Her tragic story has touched hearts around the world after inspiring an Oscar-nominated movie starring Dame Judi Dench.
More than 60 years ago, an unmarried Philomena Lee had her little boy taken from her by the Catholic Church under a policy of forced adoptions at convents and mother-and-baby homes operated by the Catholic Church in Ireland. Yesterday, Mrs. Lee met the man in charge of the institution that caused her such pain and suffering – Pope Francis.
Lee, who is now 80, met the pope during a general audience in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday, describing it as “a great honor.”
But she also had a message to deliver to the South American pontiff, as he continues with his campaign to reform the Vatican and repair its battered image.
Having kept the story of her son, Anthony, a secret for 50 years, she wants the Vatican and the Irish government to open up their files on the estimated 60,000 young Irish women who, like her, were forced to give up their babies and young children after becoming pregnant out of wedlock.
Last month, Lee and her daughter, Jane Libberton, launched an initiative called The Philomena Project, to lobby the Irish authorities to release the documents and help other women trace their long-lost children, many of whom were sent to the United States for adoption and never saw Ireland again.
A huge sense of relief
Lee became pregnant in 1952, after meeting a young man who bought her a toffee apple at a county fair in Roscrea in County Tipperary, Ireland. She was sent to work in a church-run “mother and babies home,” where she had her son taken away from when he was just three.
“It was such an awful sin to have a baby out of wedlock back then. I was very upset and unforgiving at the time,” Lee said in Rome on Thursday, the day after meeting the pope. “I did lose my religion for a while. But I don’t hold it against anyone, not now, anyway. What was I supposed to do – spend the last 62 years holding a grudge?
“I’ve carried the guilt for 50 years, but the pope made me feel so good inside. I felt a huge sense of relief.”
Her campaign is supported by the Adoption Rights Alliance, an Irish organization that has campaigned for the files to be released by the Irish government, which paid Catholic religious orders to run the homes.
“The Irish government carried out the gravest human rights abuses against women like Philomena and their children,” said the organization’s Susan Lohan.
“Her story has acted like a lightning rod for the whole issue. The burden of shame and guilt that Irish society placed on her and other women like her should be lifted. Responsibility lies with all of Irish society.”
The screenplay for the movie was written by Steve Coogan, the British actor and comedian whose alter ego, bumptious provincial radio DJ Alan Partridge, is a cult figure in the UK. He also stars in the movie, playing the part of a world-weary journalist who comes across the story of Philomena and follows her to the US on a quest to find her son.
Mr. Coogan was also at the audience with Pope Francis and then organized a screening of the movie for a group of senior Vatican officials.
He said that far from seeing the film as an anti-Catholic tirade, as it has been portrayed by some conservative Catholics in the US, they were open to discussing past abuses committed by the church.
"There was an acknowledgment and a desire to engage in dialogue rather than adopt a siege mentality," Coogan says. "There seems to be a break with the past, from a culture of obfuscation and obstruction.”
By coincidence, the meeting with the pope came on the same day that a United Nations committee issued a scathing assessment of the Vatican’s failure to bring to account priests who sexually abuse children and of its continuing attempts to hush up the scandal, which has affected the church in countries around the world, including the US, Ireland, and Australia.
In spite of the UN’s highly critical assessment, Coogan said he came away with the impression that the pope is determined to address injustices and crimes committed by the church.
The Vatican under Francis was showing "a more open, more nuanced response" to the scandals of the past, he said.
'An extraordinary thing'
Coogan, who emphasized that he is not a Catholic, said, “I told the pope that Philomena is a symbol of forgiveness and reconciliation. She’s an ordinary woman who has done an extraordinary thing.”
Lee spent decades trying to be reconnected with her son, begging the nuns in the convent where she lived to release information on what happened to him.
Unbeknownst to her, he was adopted by a family in St. Louis, Mo., became a successful lawyer, and joined the Republican Party. He was eventually appointed chief legal counsel in the administration of George H.W. Bush.
But he contracted HIV and died in 1995 without ever having connected with his birth mother.
His story was unearthed by Martin Sixsmith, a former BBC journalist, who met Lee and wrote a book about her life story. His dogged detective work allowed her to at least know what happened to the little boy she was compelled to give up.