Senior doctor resigns over plan to hand Dublin hospital to order of nuns

Henry McDonald Ireland correspondent
A protest held outside the Department of Health in Dublin last week against plans to grant ownership of the National Maternity Hospital to the Sisters of Charity religious order. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

One of Ireland’s most respected obstetricians has resigned from the board of a maternity hospital over plans to transfer its ownership to a religious order that ran institutions where women were enslaved and children abused for decades.

Secular campaigners have been leading the opposition to the government’s plan – which emerged earlier this month – to move the National maternity hospital in Dublin to the St Vincent’s Elm Park campus, which is owned by the Sisters of Charity.

Dr Peter Boylan’s resignation is the latest flashpoint in a row that has reignited a debate about church-state relations and the influence of Catholic institutions in provision of public services.

Proponents of the move have argued that the Catholic order – which still owes €3m (£2.5m) to a government compensation scheme for victims of institutional abuse – will not have a say in the medical decisions at the new site.

Boylan told Irish radio: “I can’t remain a member of a board which is so blind to the consequences of its decision to transfer sole ownership of the hospital to the religious Sisters of Charity and so deaf to the concerns of the public which it serves.

“It has been said that the nuns are not going to run the hospital – that’s absolutely correct. I’ve never suggested that they would run the hospital, but they own the hospital, they own the company that runs it and they have undue representation on the board.”

Peter Boylan. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

Two demonstrations have been held in Dublin against the proposed move, and almost 100,000 people have signed an online petition calling on the Department of Health to reconsider the transfer.

Emily Duffy, from the campaign group Uplift, said: “This is an issue that people in Ireland are clearly outraged about – it’s rare we see a petition go viral so rapidly, and it shows that people are deeply troubled by the state’s utter disregard for the many victims of abuse, which took place in institutions run by orders such as the Sisters of Charity.

“It’s hard to imagine what [the health minister] Simon Harris and the Department of Health are thinking, handing over a €300m hospital to a group with such a history of immoral, untrustworthy, and abusive behaviour. Especially since they still refuse to stand up and accept the consequences of this history.”

Harris has defended the planned transfer and promised safeguards to protect the hospital against any religious interference by the Sisters of Charity.

Harris said: “Let me be very clear: there will be no financial gain to any religious order from the development of this hospital. Legal arrangements will be put in place which will 100% protect the state’s investment and interest in the new hospital.”

The Sisters of Charity was one of the orders that ran Ireland’s “Magdalene laundries”, institutions that were controlled by Catholic orders from the late 18th century well into the 20th. Many of those incarcerated were young, unmarried women who fell pregnant and had their babies taken off them – in some cases sold to wealthy childless Catholic couples in the United States.

In 2013 Ireland’s prime minister, Enda Kenny, issued an apology on behalf of the Irish state to the women held in the institutions. Kenny said their maltreatment and exploitation had “cast a long shadow over Irish life”.

A financial redress scheme was set up in Ireland after an inquiry published in 2009 detailed abuse against children in residential institutions. The Sisters of Charity offered to pay €5m towards the €1.5bn redress and inquiry costs incurred by the state, but has so far contributed only €2m.

Overall Catholic orders agreed to pay almost one quarter of the bill, but an audit report published in December found they had contributed only 13%.

Patrick Walsh, a former inmate at the Artane industrial school for boys in Dublin, which was run by the Christian Brothers order and was notorious for sexual abuse and violence, said it was time the government bypassed the Irish orders.

“We believe that any further horse trading with the Roman Catholic church in Ireland is pointless and that the state should ask the papacy in Rome to make direct intervention to settle this debt of honour with victims,” Walsh said.

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