want. That’s what really bugs me, that I can’t know the simple things,” said Droogan, who has two children of her own. “My eldest son wants to know who he looks like. He is the double of me.”
Catholic Ireland’s system of compelling unwed mothers to give up their babies to secret adoptions ended in the 1980s, but thousands of mothers and children are still being kept apart.
Politicians blame the law. Successive Irish governments have argued that a 1998 Supreme Court ruling prevents them from automatically opening adopted people’s birth files because it emphasized the mother’s right to privacy, and said mothers should be consulted.
No administration has yet drawn up laws to clarify the situation. Nor has any government tried to challenge the judgment. In 2001, a junior minister proposed criminal prosecution, and possibly jail, for any adopted person who tried to contact a birth parent who didn’t want to be approached, and for any parent who tried to contact an unwilling child. That idea was dropped after a storm of protest.
Ireland’s current Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald, has said she is working on legislation to formalize tracing and access to birth records for adopted people. Originally meant to be unveiled in 2013, it is now expected sometime this year.
She has told parliament that the new law will have to reflect the “constraints” arising from the 1998 Supreme Court ruling.
Campaigning group the Adoption Rights Alliance, which is working with Philomena Lee, believes the state has a “deny till they die” strategy, stalling until most birth mothers are dead to avoid controversy and lawsuits.
“There is a fear and loathing about this whole issue amongst government parties and former government parties because they know the extent to which state and church colluded to abduct children and they colluded in forced adoption,” said Susan Lohan of the Adoption Rights Alliance.
Fitzgerald said that was not the case.
“The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs absolutely rejects the proposition that she is, in any proactive way, trying to block adoption and information legislation. The opposite is the case,” her department said in an emailed statement.
”The birth parent has certain constitutional rights to privacy which reflect the fact that the original adoptions were provided for under the Adoption Acts on the basis of confidentiality.
“There are legal and constitutional difficulties in retrospectively overturning considerations of confidentiality other than on the basis of consent.”
Since “Philomena”, applications to join a register that tries to match adopted people with their birth parents have doubled to 30-40 a week, said the state-run Adoption Authority. Nearly 11,000 people are now on the register: It has made 660 matches since 2005.
The Authority’s chairman said it was examining how future laws might work.
“We are exploring all possible avenues,” Geoffrey Shannon told Reuters. “I‘m quite optimistic that we are moving into a much better place in this area.”
The Catholic Church ran many of Ireland’s social services in the 20th century, including mother-and-baby homes where tens of thousands of unwed pregnant women, including rape victims, were sent to give birth.
Unmarried mothers and their children were seen as a stain on Ireland’s image as a devout, Catholic nation. They were also a problem for some of the fathers, particularly powerful figures such as priests and wealthy, married men.
Like the Magdalene Laundries, where single women and girls were sent because they threatened Ireland’s moral fiber, the mother-and-baby homes were run by nuns but received state funding. They acted as adoption agencies and in that capacity were overseen by the state.
Major parts of adoption legislation were written to the wishes of the Catholic hierarchy in the 1950s and 1960s and are still used to regulate adoption today. Irish government officials followed the Church’s preference for secrecy, despite the fact psychologists stressed the importance for adopted children of knowing where they came from.
“There is no other issue I’ve come across in my studies where the state and the church was more hand-in-glove than on this particular issue,” said Robbie Roulston, a lecturer at University College Dublin.
Ireland is not the only country where children were taken from their mothers. Australia’s former Prime Minister Julia Gillard apologized last year for some 150,000 forced adoptions in that country between 1950 and 1970.
But Ireland has not apologized for its forced adoptions, nor has it heeded calls for an inquiry into illegal adoptions, where babies’ birth certificates were falsified to show their adoptive parents as their biological parents.
In a report this month, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child urged the Vatican to investigate all cases in which Irish Catholic congregations had forcibly removed babies from their mothers, and to cooperate with the police on their investigations. It also urged the Vatican to make the congregations reveal everything they know about where these children are.
One official familiar with government thinking on adoption says the delay is down to inertia, the legal obstacles and concerns about the possible costs.
Fresh out of an EU-IMF bailout and with its public finances still stretched, Ireland’s government has been cutting back on services. If the government made it a statutory right for adoptees to trace their birth parents, it would have to fund this.
But despite the growing number of people requesting information, the tracing department at the Adoption Authority has had its staff reduced since 2011.
The potential impact of a law change is illustrated by the case of the Magdalene laundries, Ireland’s institutions for “fallen women”, the last of which closed in 1996. Prime Minister Enda Kenny issued an official apology for the homes in 2013, after years of government denials. The government has agreed to pay up to 58 million euros ($79 million) in compensation to hundreds of Magdalene survivors. So far, 680 applications have been made and 3.5 million euros paid out to 144 women.
Last month, Kenny also apologized to a woman who had been sexually abused by her primary school principal in the 1970s. The government had said it was not responsible because the school was owned and run by the Church, but the European Court of Human Rights said the state had a responsibility to protect children. Ireland’s Supreme Court had said that the state was not legally liable.
“The government were very slow to move on the industrial schools, very slow to move on the laundries, the mother and baby homes is another huge thing that’s coming down the line and I cannot understand why it has taken so long for this issue to be sorted out,” said Eamon McGrane, who is searching for his birth parents.
“All it takes is a little bit of political will and they can push through anything they want.”
If McGrane’s birth mother is alive, she is 68 now. “You hear the clock ticking in your head all the time,” he said. “I don’t want to hear any more complex legal issues, I don’t want to hear any more excuses. Get it done.” ($1 = 0.7317 euros)
Edited by Sara Ledwith and Simon Robinson