Are criminal proceedings the only route to truth for Baby John?

Posted on: 29 March 2023

Dr Catherine Conlon writes about her research on concealed pregnancy in contemporary Ireland in this piece that was first published in The Irish Examiner.

For my doctoral research on concealed pregnancy in contemporary Ireland, I analysed ten years of reports of findings of bodies of newborn infants or live babies in Ireland between 1995 and 2005.

In that time, ten babies’ bodies and four live newborns were found. As UCD Sociologist Tom Inglis wrote in his 2003 book Truth, Power and Lies: Irish Society and the Case of the Kerry Babies, a growing sympathy and understanding emerged towards women concealing pregnancy and instances of infanticide in the decades following the more punitive 1980s.

From 1994, the focus of appeals issued by An Garda Siochana following the discovery of the body of a baby or an abandoned baby tended to emphasise concern for the mother, and offer assurances of compassionate treatment and appropriate help as well as confidentiality. In some cases, the appeal also focused on the mother’s or parent’s duty or entitlement to name the child and provide an appropriate burial service. Emphasis was both on the well-being of the mother, who was assumed to have been in some distress, and the dignity and respect due to the baby.

In cases of live babies found, appeals to the mother were made immediately. These also tended to emphasise concern for the mother’s well-being as well as give news of the baby, including any names given to the child, its age, and accounts of how it was being cared for. A photograph of the baby usually accompanied the appeal. The requirement for the mother to give signed consent for any permanent placement of the baby for adoption was a primary concern.

Criminal charges

A wish to identify the mother in all cases was evident. Public appeals were made for the mother, or anyone who may know her, to come forward. House-to-house inquiries were carried out by teams of gardaí in the area where the baby was found. Contacts were made with hospitals, doctors, and women’s groups. The records reflect a policy of avoiding criminal charge. In most cases where mothers were identified, no arrest was made.

A report from the Coroners Court in 2003 on the death of a baby whose body was found on a beach in Dublin and whose mother remained unidentified, provides an important insight into the issue of adjudicating on infanticide. The City Coroner advised the jury that, while formally this was a case of unlawful death, a verdict of ‘death due to want of attention at birth’ was appropriate. When asked by a jury member about possible alternative verdicts, the coroner advised that a verdict of infanticide speaks of more active involvement. In this case, he said that this was more likely death by passivity due to a lack of care and sustenance. The jury returned a verdict in line with the Coroner’s suggestion.

In 2018, 19-year-old Caitlin Corcoran gave birth to a full-term baby girl in the toilets of Caredoc Waterford and hid her in a white foot-pedal rubbish bin under a pile of bloodstained tissues. This happened in a thirteen-minute period after she had left a GP consultation to get a urine sample. The baby girl’s death was attributed to inattention.

The State brought a criminal case against Caitlin of gross negligence manslaughter. After a two-week trial she was found guilty. A majority verdict of guilty was returned for a child neglect charge. Noting it was a sad and complex case, Judge Eugene O’Kelly said the baby, named Sophie, was neglected and left to die.

At sentencing, the Court heard psychiatric reports of Caitlin going into subconscious denial about her pregnancy and suffering from depression and post-traumatic symptoms following the birth. The judge said the appropriate sentences for the counts of manslaughter and neglect were each four years, to be served concurrently. Taking the mitigating factors into account, the judge reduced the sentences by nine months. He then suspended the final three years of the total sentence on several conditions, leaving Corcoran three months to serve in prison, which she did.

The DPP appealed the leniency of this sentence which was dismissed by the Court of Appeal, whose President Mr Justice George Birmingham said that the woman was “terribly troubled” at the time of the pregnancy and that she “needed help, not punishment”.


The criminal justice system can and has exercised discretion in cases of neonaticide. Public interest arguments of deterrence in such cases have been queried by senior members of the judiciary.

In this light, it is unsettling to read the news that An Garda Siochana have made two very public arrests following the re-opening of the cold case of the baby found with multiple stab wounds on a beach in Kerryin 1984.

A prevailing culture demonised and punished women for the transgression of non-marital pregnancy throughout much of the 20th century.

The treatment of Joanne Hayes by An Garda Siochana and in the related state tribunal have been widely condemned as an indictment of a culture of misogyny. The State officially apologised to Ms Hayes in 2020. It is almost impossible to separate the reprehensible treatment of Joanne Hayes by the gardai and the State with the two new arrests in the case.

While leading investigator Superintendent Flor Murphy has stated that “Baby John deserves the truth”, do arrests accompanied by extensive media briefings serve the dignity and respect owed to this child? Or could there be another way?

This article was first published by The Irish Examiner on March 28th, 2023: