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‘A nun called me a destroyer of lives’: how adoption rights activist Susan Lohan fought the Irish establishment

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Show caption Susan Lohan at Temple Hill House, a former holding centre in Dublin: ‘We were not unwanted children – our mothers’ sexuality was unwanted.’
Photograph: Johnny Savage/The Guardian The outspoken ‘A nun called me a destroyer of lives’: how adoption rights activist Susan Lohan fought the Irish establishment Adopted as a baby, denied any information about her natural parents, Lohan has spent years fighting for the church and state to reveal what they know – about her and the thousands of others in the same position Caelainn Hogan Wed 9 Mar 2022 11.00 GMT Share on Facebook

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A “destroyer of lives”. That is what a nun called adoption rights activist Susan Lohan when she sought answers from the religious order that brokered her adoption. Instead of being given the truth, Lohan was told not to ask questions. She was born in 1964 to one of thousands of unmarried mothers forcibly separated from their children – usually women who had no choice but adoption due to their circumstances. In the mid-60s in Ireland, up to 97% of all children born to unmarried mothers, like Lohan, were taken for adoption, mainly by the religious institutions and agencies that controlled social services and opposed reproductive choice.

On our drive to her home in Malahide, a coastal suburb of Dublin where she lives with her husband and son, Lohan reels off the heritage of her dog, Flynn, happily sprawled on the back seat. She laughs at the fact that her dog had documents to prove his ancestry but, as an adopted person, Lohan had to fight for decades to access her own birth information.

The Children’s Hospital, right, on Temple Street in Dublin, where Susan Lohan spent her first weeks of life. Photograph: Joe Dunckley/Alamy

The married couple who adopted Lohan were loving parents, unlike some families in the past who took in children to use as free labour. A housewife and a shoe salesman, they were the rosary-reciting ideal of Catholic Ireland and their religious devotion would have been necessary to adopt a child. Couples needed a priest’s approval to adopt and sometimes even proof that they couldn’t have children biologically. Lohan’s adoptive parents were told that her mother had died in childbirth but they were sceptical. Lohan always had an image in her mind of her mother as an unmarried girl, too young to keep her. She later found out that her mother had been in her 30s at the time, a civil servant who became president of a trade union. “She was not a woman who was easily intimidated,” Lohan says. “And even she felt unable to resist.”

While studying at University College Dublin in the early 80s, Lohan’s “eyes were opened on a lot of issues”. Contraception was difficult to get in Ireland, for example, and the anti-choice eighth amendment, which made the foetus’s life of equal value to the mother’s, was introduced in 1983. But systemic abuse within the Catholic church in Ireland was also being exposed and many, like Lohan, were beginning to understand how religious-run agencies had used adoption “as a mechanism to separate families” who didn’t meet the Catholic ideal.

Lohan was determined to search for her mother, even though her adoptive father initially discouraged her, suggesting that her mother “might not be respectable”, that she could be “an alcoholic, a drug addict, a sex worker, a criminal”. These were common and harmful stereotypes about unmarried mothers often reinforced by members of the religious orders. “The expression was: ‘Be very careful who you bring to our door,’” she says. Her father later apologised and advocated for adopted people to have the right to know their identity.

Philomena Lee, whose search for the son taken from her by nuns was made into the film Philomena, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Lohan now helps to run the Adoption Rights Alliance (ARA), which she co-founded more than a decade ago with fellow adoptees and activists Claire McGettrick, also adopted from an Irish Sisters of Charity institution, and Mari Steed, one of the “banished babies” adopted from Irish institutions to the US. The ARA campaigns for the estimated 100,000 adopted people in Ireland to have an equal right to their identity and information. Her Twitter photo backdrop shows her with Philomena Lee, whose experience of separation from her son through a mother-and-baby institution was made into an Oscar-nominated film, Philomena, in 2013.Adopted people in the UK have had access to their original birth records since the 1970s, but Ireland is only now on the brink of recognising adopted people’s legal right to this information, a change promised and denied many times over. Under current law, if adopted people are able to access records relating to their life before adoption, original birth names and the names of natural parents are treated as third party information and redacted.

Lohan was about 21 years old when she met her mother, Nábla, for the first time. A social worker with the religious-run adoption agency made contact with Nábla and arranged and oversaw their meeting. At first, says Lohan, her mother had a stern demeanour but, as soon as they started talking, all that fell away and her mother spoke candidly. When Nábla had discovered she was pregnant, she was already maintaining the family home alone and supporting her brother studying overseas, as her own mother was dead and her father had left. There was no support for Nábla to keep her daughter – there was no welfare for unmarried mothers until the 1970s and, even after that, many were evicted or lost jobs if it was discovered they had children out of wedlock. So she was referred to St Patrick’s Guild, the adoption agency run by the Sisters of Charity. “We were not unwanted children,” says Lohan. “[Our mothers’] sexuality was unwanted. Their self-determination was unwanted.”

Lohan discovered she had been born prematurely. She spent her first weeks at Temple Street children’s hospital, which was also run by the Sisters of Charity, having contracted E coli after sharing an incubator with another baby whom Lohan suspects was also born to an unmarried mother. Her mother said the paediatrician, aware of her marital status, had told her “he would amuse himself for a couple of hours trying to keep this little rat alive”.

The term “rat” was also used by a Sisters of Charity nun to describe a baby at the religious-run holding centre where Lohan was sent after she was discharged from hospital. She weighed only 6lb when she was handed over to her adoptive parents.

In 1997, the Sisters of Charity admitted that their adoption agency had falsified records and given misleading information to people who were searching for each other. They said this was in order to safeguard the mothers’ identities. Even so, in recent years, the Sisters of Charity have received millions of euros in public funding from the Irish government (€3m –£2.4m – in 2018 alone, according to the Charities Regulator).

In 2017, Lohan joined thousands taking to the streets to protest against the state’s decision to build a new national maternity hospital on grounds owned by the Sisters of Charity. “How could you do this to the women of Ireland?” one placard read. Protests for public ownership of the hospital continue and, at a recent demonstration outside the government buildings in Dublin, organised by the Our Maternity Hospital Campaign Against Church Ownership of Women’s Healthcare and supported by the National Women’s Council of Ireland, Lohan spoke out against what she sees as the Irish state’s plan to give influence over a publicly funded institution for reproductive health that could cost €1bn to the same religious order that separated her from her mother. While the nuns say that they will have no influence over the hospital and that they are transferring ownership to an independent entity, and the state says the deal includes legal stipulations to guarantee all medical procedures allowed under Irish law will be provided, concerns remain that staff will have to abide by a religious ethos, putting the provision of abortion services and other treatments at risk.

A nun walking in the grounds of the former Sisters of Charity Magdalene Laundry in Dublin. Photograph: NurPhoto/Getty Images

“This is the same organisation that trafficked the largest number of Irish children to the US,” says Lohan. “We know that they routinely lied to mothers and children who sought information in order to keep a lid on their embarrassing criminal past. They have never been sanctioned for these activities.”

The Sisters of Charity’s St Vincent’s Healthcare Group claims all procedures “in accordance with the laws of the land” are available at their hospitals. Since the law changed in 2018, abortion has been permitted in Ireland during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy (but only in certain circumstances thereafter). Yet the hospital group’s own Catholic ethical code states that “direct abortion is never permitted since it constitutes the intentional killing of the unborn”. Nor is IVF because it “bypasses the marital act”.

The Sisters of Charity did not respond to a request for comment regarding this article.

After their meeting, Lohan’s mother still kept her existence a secret and withdrew from contact for about four years until her death from cancer in 2000. “It broke my heart,” says Lohan, who was in her mid-30s at the time. “I think that was my first realisation that I had been grieving the loss of my mother my whole life.” At her mother’s funeral, the priest spoke of “an additional sadness, because she was a single woman with no family of her own”. Lohan felt like screaming, not only at the untruth, but at the unending stigma.

We know that the Sisters of Charity routinely lied to mothers and children who sought information

After her mother’s death, Lohan continued searching for the family she never knew. She met a Sisters of Charity nun to ask for information about her father and possible siblings, but was treated with “utter disregard and contempt” and told there would be at least a two-year wait to “even open your file, never mind do a trace”, even though Lohan believes the nun had her file in front of her.

The state’s adoption authority was equally unhelpful. Lohan describes how an official flicked through her file and assured her that she could “take comfort from the fact that your adoption appears to be legal”. For her, this was proof that “the system knew what the system had got up to”. Years later, having received no information about her father, she was meeting with an official from the adoption authority when he left her alone in a room with her file (she believes deliberately), which allowed her to find her father’s name. She went on to discover that her father had died in the 1990s, while she was searching for him. It would take her until 2016 to establish for certain that she had siblings.

It was an email group set up by the Ireland-based Adopted People’s Association that first sparked Lohan’s wider activism. Other Irish adoptees would message the group about their experiences of stonewalling from the religious orders and state agencies that held their records. In 2001, while working for an investment bank in England, Lohan joined the association as a campaigns manager, getting to know countless mothers and adoptees in the UK who were separated by Ireland’s system. That year, she helped lead a successful political campaign against a bill that would have criminalised people adopted in Ireland for contacting their natural parents, punishable by a year in jail or a fine. In 2005, she was part of the advisory group launching the National Adoption Contact Preference Register, an initiative to enable people separated through Ireland’s adoption system to voluntarily register their interest in receiving information or contact.

The Adoption Rights Alliance continues to offer advice on using public sources such as register offices and data protection rights requests to find the birth information the state still withholds. Birth certificates are public documents but adopted people are prevented from knowing the name given to them at birth and that prevents them from searching for their natural parents. Lohan says the ARA receives more than 500 requests for information every year.

Susan Lohan giving evidence to the Oireachtas Children’s Committee in Dublin, relating to the investigation into mother and baby homes. Photograph: Oireachtas TV/PA

As an “avid critic” of the church and the “inhumanity” of how it has treated some of the most vulnerable in society, Lohan wants to see an end to religious influence over Ireland’s schools, hospitals and public services. Where she lives in Dublin, there have been calls to increase non-denominational education. About 90% of primary schools in Ireland are still under the influence of the Catholic church, even when publicly funded. She wonders how many more children will have to be born in Catholic-ethos hospitals and attend Catholic-ethos schools because the church will not relinquish influence and the state will not ensure alternatives. As such, she believes religious orders are still treated as “above the law”.

“We should have absolute separation of church and state,” she says. “It is long overdue.”

Thousands of people adopted in Ireland are still denied the right to their identities. The Irish government is debating a bill to change legislation around access to birth and early life information but the ARA says it continues to discriminate. It is the fourth such bill in recent years and, until people adopted in Ireland have the unfettered right to their identity and information, Lohan will continue campaigning. The loss of precious time with her siblings is one injustice that motivates her, as is the knowledge that so many people like her are still searching.

“That is unforgivable. That is the punishment and torture,” she says. “That’s the price we’re still paying.”