Catholic Church apologises for hurt caused to mothers of adopted babies

The Catholic church in England and Wales has apologised for its lack of sensitivity around adoptions of children born to unmarried mothers in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, as a group of women reveal their ordeals in an ITV documentary.

Thousands of babies were separated from their birth mothers and placed with adoptive families under the supervision of "moral welfare officers" acting on behalf of various agencies - the majority of which were overseen by religious organisations.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, told ITV the Catholic church apologises "for the hurt caused" by agencies acting in its name.

The Church of England declined to comment on the allegations made by the mothers in the programme, and the Salvation Army said it "sincerely sympathised" with one woman and confirmed her experience "would be different today," but stopped short of an apology.

Lawyers are calling on the Home Secretary to launch a public inquiry.

The women who feature in the documentary, Britain’s Adoption Scandal: Breaking The Silence, recall how as new mothers without husbands, they were told that if they loved their babies, they would give them up.

  • Angela's story

On the day in Angela handed over her baby to strangers a taxi was sent to collect her from her home in Essex to take her to the Crusade of Rescue office in London.

It was 1963 and she was an 18-year-old Catholic with a baby. It was, she says, "shameful".

"By the time I saw the professionals, case workers, social workers, moral welfare officers, the decision was made and there was no going back on it."

Tearful and her voice shaking with emotion, Angela recalls in the documentary how she was left alone as her son was taken from her and handed to a couple in another room. She heard a "squeal of joy" and was told she could leave.

  • Diana's story

“My mother took us to the GP, and his opening gambit when I walked through the door was, ‘I hear you’ve been a naughty girl.’ And then every single thing he said was to my mother. Nothing else was said to me. But it always felt like adoption was the way things were going.”

Diana was 16 when she gave birth in 1974. She begged nurses not to take her baby away from her.

"She never actually asked what I knew, felt, cared about or wanted," Diana tells the documentary. "She said things like 'I know you'll do the right thing, I know you'll do the best for everybody, I know you won't change your mind.'"

Margaret, aged 20, with her baby in 1959 Credit: ITV
Women from the Leeds Birth Families group who all had their children adopted at a very young age. Credit: ITV

In 1976 a change in the law gave local authorities the main responsibility for handling adoptions in Britain.

The apology from the Catholic church is the first offered to the women.

Carolynn Gallwey of Bhatt Murphy Solicitors is one of a team of lawyers preparing a case for a public inquiry.

“These women were told not to speak about what had happened to them," she says. "But now they’re entitled to have their experiences recognised and the only way to do that is through a public inquiry.”

The women featured in the film say they were not given information about the financial support they were entitled to, in order to help them to keep their children, had they wished to do so.

Jill, pictured aged 17, on the morning she travelled to London to give up her son for adoption Credit: ITV

Gallwey believes their testimony raises questions about the nature of the consent given.

“Throughout the time period we are concerned with it has been a legal requirement that these women give their consent to have their child adopted.

"But at the same time, if they’re being told: there’s no financial support for you; there’s no social support for you, you won’t be able to look after this child – you have to ask yourself: is their consent being given freely? Is it valid?” she said.

The Archbishop of Canterbury says he is not in a position to respond to allegations about organisations that, while being associated with the Church of England, are separate, independent entities.

The Home Office said it was no longer responsible for adoption policy.

  • Britain’s Adoption Scandal: Breaking The Silence ITV 9pm Wednesday November 9