The government of Ireland has launched an investigation into abuse and the deaths of nearly 800 infants from unmarried mothers decades ago at "mother and baby" homes run by the Roman Catholic Church, uncovering what has been called a "dark history" of how such children where treated.
Hundreds of people attended a vigil on Wednesday organized by Justice for the Tuam Babies outside the House of Representatives, leaving teddy bears and children's shoes in memories of the victims, the Irish Times reported.
Researchers discovered records last week that showed that 796 children, mostly infants, died at a "mother and baby" home in Tuam, County Galway, which operated between 1925 and 1962.
An inquiry into the case follows four other investigations in Ireland concerning cover-up of child abuse at industrial schools and by priests in Dublin, Cork and the county of Wexford, The Associated Press added.
"Uncovering the dark history of how we treated unmarried mothers and their children is vital for us to truly acknowledge and understand our past," said Tanya Ward, chief executive of the Children's Rights Alliance. "This is the missing piece of the jigsaw."
The Irish Catholic Bishops Conference released a statement on Tuesday saying that it "welcomes" the investigation into the mother and baby homes, and that it apologizes to everyone that was hurt by its past system.
"The harrowing story which is continuing to emerge of life and death in Mother and Baby homes has shocked the people of Ireland. It is disturbing that the residents of these Homes suffered disproportionately high levels of mortality and malnutrition, disease and destitution," the statement read.
"Sadly we are being reminded of a time when unmarried mothers were often judged, stigmatized and rejected by society, including the Church. This culture of isolation and social ostracizing was harsh and unforgiving. The Gospel calls us to treat everyone, particularly children and the most vulnerable, with dignity, love, compassion and mercy. We must ensure that all children and their mothers always feel wanted, welcomed and loved. Mindful of the words of Jesus, 'Let the little children come to me, because it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs', we apologized for hurt caused by the Church as part of this system."
Prime Minister Enda Kenny admitted that for decades, children born out of wedlock were treated as "an inferior subspecies."
"This was Ireland of the (19)20s to the '60s - an Ireland that might be portrayed as a glorious and brilliant past, but in its shadows contained all of these personal cases, where people felt ashamed, felt different, were suppressed, dominated," he said. "And obviously the question of the treatment in the mother and babies homes is a central part of that."
The inquiry has been "cautiously welcomed" by the Justice for Tuam Babies group.
"The inquiry must have full powers to compel the appearance of witnesses and the production of documentary evidence and these powers must be enforceable particularly against the religious orders which operated these homes on behalf of the State. The interdepartmental scoping exercise will report back by June 30th and the Government will draw up the terms of reference at that point and identify who is to conduct the inquiry," spokesman Gary Daly said.