Irish babies adopted in US faced ‘lottery’ of heartache

by Lynne Kelleher

Irish children adopted by rich American families in the 50s and 60s have spoken of their harrowing Stateside childhoods in a new BBC documentary.

In the wake of Philomena, Martin Sixsmith — the journalist who wrote the book on which the Oscar-nominated film was based — decided to probe further into the Church’s role in an adoption trade which saw an estimated 2,000 illegitimate children taken from their mothers and sent abroad.

The BBC Two documentary, Ireland’s Lost Babies, sees Mr Sixsmith criss-crossing the US discovering evidence that prospective parents were not properly vetted by the Church.

“The more you talk to the children who were sent out to America — and there were hundreds of them — the more you realise what a lottery the whole system was,” says Mr Sixsmith.

“Some of the children had happy lives with the families they were sent to but many of them didn’t. Some of them were physically and sexually abused.”

Mary Monaghan, now 63, spoke of being abused by her unvetted adoptive father after arriving in America as a small child in the early 50s.

According the documentary, the Catholic Welfare Bureau in the US was responsible for vetting Mr and Mrs O’Brien but Ms Monaghan later discovered a document which showed only her adoptive mother was interviewed by the organisation.

The tiny child was still handed over to William O’Brien in Ireland by the nuns to be transported to America, and even though her adoptive mother was a nice person, her family life in California turned into a nightmare.

“I would be ill and I had all kinds of allergies and would break out because I was allergic to food,” Ms Monaghan tells Mr Sixsmith.

“My memories are terrible. I was physically punished for not being able to eat and if I did anything like wet the bed, like a little child does, I would be put in the toilet. The sexual abuse began very soon after that and it progressed.”

The nuns who ran the home where Ms Monaghan was born declined to be interviewed for the documentary but sent a letter saying her adoptive father had previously been cleared to adopt in California and that vetting was the responsibility of either the American Adoption Agency or the Catholic Welfare Bureau.

Ireland’s Lost Babies tells how some American parents travelled to Ireland to pick up their children, but many children were “mail-order” babies who were taken without their new parents ever setting foot in the country.

The documentary detailed how the Church set up its own vetting system, relying on local Catholic organisations in America to access the suitability of prospective adopters.

However, the author of Banished Babies, Mike Milotte, said the vetting system run by the organisation Catholic Charities was deeply deficient.

“Catholic Charities, by its own admission, wasn’t up to that job and confessed very late in the day that they didn’t have the personnel, the systems, and the resources, and in many states, wasn’t even legally registered as adoption agencies,” says Mr Milotte.

Another of the babies adopted in the US, Cathy Deasy, spoke of how her parents chose her from pictures of children sent by the nuns through the post. Her parents paid the nuns for a courier to bring her, at the age of four, from the unmarried mothers home run by the Sacred Heart nuns in Bessborough, Cork, to New York in 1958.

“They did it all by mail,” says Ms Deasy. “They didn’t fly and pick out a child.”

When Mr Sixsmith observes: “You were literally a mail-order child. You were bought from a catalogue,” she agrees: “Yes, exactly.”

Ms Deasy, who now lives in Florida, describes an idyllic childhood and told of her dreams of becoming a nurse.

But her happy childhood turned abruptly sour when her sister Dolores left their New York home to go to college in California.

“She decided to move to California and my parents went through an empty nest syndrome and missed her so much,” says Ms Deasy. “[My father] said: ‘By the way we had a college fund for you but we spent it and we intend to continue spending it and we are going on a cruise and we want you out of the house by 18.’ ”

She says her adoptive parents then further cut ties with her when they sold their New York home and went to California to be with their biological daughter

“It was horrible to say goodbye because they were the ones who said hello to me when I got off the plane from Ireland,” says Ms Deasy. “Even though I was supposed to be older I guess and get over it, it hurt and still hurts.”

Ms Deasy and Ms Monaghan were reunited with their birth mothers in Ireland over the past 15 years and spent a number of years getting to know them before both their mothers passed away in recent years.

Ireland’s Lost Babies will be shown on BBC Two on Wednesday, September 17, at 9pm

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