With a sweep of broad brushstrokes, a television documentary last week created such a damning picture of the treatment of young, unmarried mothers between 1946 and 1976 by the Catholic Church and other religious institutions that the end credits carried an apology by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, for the “hurt” caused and the lack of “care and sensitivity”.

His was not the only apology, with regrets expressed for past insensitivities from the Salvation Army, the Methodist Church and the Church of England. This was undoubtedly a humiliating confession to make for bodies that have reformed their methods in so many ways. But were religious organisations the only scapegoats in this blame game?

The strong impression given by the documentary, ITV’s Britain’s Adoption Scandal: Breaking the Silence, was that some of the religious organisations that mainly ran the country’s unmarried mother and baby homes during those three decades, together with some GPs and nurses, effectively coerced teenage mothers into signing consent forms for adoption by not advising them that the government was legally obliged to offer them provision to keep their babies.

In other words, according to the solicitor interviewed in the programme, it was not informed consent. Carolynn Gallwey, of Bhatt Murphy solicitors, is calling on Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, to launch a public inquiry into the role of churches as well as the state in the adoption practices uncovered by the film.

Yet among the facts not covered by the programme was the hard truth that the 1948 National Assistance Act, which purported to provide a safety net for unmarried mothers and other vulnerable groups, would not have provided enough benefit for young mothers of modest means to support themselves and their babies without the help of their families – who were often a central part of the problem (of which more later).

Eighteen years on, the Supplementary Benefits Act of 1966 did make things easier for unmarried mothers. Yet the scope, operating principles and generosity of the new system varied enormously between local authorities, which were given a lot of discretion in interpreting their duties.

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