A UN human rights committee took the Vatican to task last month for forcing thousands of unmarried Irish mothers to put their children up for adoption, a story told in the Oscar-nominated film Philomena.
But the real woman behind the film, Philomena Lee, said she holds no anger toward the church for her experience.
“People can’t understand how I could have been so forgiving,” Lee said in an interview with The Atlantic. “You see so much hurt and pain caused by anger.” She says working as a psychiatric nurse for 30 years has helped her own hurt “slide into the background.”
In a report issued by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in late January, an 18-member panel accused the Holy See of not taking measures to “protect or ensure justice” for women and children in Catholic-run boarding schools and institutions that sought to rehabilitate pregnant, unmarried women. The report claims these institutions, open from the 18th century to the 1990s, used the women for forced labor and made many give their children up for adoption against their wills.
The film Philomena is based on Lee’s life. She was sent to live in an Irish Catholic convent in 1952 after she became pregnant as a teenager. She worked in the convent-run laundry for three and a half years until her son, then three years old, was sent to the United States for adoption. With no access to records or files about the adoption, she kept her teenage pregnancy a secret for more than 50 years until she and a British journalist began searching for her son.
Last Thursday, Lee had a brief conversation with Pope Francis. The meeting followed a private viewing of the film for the Pope’s private secretary. Lee is advocating for thousands of adoption case records and files to be made available to the mothers and children involved. She, along with her daughter and Ireland-based Adoption Rights Alliance have launched an advocacy group, The Philomena Project, seeking to raise awareness and reunite families separated by forced adoption.
“You were made to feel so bad about having a baby out of wedlock,” she said. “I’ve carried the guilt inside for 50 years, without telling anybody.” She confessed that she did begin to question her faith.
“But over the years, after such a long time—Anthony would be 62 this year—how could I go through a whole of life holding a grudge?” she said. “I’ve long since forgiven everything that did happen.”
Her own search came too late for a reunion. Her son, whom she called Anthony, grew up as Michael Hess and became a prominent Washington, D.C., lawyer. Before he died of AIDS at 43, he visited Ireland three times looking for his birth mother but was never allowed access to closed adoption records. He was buried, at his request, at the convent where he was born.