The head of the Catholic Church in Ireland has “unreservedly” apologised to the survivors of the country's mother and baby homes.
Eamon Martin, the Archbishop of Armagh, said the Church was a part of a culture in which people were stigmatised.
Following the publication of a report by the Commission of Investigation into Ireland's mother and baby homes on Tuesday, the senior cleric said the Church should acknowledge fostering what the report described as a harsh, cold and uncaring atmosphere.
“As a Church leader today, I accept that the Church was clearly part of that culture in which people were frequently stigmatized, judged and rejected,” he said.
“For that, and for the long-lasting hurt and emotional distress that has resulted, I unreservedly apologise to the survivors and to all those who are personally impacted by the realities it uncovers.”
Mr Martin said all those in positions of leadership in the Irish Catholic Church should "carefully" study the lengthy report and "spend time reflecting on the courageous testimonies of the witnesses."
The Archbishop called for the rights of all survivors to access personal information about themselves to be fully respected and urged the State to remove “remaining obstacles”.
“The report makes it clear that many are still learning about their personal stories and searching for family members,” he said.
“The rights of all survivors to access personal information about themselves should be fully respected and I again urge the State to ensure that any remaining obstacles to information and tracing should be overcome.
- Read more: Key points from the report
- Read more: Timeline of the commission's findings
- Read more: 9,000 children died amid 'appalling' infant mortality
“The commission believes that there may be people with further information about burial places who have not come forward. I appeal to anyone who can help to do so,” he said.
“All burial grounds should be identified and appropriately marked so that the deceased and their families will be recognised and never be forgotten.”
“The commission’s report helps to further open to the light what was for many years a hidden part of our shared history and it exposes the culture of isolation, secrecy and social ostracising which faced ‘unmarried mothers’ and their children in this country," Archbishop Martin said.
“I commend those who have fought to have this story told and I thank those who have already been supporting survivors through various organisations and providing a platform for their voices to be heard.”
The Church head's comments come as religious orders have also responded to the report, with the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary saying it was “a matter of great sorrow” that babies had died while under their care.
Meanwhile, many survivors have criticised Tuesday's report, with the Irish First Mothers group saying it absolved both the Church and State of any systemic responsibility.
Others have noted the report fails to condemn “forced adoption,” after groups campaigned for recognition of the alleged forced adoption that took place at the homes, where children were forcibly taken from their mothers and often sold to adoptive parents.
A new webpage with information specifically for former residents of Mother and Baby Homes has been set up. Additional mental health supports provided by the HSE are also available to former residents. Details of these supports are available on www.yourmentalhealth.ie.