THE RELIGIOUS ORDER at the centre of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home burial controversy told the government it had no “legal liability” arising from the home.
In correspondence with Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone, the Bon Secours Sisters said that before a commission of investigation was complete, their advice was that there was no legal obligation on them to provide funding.
They said that a €2.5 million donation towards excavation and a memorial at the Tuam site would be its “sole contribution” to the state in relation to the site.
In follow-up correspondence, Zappone asked the Bon Secours Sisters to “reflect” on whether they should be making a more significant contribution of funds.
Zappone said she would not comment on the issue of legal liability, saying it was not appropriate while a commission of investigation was underway.
In a statement, the Bon Secours Sisters said they were not trying to suggest they would never have a liability for what had happened at the mother and baby home.
A spokesman said: “[They] were stating that their advice was in agreement with the Minister that, as the Commission of Investigation had yet to report in September 2018, there was no legal liability applying at the time.
“This was raised by the Minister in her previous correspondence and at the outset of the meeting with the Bon Secours Sisters.
“It will only be when the Commission issues its final report that we will have clarity on any liabilities that arise and there is no question of the Bon Secours Sisters pre-judging that outcome.”
A copy of correspondence between the order and the Department of Children – obtained by Noteworthy under FOI – confirmed that the Bon Secours Sisters wanted to make a €2.5 million “donation” for the works that needed to be carried out at Tuam.
However, it was explicit that this was voluntary, with country leader Sister Marie Ryan writing: “Our advice is that we do not have any legal liability arising from St Mary’s Mother and Baby Home and we note that at our meeting you [Minister Zappone] agreed and acknowledged same.”
They said their donation would help to “expedite” the investigations the government wanted to do at Tuam.
Sister Ryan wrote: “This payment will be the sole contribution made by the Sisters of Bon Secours Ireland to the government in relation to the site.”
Separately, an account of a meeting between the Bon Secours Sisters and Zappone describes how the order had been “genuinely shocked” by the discovery of remains of the children buried at the site.
“[They] never expected such a finding,” the notes said.
“Sister [Marie] Ryan advised that the discovery is alien to their ethics and practice. Sister Marie stated that the Order never owned the Home and handed over the records when the facility closed,” they said.
The Sisters do not have anyone with first hand recall of events at the home. Sr Ryan confirmed that the congregation was working with the Commission but it was a difficult process given the lack of information available to it.”
A spokesman for the order said that the notes were a departmental account of the meeting but confirmed they were accurate in what they said.
In the meeting, Zappone was at pains to say that the commission of investigation was “independent in its work”.
The notes said: “The minister does not have information on the progress of its investigation beyond what is included in the published interim reports to date. [The] minister has no knowledge of contacts between the Bon Secours and the Commission.”
Zappone said that a request for funding from the order was entirely separate to the commission’s work and related only to the future of the site and the remains buried there.
The minister told the Bon Secours Sisters she believed they had a role to play because of its operation of the home.
The notes explained: “Minister stated her strong view that costs of the action to be taken should be shared between the state parties and the order.”
Zappone had pressed for a commitment from the Bon Secours at the meeting to sharing costs; however, the order said they were not in position to do so immediately.
Sister Marie Ryan had also looked for a “sense” of what cost was likely to be involved.
The notes added: “Minister [Zappone] shared her view that recovery and respectful burial at a minimum would be required.
“Her recommendation would be informed by best practice, human rights consideration and the views of families.”
In a follow-up letter, Zappone said she wanted to “acknowledge” the contribution of €2.5 million by the order for the Tuam fund.
However, she said there had already been “public reaction and media commentary” suggesting that this had not been enough.
There are calls for the congregation to make a more significant contribution to the potential costs of the overall project. This is obviously a matter which the congregation may wish to reflect upon.”
Zappone also highlighted the fact she had raised the Tuam scandal with Pope Francis both during his visit to Ireland last year and in a follow-up letter.
She wrote: “In his response, [the pope] expresses his prayerful solidarity and concern about this sad situation.
“In particular he hopes that efforts made by the government and by the local churches and religious congregations will help face responsibly this tragic chapter in Ireland’s history.”