Life, Adopted at the Movies: Philomena


The first time I visited Baltimore’s historic Charles Theater was in the fall of 1989. At 18-years-old, I had just arrived in town to begin my freshman year at Loyola College. A new friend joined me for a showing of Stephen Soderbergh’s film Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Sitting in the dark theater, I had no idea at the time that this formative part of my life would set into motion my own journey of self-discovery as an adoptee.

I recently found myself back at the Charles Theater. This time, it was for a showing of Philomena, a British drama film based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by journalist Martin Sixsmith. Both the book and the film depict the story of Lee and the son she lost to adoption.

Sex, Lies and Adoption

Lee’s story is one with which many of us involved in adoption reform are familiar. As an 18-year-old in 1950s Ireland, Lee became pregnant. Disowned by her strict Catholic family, she joined the thousands of single, pregnant Irish women sent to Catholic Church operated convents during the 1950s and 1960s. Lee ended up at the Sean Ross Abbey which was operated by the Sacred Heart Sisters in Roscrea in County Tipperary. According to Mike Milotte’s book Banished Babies The Secret History of Ireland’s Baby Export Business, 438 babies born at Sean Ross were secretly sent to America for adoption. Lee’s son was one of those babies.

The flim presents Lee’s story as it unfolds after she becomes acquainted with the journalist Sixsmith and the two embark on a search for her lost son soon after his 50th birthday. Judi Dench is superb as the elder Lee and Steve Coogan gives life and humor to the cynical Sixsmith character. The relationship between the two is a highlight of the film and brings a sense of lightness to what is truly a poignant and heart-wrenching tale. In fact, relationships are the key theme of the film. While the atrocities endured by Lee and other young women are depicted and acknowledged, the heart of the story is in Lee’s own heart as a mother who feels a deep connection to the son who lived at the convent with her until he was 3-years-old. As an adoptee and a viewer, I liked this aspect of the film very much.  I liked that the focus was on Lee’s deep love for her son and how she never once stopped thinking of him or searching for him. This film offers a reminder that the connection between parent and child can rise above even the most horrific of circumstances.

Certain aspects of the film also mirrored some of my own experiences with Catholic institutions as a domestic American adoptee who was adopted through Catholic Charities as an infant in 1971. In the film, we learn that Lee visited the Sean Ross Abbey on several occasions with the hope of finding out what had become of her son. We also learn that as an adult, her son had also visited the convent with the hope of learning more about his mother. The convent nuns never tell one about the other, despite having the information readily available and having engaged in discussions with both.

Personal Parallels

My natural father first visited Catholic Charities of Fairfield County in 1989, around the time that his 18-year-old daughter was sitting in a Baltimore city movie theater watching actor James Spader point a video camera at actress Andie MacDowell. His intent was to inquire about me and make all of his information available. The Catholic Charities social worker would not tell him anything about me—not even my birth date. But she did tell him that, for a fee, he would be allowed to fill out paperwork containing all of his information. He was then informed that if I ever contacted the agency, his details would be provided to me. My father wrote out the check, completed the forms and began searching for his only child.

In 1998, at the age of 27, I did contact Catholic Charities of Fairfield County to inquire about my natural parents and learn what I could about my background. The same social worker who worked with my father years earlier spoke with me. She never mentioned that my father had released his information to me. But she did say that if I were to pay a $250 fee, Catholic Charities would conduct a search for me. I opted to keep my checkbook closed.

Fortunately, my father and I found each other through ISRR. After we reunited, my father told me about how he had released his information and asked if the agency had provided it to me. No, they did not, I confirmed. Then, seeing as Catholic Charities had no idea that my father and I had found each other, I decided to make an inquiry. I sent a letter requesting that any information left for me by either of my parents be provided as soon as possible.

A week later, I received a phone call from the same social worker who had worked with both my father and me. She informed me that Catholic Charities had good news and bad news. The good news, she said, was that my father had released all of his information to me years earlier. The bad news, she then explained, was that the agency could not release it without my mother’s permission—because she was considered the agency’s client (please note that as the actual former “child in need,” the agency does not consider me, one of its adoptees, to be a client). My father was not informed of these details when he paid his fee in 1989. To this day, I have never been provided with the information that Catholic Charities promised my father it would release.

That Which Transcends

While watching the film and considering my own personal experience, I couldn’t help but reflect on the lack of compassion offered to the natural parents, sons and daughters of adoption by some global Catholic institutions. Some of these actions occurred not only in the 1950s, but in the 1990s and 2000s. So this is not a matter of “oh well, that was a long time ago.”  In one sense, Catholic Charities of Fairfield County in Connecticut did to my father and the adult me what the Sean Ross Abbey nuns in Ireland did to Philomena and her adult son—withheld vital information, lied by omission and intentionally kept us from one another.

In the film, Lee does find out what happened to her son. She also agrees to let Sixsmith share her story, which he did in film and reality. Hers is one of abusive treatment and profound loss. It is also one of the deep, pure love of a mother for her son. This film does not shy away from the ethical issues in adoption yet manages to allow a mother’s love for her son to transcend all else, even the Catholic Church and the adoption industry. As such, this film is a gem and a must-view for anyone interested in taking a closer look at the topics of ethics in adoption, parental love and basic human compassion.Watercolor Tree Email Small 132 x 160Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

13 thoughts on “Life, Adopted at the Movies: Philomena

  1. Thank you for this excellent review.
    I cannot say that I am surprised that Catholic Charities tried to extort you, and did pry money out of your father to give him the privilege of putting his information in their files. Adoption profiteers are scum, shameless, self-righteous scum.

    • Thanks for your comment Mary. It is nearly impossible not to have a strong reaction to the unethical actions undertaken by religiously-affiliated adoption agencies. One must ask, where’s the compassion and morality?

  2. Your experience with Catholic Charities makes me so mad! I hope that people who go see this movie will read about it to learn how the lies are still happening today ~ even here in the good old U.S. of A.

    After I was reunited with my son (in 2009), I went to a counselor at Catholic Charities who admitted to me that there are instances when they tell someone searching that they were unable to find their family member lost to adoption. Ex: If they feel as though one or the other is “angry”. Needless to say, I never returned to that building again after hearing that.

    CC isn’t the only agency doing that. I kept my contact info updated always once my son turned 18 since I wanted him to be able to find me if he was looking. On top of updating my info, my father still lives in the same house with the same phone number as when I gave birth to my son. Yet ~ when he contacted Florence Crittenton to see if he could get any information, they were going to charge him a fee to “try” to see if they could locate any info. All they would have had to do was open my damn file… He also opted out of giving them one more cent, deciding to use the online registries instead.

    I’m so glad that you were able to find your dad despite the agency doing nothing to help!

    • Thanks for sharing Susie. It is important that Philomena’s story not be relegated to “the past” as much of the film actually takes place in recent years. And many of the practices are still happening today. I am so glad that you and your son found each other. <3

  3. Thank you for your review too. I’m so glad that you and your father were able to find each other despite Catholic scums trying to profit one more time. Several years ago, I attempted to find more information from my adoption agency in my birth country. Same song “Sorry, we don’t have that information. But if you want, you can pay a fee and we’ll add your name to the registry, and contact you if …”

    Thanks, but no thanks. They profited off of me when I was a child and had no voice or choice. They will not profit off of me now that I’m older and can speak for myself.

    • It certainly does feel as though they are profiting off of us, kym. Technically, we should be clients of the agency. The agency should provide post-adoption support and services to the adoptees processed through its adoption program. Instead, when we reach out to the agency as adults in need of post-adoption support and services, we are charged high fees with no promises of an adequate and satisfactory outcome. And we have no recourse if the services rendered do not meet our satisfaction. I have had an easier time securing support and customer service from Target or Amazon than I have from the Catholic agency that handled my adoption. We must keep sharing our experiences so others understand exactly how adoptees are treated after the ink dries on our paperwork and adoption agencies such as Catholic Charities have moved on to the next case.

  4. Julie, I wonder how many of “us” CC people are out there. CC did a search for me in 1993 to no avail. I had them do another search for me in 2003. No luck. I got my non identifying information from CC between searches. I paid for all three of those services. I went again for non identifying information a few monthes ago (thinking maybe there was a clue left out from the previous time.) In fact, I got less information as the definition of “non-identifying” has tightened. I paid again. Not a problem. However, on this past trip to CC, I found out the CC had my birthfather’s name. I had never been told that! Why weren’t they searching for him too as part of my two paid searches?! I asked if CC could search for him now. The answer was “yes,” but I would have to
    pay for another search! It’s maddening and it is wrong.

    • If only I were surprised to hear about your dealings with Catholic Charities, Carol. So you have already paid for two rounds of “search services” for which Catholic Charities did not deliver what you consider to be adequate service. Yet, I am assuming that your checks were cashed and there is no option for a refund. And now, the agency claims to have the name of your natural father and expects you to pay a third time? Seems to me that they are quite adequate in taking the money of their adoptees and completely inadequate in providing any sort of satisfactory service.

      As an agency attached to a religious institution, treating adopted adults in this manner feels even more unethical, immoral and far from compassionate. Catholic Charities has failed you as a client. Just as it has failed me as a client. And yet we end up stuck because the agency employees can access our files and we cannot. It is maddening. And it is wrong. This is why we need to share these stories. Catholic Charities is still operating this way, in 2013.

  5. I completely agree. It has to stop. I have to think of a way to create a forum for people to tell their CC stories. CC has to be held accountable and the craziness has to stop. When I went for my non-identifying information this past time (the second time) a few months ago, the worker who of course was holding my file that I can’t have at 57 years old, pulled my wedding announcement out of my file. My wedding announcement from the newspaper?! I was married in 1987. I was adopted in 1956. What was it even doing in there and how did it get there?! She said, “Oh, well you CAN have this if you want it!” I said, “Oh, what is it?!” She said “your wedding announcement.” And the mystery continues….

  6. This is not a Catholic or a religious problem. This is a problem when there is a vendor for babies and wealthy couples eager to have them. Chinese agencies have done similar things to single mothers in order to pry their babies from them and hand them off to western couples.

    • Absolutely true, Emily. This is not relegated to Catholic institutions or religious entities. Both Philomena’s story and my own are based within Catholic institutions, however, which is why I focused on that aspect here. Thank you for calling to attention to the broader picture.

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