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A forced adoption and the lifelong search of a mother

Lee’s ordeal and her lifetime of searching for her son are the subject of a new movie,Philomena.

Written by New York Times |
December 8, 2013 11:02:44 pm

Philomena Lee is 80 now and she has made peace with many things. Yet,her voice catches when she describes her last glimpse of her firstborn child as he was being taken away to be adopted by an American family.

Lee desperately wanted to keep the boy,Anthony,who was three. But it was 1955. Locked in a Roman Catholic home for unwed mothers on the grounds of a country convent in Roscrea,Ireland,she had signed her rights away at the nuns’ insistence. She never even got a chance to say goodbye. Racing to an upstairs window,she got there just in time to see Anthony’s face looking out the back of a departing car. “I can see him like it was yesterday,” Lee said. “I will carry that picture in my head always.”

Lee,who lives on the outskirts of London,talks candidly about those difficult years when,barely out of a convent school and completely ignorant about sex,she became pregnant at 18 and entered the ranks of thousands of disgraced women in Ireland who were sent to live in church institutions for unwed mothers. Though the Mother and Baby homes were supported by the state,the women were forced to work long hours and had little choice but to give up their children.

Lee’s ordeal and her lifetime of searching for her son are the subject of a new movie,Philomena,directed by Stephen Frears,which opened in the US recently to glowing reviews. Judi Dench plays Lee.

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Tall,dignified and with her sense of humor intact,Lee said she was pleased with the movie,but many of the film’s comic bits never happened.

The film has set off something of a firestorm in Ireland,where many Catholics are trying to come to terms with a series of revelations about the Church’s past abusive practices,in which orphans,runaways and others considered delinquent were subjected to systematic and sustained physical,sexual and emotional abuse — in many cases with the government’s help.

But Philomena focuses on another matter: the Church’s role in isolating unwed mothers and forcing them to put their babies up for adoption to families willing to make large contributions. Rights advocates charge that rather than prioritise the welfare of the mother or the children by finding suitable adoptees,the Church was interested in ensuring the couples were Catholic and,preferably,wealthy.

Church officials have denied that payments ever took place,and many of the documents from that period were lost in a fire. But researchers say that between 1945 and the mid-1960s,2,200 infants and toddlers like Anthony,some of whom had stayed with their mothers for years,were exported to the US. Probably 50,000 babies were born in Mother and Baby homes throughout Ireland before they closed in the 1990s. Conditions in the homes were difficult for the young mothers. Among other humiliations,they were forced to recount their sexual encounters in detail to the nuns.

Over 50 years,Lee sent word to the convent in Roscrea every time she moved,just in case Anthony ever came looking for her,and she visited several times pressing for information about him.

But to no avail,even though Anthony,renamed Michael Hess and raised by a Missouri family,had been trying to find her and had made his way to Roscrea. Hess,who became a prominent Washington lawyer — with a stint as chief legal counsel to the first President George Bush -—was repeatedly told that nothing could be done. As he was dying of AIDS in 1995,he requested that his ashes be buried at the convent,in case his mother should ever come looking for him. In exchange for a large donation,the nuns acceded to his wish to be buried in Roscrea.

Lee said she was haunted by the fact that her son wanted to find her so badly. “The nuns told him that I had abandoned him when he was two weeks old,” Lee said. “He believed that his whole life. I have to live with that.”

Lee is eager for the film,based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith,a British journalist,to have an impact on Ireland’s adoption law. In Ireland,the movie has divided adoption reform activists. Some hope it will embarrass the government into conducting a full investigation of forced adoption practices,others have dismissed Philomena as a wasted opportunity.

Today Lee is of two minds about the role the Church played in her life. Her mother died when she was six and her father,faced with raising six children,sent three girls to a convent school. “The nuns gave us a good education,and some of them were nice,” Lee said. After Anthony’s adoption,they set her life on a new course,finding a job for her in a school in Liverpool. For the first time in her life,she had her own room and some money. She eventually became a psychiatric nurse and married one of her colleagues. She felt he had a right to know about her past before the wedding.

For a time she abandoned the Church completely. “I lost my faith because how could you keep it?” she said. In time,she had two more children,but she did not tell them about Anthony until 2001. Lee’s daughter,Jane Libberton,52,immediately threw herself into the search for Anthony.

Just before she discovered that he was Hess,Lee said,she started going to church again. “I think I found him because I went back,” she said. NYT

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