David Quinn – Blame evidence not authors for report ‘failure’

The Sunday Times – 20/6/2021

Critics of Murphy Commission findings about mother and baby homes have failed to note they were based on sworn testimonies

Donal O’Donnell, the incoming chief justice, has warned against the increasingly strident attacks being made on his fellow judges, who make an easy target for critics because they “cannot and do not answer back”.


Addressing a recent Bar Council conference, O’Donnell did not mention the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, but he could have, because it has been under extraordinary attack ever since the publication of its report in January.


The commission was led by a retired judge, Yvonne Murphy, and she and her two fellow commissioners, Professor Mary Daly and Dr William Duncan, have been invited to appear before the Oireachtas committee on Children to answer the charge that their report had “failed” former residents of the homes.


They have refused to do so. In a letter to the committee chairwoman, the Sinn Fein TD Kathleen Funchion, Murphy highlighted that some of the committee members had already engaged in condemnation of the report, suggesting that they had prejudged the outcome of any appearance. Pointedly, she said that some of the politicians criticising the commission had themselves been members of the government that drafted its terms of reference.


 Murphy also headed the body that, investigated abuse in Dublin’s Catholic archdiocese, and the commission that looked into abuse in Cloyne. She was praised for her work on both occasions. 


Daly, meanwhile, is one of Ireland’s most distinguished historians. An emeritus professor of history at University College Dublin, last month she was awarded the Royal Irish Academy’s gold medal, which is considered the highest award that Irish academia can bestow.


Duncan was a law professor at Trinity College Dublin, and a long-time campaigner for law reform in Ireland. He was a leading advocate for divorce in-the referendum of 1986.


One of the chief criticisms of their report into the mother and baby homes is that it did not lay enough blame on the Catholic church. The document blamed the state, and society more broadly, for what happened.


Given their background and careers;, no one can fairly accuse Murphy, Daly or Duncan of somehow being stooges of the church. So why did their report not follow the predicted path? Why didn’t it  place most all the blame for theropod treatment of unmarried mothers and their children at the feet of the hierarchy? Perhaps it is because the evidence genuinely and 9bjectively points to several parties being to blame, not least the families of the women.


This isn’t the first official inquiry that failed to follow the popular narrative. Among those that did not do so were the report on the Magdalene laundries by Martin McAleese, published in 2013, and that ofJudge Maureen Harding Clark on redress for women who had undergone a symphysiotomy, released in 2016.


The McAleese report challenged the received narrative in several ways. For example, it .”found no evidence to support the perception that unmarried mothers had babies” in the laundries. It said there was “a perception that the vast majority of women who entered the laundries spent the rest of their lives there”. In fact, the median length of stay was seven months.


The report found no evidence that the laundries were highly profitable. Instead, they barely broke even; it said. The investigation looked into whether .there was Sexual, ·physical and verbal or psychological $abuse in the institutions. It made no finding on these issues because it heard from so few of the 10,000 women who passed through the doors of the laundries over the decades of their existence. However, none of the women who did testify made allegations of sexual abuse against any of the nuns, and “the vast majority” said the physical punishment and abuse that existed in the industrial school system “was not something they experienced in the Magdalene laundries”.


What the McAleese report found was an “uncompromising regime of physically demanding work and prayer, with many instances of verbal censure, scoldings or humiliating put-downs”. The symphysiotomy report was an even bigger challenge to the popular narrative of modern Ireland.


Symphysiotomy was a procedure used in childbirth when a caesarean section was deemed to be unsafe. It involved widening the mother’s pelvis to allow the baby to be delivered. It is still used in exceptionally rare cases when alternatives are riskier.


The procedure was always rare, even at its height in the middle of the last century. The fact that Ireland was a strongly Catholic country m’ay have contributed to it being more common here than in Britain – sterilisation was banned, for instance. But Harding Clark’s report “failed to find evidence of a religious as opposed to an obstetric reason when a symphysiotomy operation was performed”. Despite this, the judge said she was “not sanguine that there will be any change in the manner of reporting of the subject”.


Incredibly, the investigation also’ found that almost a third of those who reported that they had undergone a symphysiotomy did not have one performed on them at all. The commission said it believed many of these claimants had acquired “false , memories”. This reminds us that not all claims can be taken at face value, and they should be independently verified where possible.


Some survivors of the mother and baby homes are angry that the report of The Murphy Commission also failed to follow the received narrative. However, as Murphy said in her letter to Funchion, just 1 per cent of women who gave birth in the homes since 1960 came forward to tell their stories, and only a small number of those were willing to given sworn testimony. 


In addition, the stories varied. For example, while some of the tiny number of witnesses who remembered life in the . Tuam mother and baby home had very bad memories of the place, others recalled it more positively. What was the commission meant to do in the face of such contradiction? It was led by two lawyers and a historian, so it based the final report on verifiable evidence, which is what we should expect from experts with their backgrounds and training.


If the Oireachtas wanted a different outcome, then it should have put a different kind of expert in charge of the commission and set different terms of reference, ones that included a more strongly therapeutic and subjective element. Then the outcome might have been more in keeping with the popular narrative, but that doesn’t mean it would have been more accurate.