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With the Pope coming to Canada to apologize for residential schools, I’m reflecting on the frightening parallels with church-run institutions here in Ireland

A pair of infant shoes hang as part of a shrine on the site of the former Bon Secours Mother and Baby home in Tuam, Ireland on Jan. 13, 2021. From 1921 to 1961, 978 children died at the home. Eighty per cent were less than 12 months old.Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Fionn Davenport is a travel writer and broadcaster based in Dublin.

The keystone of Pope Francis’s visit to Canada this weekend, the first of his pontificate and the first papal visit to the country since 2002, will be his apology to Indigenous communities for the horrors of the residential school system. From my home in faraway Ireland, I’ll be watching the Pope’s visit with interest, and pondering the eerie parallels between what happened in residential schools and the dark events of my own birth. I’ll also be thinking about what an apology can truly mean after so much lasting harm has been done.

The Pope’s trip to Canada builds on the April visit of First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegations to the Vatican, where the leader of the Catholic Church made a deeply personal apology for the harms meted out to Indigenous communities. He expressed “sorrow and shame” and declared, “With all my heart: I am very sorry. And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon.”

Pope Francis holds an audience in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace with indigenous delegations from Canada at the Vatican, April 1, 2022.VATICAN MEDIA/Reuters

The anguish he expressed is real and clearly heartfelt. It’s also in keeping with the tenor of his ministry, where he has sought to reposition the papacy as the humble servant of the poor and the marginalized.

It’s also a marked departure from the tone of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who met privately with a delegation of 40 First Nations representatives in 2009 but stopped short of apologizing, instead expressing “sorrow” for harms done and saying that he “prayed that all those affected would experience healing,” encouraging First Nations peoples to “continue to move forward with renewed hope.”

All these years later, there’s a strong sense of “sorry, not sorry” about Pope Benedict’s statement, even if at the time it was well received by the delegations. By contrast, Pope Francis’s “I am very sorry” is an unqualified expression of contrition, and more powerful because of it.

How Pope Francis’s apology will be received by those for whom it is intended depends, of course, on their relationship with their faith, the Catholic Church and the man chosen to be its spiritual leader. To some, it will be enough; for others, it will be too little, too late. Others still will dismiss this weekend’s visit as a carefully orchestrated piece of theatre, and an apology as little more than a bit of sophistry designed to convey contrition while protecting the Church from real scrutiny.

The horrors meted out in Canada’s residential schools bear a disturbing and frightening resemblance to those that occurred in other church-run institutions around the world, including Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes. There were 18 such homes spread across the country, where, for much of the 20th century, young unwed mothers were sent to deliver their babies.

Between 1925 and 1998, 56,000 unmarried women passed through the system, giving birth to roughly 57,000 babies, of which 9,000 are estimated to have died: an infant mortality rate that was double that of the general population. The homes operated a brutal regime of physical and verbal abuse, forced labour, illegal adoptions and unethical vaccine trials, consequences of a barbaric ideology that treated the women as sinners in need of repentance.

These shady homes hid in plain sight and their stories were only revealed when the remains of 800 babies and children were discovered in an unmarked grave at a home run by nuns in Tuam, County Galway.

The site where local historian Catherine Corless believes 796 children, most of them infants, were interred at St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home between 1925 and 1961, in Tuam, Ireland. Photographed on October 18, 2017.Paulo Nunes dos Santos/The New York Times News Service

The gruesome findings prompted the government to establish a commission of investigation. It spent six years producing a 3,000-page report into the Mother and Baby Homes, which was published in January, 2021.

Of the 18 Mother and Baby Homes in Ireland, the largest by far was St Patrick’s on the north side of Dublin, and it is here that my birth mother, Jane, arrived in January, 1968. She was 19, six months pregnant and desperate: Ireland of the 1960s had little tolerance for an unwed mother.

As soon as she arrived, she signed a form declaring that she’d give up her unborn baby for adoption. I was born in April, and the next day Jane changed her mind and told the nuns she wanted to keep me. She was told that this was not possible; she had signed the consent form and that was that.

Fionn Davenport in Dublin in 1969, the year after he was adopted.Handout

It was a cruel and terrible lie. The 1952 Adoption Act specified that the mother’s consent was not valid “unless it is given after the child has attained the age of six months.” Instead of the truth, Jane was told that she was “lucky” the nuns were there to take care of her and her baby. At the root of this callous lie was a doctrine that held that unwed mothers were guilty of a heinous sin and entirely deserving of public rebuke.

Getting pregnant out of wedlock was a sin that was not easily expiated, either: The girls passed the seed of their transgression on to their illegitimate progeny, condemning them in turn to a life of depravity. This grotesque ideology masquerading as a moral code persisted until the early 1960s, or until the liberalizing effects of the Second Vatican Council. By the time I was born, the burden of censure on unwed mothers had lessened, but they were still to be removed from decent society until they had expiated their sin.

The way to do that was to give up your baby for adoption and to work. Jane was spared the for-profit laundry and was tasked with helping take care of the babies in the nursery. Not her own, though: Before adoptions were finalized, contact between mother and baby was strictly controlled and limited to a couple of bottle feeds a day – no breastfeeding allowed.

By the late summer of 1968 I was adopted, delivered into the hands of a grateful couple in the family room of the Catholic Protection & Rescue Society of Ireland’s offices in central Dublin. As it turned out, that grateful couple turned out to be wonderful parents who filled my life with love and opportunity.

Fionn Davenport with his adopted parents, Bernard and Fiamma, in 1969.Handout

I was told of my adoption when I was old enough to understand what it meant. I was told that a young girl had gotten pregnant by accident and, in the ultimate sacrifice of love, gave me to my parents because she knew that they would be able to take care of me better than she could. It was a nice story, expedient in its simplicity and comforting in its lack of ambiguity.

The story became more layered as I grew older, but in essence remained the same. One detail has stayed with me: My mother feared that my birth mother would change her mind within the first six months and take me back.

I was in my 40s when I learnt that the lie told to Jane meant her fears were unfounded. Jane had tracked me down several years earlier and we had been reunited – after several months of exchanging carefully worded letters under the watchful gaze of the adoption authorities – in the same room where I was first presented to my parents. The Catholic Protection & Rescue Society of Ireland had become the much friendlier-sounding Cunamh, the Irish word for “assistance.” Within a few years it was abundantly clear that unwed mothers in Ireland had no need for the assistance of the Church in facilitating adoptions and the agency finally closed in 2019.

By the time Jane and I met, Ireland was largely unrecognizable from the country that had turned its back on her. Attitudes had changed and a more inclusive and tolerant moral wind prevailed. The Celtic Tiger and a closer relationship with the European Union brought prosperity and a sweeping program of liberalizing reforms that resulted in the decriminalization of homosexuality, the legalization of same-sex marriage and the repeal of the 8th Amendment banning abortion, which passed in a referendum by a landslide.

The Catholic Church, once the dominant force in virtually every aspect of Irish life, has been relegated to the sidelines. Multiculturalism and the broadening of Irish horizons have inevitably resulted in the weakening of the Church’s once formidable grip, but it was the devastating revelations of clerical sex abuse and cover-ups that was its ultimate undoing – even for many of an older generation whose piety would have once been unquestioned.

Yet even in these more open times, the hurts of the past linger and the shameful stain of what happened in the Mother and Baby Homes has yet to be properly expunged. And for those who had direct experience of the homes, like Jane and myself, the wounds are not so easily treated.

Reunions are never easy, not even the straightforward ones desired by both parties. Our relationship stuttered tentatively for several years as we both sought to come to terms with the irreparable sense of loss that is at the root of every adoption.

We were mother and son but we were also strangers, devoid of that mammalian bond that is established through the senses at birth. Without it a baby is left disoriented and instinctively all at sea, scrambling for a coping strategy that eventually becomes enmeshed in its neurological system and is characterized primarily by a deep sense of mistrust: I won’t let anyone get too close in case they leave me, or I’ll cling on for dear life to make sure they don’t. Either way, that feeling of mistrust will be a factor in every future relationship.

As we got to know each other better, Jane spoke more freely about her experiences of St Patrick’s. How the girls all knew which nuns to avoid and which ones would treat them with a modicum of humanity. How one nun even allowed her to sneak a few extra visits with me in direct contravention of the rules. How, once I was gone, she was desperate to leave and never again see inside the halls of that terrible place – the experience of which was made worse by individual cruelties but which existed because of a monstrous ideology that demonized the vulnerable and the marginalized.

In 2018, Pope Francis apologized for the consequences of that monstrous ideology. He did so during a two-day visit to Ireland, asking forgiveness for a litany of the Church’s sins, including sexual abuse, forcing vulnerable women to work in laundries and coerced adoptions. Yet his apology rang hollow for many still reeling from the terrible discovery of the babies’ graves in Tuam the year before. Words are fine, went the general consensus, but where’s the action? Where is the retribution?

Relatives and supporters watch on as a vigil is held at the Tuam Mother and Baby home mass burial site in August 2019.Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Three years later, Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin delivered another apology to the victims of the Mother and Baby Homes, but his words carried more weight as they came on the back of the report by the commission of investigation. In a powerful speech, he described the prevalent culture that allowed these institutions to exist as a “dark, difficult and shameful chapter of recent Irish history” and spoke of a society that “embraced judgementalism, moral certainty, a perverse religious morality and control which was so damaging.”

“We treated women exceptionally badly,” he continued. “We treated their children exceptionally badly. We had a completely warped attitude to sexuality and intimacy and young mothers and their sons and daughters were forced to pay a terrible price for that dysfunction.”

These were powerful words. In my youth I could never have imagined an Irish prime minister being so forthright about the toxic and corrosive influence of the Church’s regressive morality. The dam of angry tears eventually burst when he said, “but what is so striking is the absence of basic kindness.” I could swear there was a quiver in his voice and for a moment he was no longer the Prime Minister but an Irish citizen struggling to deal with the horrors of it all. I just sat on the couch and wept.

I was struck by his highlighting the lack of kindness because that simple truth cuts through all of the rationalizations presented about why these homes – and others like them – were allowed to exist. Kindness is the ultimate expression of our love for God, we were told in school. To this day, I can neither understand nor forgive how generations of nuns and priests could exercise such callous cruelty to the vulnerable and the marginalized in society, in direct contradiction of their vows and how we were taught to perceive them.

In the days that followed the Prime Minister’s apology, whatever feeling of reconciliation I had dissipated and a familiar cynicism returned. It was announced that the archive of evidence on which the report was based – including the testimony of victims – would remain sealed for 30 years, effectively denying survivors proper access to their own records and making it much more difficult for them to hold wrongdoers to account. What made it worse was that in making its decision, the government hadn’t consulted victim advocacy groups, every one of which came out strongly against it. At the root of our dismay was a simple question: How can you begin to repair the damage of the past when you keep some of it shrouded in secrecy?

Even the Pope’s April apology on Canada’s residential schools requires further scrutiny. If you examine the text, he says he’s sorry for the role “of a number of Catholics” rather than the behaviour of the institution itself. By letting a few bad apples carry the blame for the wrongs done to the victims of residential schools, he deftly avoided acknowledging any institutional responsibility.

And therein lies the rub. The mistreatment and abuse in residential schools may have been meted out by individuals but, as in Ireland, they did so because they were following a malignant moral code certain in the knowledge that their superiors approved of their behaviour and would protect them from scrutiny.

And just as ill-treated wounds will continue to fester, without proper scrutiny there can be no real resolution. It is why some residential school survivors want to see a broader apology, as well as the return of Indigenous cultural items in the Vatican collection, open access to all school documents and the full payment of compensation.

Apologies are important. They validate a person’s suffering and offer them the space to heal. They can help deliver a victim from anger, bitterness and pain. But “I’m sorry” alone is never enough: What is said in words must be accompanied in deed. If you express contrition but then try to limit the blame or hide some of the consequences in mealy mouthed rationalizations, then your apology isn’t worth much of anything at all.

Pope Francis at the Vatican on July 2, 2022.REMO CASILLI/Reuters

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