Confusion arises over using sisters' land for Irish national maternity hospital

Contention over the relocation of Ireland's new national maternity hospital to a site owned by the Religious Sisters of Charity in Dublin has raised questions about the clinical independence of the new facility and thrust the congregation into the public spotlight, rekindling attention to past controversies.

Protests have taken place in the Irish capital, and almost 105,000 people have signed a petition in opposition to the sisters' involvement in the new National Maternity Hospital.

Two board members of the maternity hospital resigned on April 27 and 28, claiming that the new 300-million-euro, taxpayer-funded hospital, which is to be built on the campus of St. Vincent's University Hospital, would be subject to Catholic values because of the Religious Sisters of Charity's ownership of the land and, by extension, the new facility. The nation's health minister has said he is seeking a solution to be announced in the next few weeks to help clarify ownership issues.

Venerable Mary Aikenhead, foundress of the Religious Sisters of Charity, founded St. Vincent's Hospital in 1834. It was the first hospital in the English-speaking world staffed by nuns and has a long history of medical excellence. The sisters still own the hospital and its land, but the government funds day-to-day operations.

Over 9,000 infants are born at the National Maternity Hospital every year. However, cramped facilities mean the city center building, which dates from 1894, is no longer fit for its purpose. Its location has prevented any expansion, despite a 50 percent increase in the number of births there over the last two decades.

Moving to the same campus as St. Vincent's, one of the country's largest public hospitals, would allow the maternity hospital to operate in proximity to an adult tertiary hospital and provide immediate medical care to women whose pregnancies are complicated by other health issues.

The current master of the National Maternity Hospital, Dr. Rhona Mahoney, has sought to allay the concerns of those opposed to the Religious Sisters of Charity's involvement. The new hospital "will be operated by a new company with an independent board and will be clinically and operationally entirely independent in line with national maternity policy," she said in a statement issued April 18.

The board of St. Vincent's Healthcare Group, which oversees St. Vincent's campus and hospital, includes two non-executive directors who are members of the Religious Sisters of Charity. The board operates "in accordance with the principles and ethics of the Congregation of the Religious Sisters of Charity," according to the group's website, and must act in accordance with the health care philosophy and ethical code of the order.

One of those who resigned from the National Maternity Hospital's board is Dr. Peter Boylan, a former master of the National Maternity Hospital and chairman of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. He told the national broadcaster RTE that if the new hospital is forced to follow the order's ethical code, it won't provide sterilization, infertility treatment, gender-reassignment surgery and abortion.

Mahoney and other government officials dispute Boylan's claims. In a statement, the Department of Health said: "It is correct that the land on which the new maternity hospital will be built is owned by the St. Vincent's Healthcare Group and that the Sisters of Charity are a major shareholder in the St. Vincent's Healthcare Group." However, "the new company will have clinical and operational independence in the provision of maternity, gynaecology and neonatal services, without religious, ethnic or other distinction, as well as financial and budgetary independence."

In an April 21 statement, the health care group's board expressed concern over the "controversy and misinformation" that had arisen and emphasized that the clinical independence of the new hospital would be enshrined in the Memorandum and Articles of the new facility.

But in a statement to the Sunday Times on April 24, Bishop Kevin Doran of Elphin, who is chair of the Irish bishops' Task Group on Bioethics and Life, said a Catholic health care organization, "while offering care to all who need it, has a special responsibility ... to Catholic teachings about the value of human life and the dignity and the ultimate destiny of the human person."

Doran added: "Public funding, while it brings with it other legal and moral obligations, does not change that responsibility."

The chairman of the board of the National Maternity Hospital is Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, although he does not attend board meetings and a number of years ago asked the government to remove him from the body, as it is not a Catholic hospital.

The Religious Sisters of Charity did not respond to GSR's requests for a comment. The congregation's ministry is mainly focused on health care, education and social ministry, such as prison chaplaincy and anti-human-trafficking work. There were 213 members of the congregation in Ireland in 2015, with a median age of 76, according to a government report.

In Ireland, they are best known for their hospitals such as St Vincent's and Temple Street Children's Hospital, as well as Our Lady's Hospice in Harold's Cross, which opened in 1879. Earlier this month, Britain's Prince Charles took time out of his state visit to Ireland to visit the hospice, which is highly regarded for its end-of-life care. But the visit was so low key that some suspect this was may have been due to the recent bad publicity the order has been getting over the hospital controversy.

Last month, Sr. Agnes Reynolds, who is a member of the St. Vincent's Healthcare Group board, told The Irish Times that the new maternity hospital at the St. Vincent's campus in Dublin would "reach out to all creeds and backgrounds ... and give a good service to people."

She said it would "always respect the rights of the mother and the baby."

Incomplete redress payments

Among those who reacted to the religious order's possible ownership of the new hospital was the Workers' Party's Councilor Éilis Ryan, who highlighted that the Religious Sisters of Charity had managed two of the country's notorious Magdalene laundries, institutions where unmarried mothers were detained before and after giving birth at the behest of families and the church. She also highlighted that the order had failed to pay its share of funds to a redress plan for the victims of institutional abuse.

The Religious Sisters of Charity is one of 18 religious congregations investigated and criticized in the 2009 Ryan Report into historical abuse in residential institutions for children in Ireland. The government agreed to compensate thousands of former residents, and the bill has totaled 1.5 billion euros.

So far, the Religious Sisters of Charity have paid 2 million euros of the 5 million euros they pledged as their redress contribution to former residents of the five institutions they ran. The order has yet to transfer ownership of the Sacred Heart Centre in Waterford to the state — one of 11 properties that the 18 congregations agreed would be transferred under the terms of a 128-million-euro indemnity agreement of 2002.

Other politicians added their voices to the chorus of opposition. Dr. Michael Harty, an elected member of parliament for County Clare and the chair of the Committee on Health in the Oireachtas, the Irish legislature, told the radio program "Newstalk Drive" on April 24 that if the religious order wanted input into the ethos of the hospital, this was "not acceptable."

At the end of April, Health Minister Simon Harris asked for a month to devise a solution that will satisfy both hospitals and address the issue of the ownership of the facility. The site cannot be sold to the government, as it is collateral for St. Vincent's Healthcare Group's bank loans. The government could take out a long-term lease on the site, securing its ownership and full control at the new hospital. Otherwise, a new site must be found.

The dispuite has both challenged and disappointed many Catholics in Ireland. Theologian Fr. Gabriel Daly, in a piece published on the website of the Association of Catholic Priests, noted the "surprisingly belligerent" attitude the crisis sparked among those interviewed by the media.

"The prevailing opinion among those interviewed was that under no circumstances should the new hospital be handed over to a religious body like the Sisters of Charity, because of its alleged failures in the past," he wrote.

According to Daly, a 90-year-old Augustinian who formerly lectured at Trinity College Dublin, any hope that the church might try to calm troubled waters instead of taking sides in an increasingly bitter conflict were "dashed" by Doran's entry into the affair.

"His words conjured up the age when the Catholic Church ruled with confident doctrinal and moral sovereignty and laid down the law in the full expectation of being obeyed without question," he wrote.

The Association of Catholic Priests hit out at the "highly inflammatory" language used by some against the Religious Sisters of Charity, warning that it may breach discrimination laws.

In a statement published May 10, the association, which represents over 1,000 priests in Ireland, said if some of the things currently being said publicly about nuns were said about other minority groups, they would be "clearly seen" as "in violation" of the laws on discrimination.

The priests' group said although it supported the view that if public money is used to build and fund the hospital, it is important that it be in the ownership of the state, there was a lack of fairness and balance in the treatment of the nuns.

"One of the most revealing measures of the health of a society is how it cares for its elderly citizens. Right now, some sections of Irish society are showing scant care or respect to this particular group of women," said the statement, which was signed by the association's leadership team of Frs. Brendan Hoban, Tim Hazelwood, Gerry O'Connor and Roy Donovan.

They acknowledged that some of the institutions run by religious sisters in the past left a lot to be desired, and people's lives were damaged.

"But it is equally the case that religious sisters contributed greatly to our society over the past two hundred years, especially in the areas of education and healthcare and that the vast majority of them served church and country selflessly," they said.

[Sarah Mac Donald is a freelance journalist based in Dublin.]