Organs were sent for incineration at some hospitals around the country, in contravention of Health Service Executive guidelines, according to the findings of a national HSE internal audit, RTÉ Investigates has learned.

The national audit follows an RTÉ Investigates report last year that revealed the organs of 18 babies delivered at Cork University Maternity Hospital (CUMH) had been sent to Belgium in 2020 for incineration along with clinical waste, without the knowledge or consent of bereaved parents.

In the wake of the revelations, Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the Dáil that Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly had sought assurances from all hospitals across the country to determine whether the practice was occurring elsewhere.

HSE standards state that when organs are retained at post-mortem for further examination, hospitals should support the next of kin in one of two ways - by facilitating the return of the organs to the family or arranging their sensitive disposal on behalf of the family by burial or cremation only.

In the cases of the 18 babies at CUMH whose organs were sent for incineration, some of the parents said they only fully understood what had happened when they saw the RTÉ Investigates report late last year.

Two of the affected cases discovered during the national audit, completed by the HSE's Internal Audit Office, relate to University Maternity Hospital Limerick, and concern two babies born at the hospital in 2019.

Among them is the case of one family whose baby son's brain was incinerated alongside surgical waste in Belgium in April 2021.

The family of the baby boy, who died in early 2019, had agreed to a post-mortem to try and understand what had happened and gave permission for the organs to be retained, if necessary.

However, their post-mortem consent form states that, if any organs were retained, the hospital would sensitively dispose of them on their behalf. That disposal was to happen in accordance with hospital policy, which was via cremation or burial only.

However, in April 2022, the family received an unexpected call from University Maternity Hospital Limerick requesting a meeting, during which they were told by senior staff that their baby son's brain had been retained and was incinerated alongside surgical waste.

In recent days, the hospital has confirmed to the family that the incineration took place in Belgium and happened on one of two dates in April 2021.

"It all feels like a nightmare," the baby's mother, who did not wish to be named, told RTÉ Investigates.

"I can’t believe this is happening to us when we thought our baby son was at peace. When I go up to his little grave now, I feel like he’s not there anymore."

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The woman discovered she was pregnant again in January 2021 and she again attended University Maternity Hospital Limerick.

"To think, when I was pregnant with my little girl, my baby boy’s brain was still sitting somewhere without me knowing. And especially the fact that I was in the hospital every two weeks for check-ups, and nobody ever told us anything. It’s so frustrating. I’ve been referred to a psychologist because I feel like I’ve been going out of my mind at times with anger."

In a statement to RTÉ Investigates, the UL Hospitals Group said it has met with and apologised to both families for its non-compliance with national standards.

"We recognise that this has been a traumatic experience for both families which can only have compounded their grief. We are sincerely sorry that this has occurred and for the distress it has caused them."

The group confirmed that, since October 2021, its hospitals have been in compliance with the HSE guidelines for post-mortem examinations.

In a separate statement, the HSE said its audit will focus on post-mortem practices in 25 HSE and HSE-funded hospitals for the period of January 2018 to October 2021.

"Any departure from quality standards, policy or best practice in post-mortem practice within our hospitals is a source of enormous distress to bereaved families, and the HSE report will provide information on areas of non-compliance with the agreed standards, and make recommendations for any actions or improvements that are needed in response," the statement added.

The HSE confirmed the audit, which some families had been told would be published today, is expected within the next fortnight.

Meanwhile, Michaela Willis, author of the 2009 Retained Organs Audit, which found almost 21,500 organs of deceased patients had been retained at hospitals and universities across the State, has said she is completely shocked by the latest revelations.

Her 2009 report called for an immediate end to the incineration of organs at Irish hospitals. Yet, some 13 years later, she said it was "wholly unacceptable" to discover the practice continued at some sites here.

"It just makes me very sad," she said.

"How were so many lessons learned only for them to be forgotten so quickly? Why do people think it is acceptable when someone has died to treat them any differently to what they would have done while they were living?"

Ms Willis, whose baby son’s organs were retained during the UK organ scandal of the early 1990s, added that the findings will have a heartbreaking impact on the families affected.

"They believed they buried their children whole and that allows them to begin the grieving process and to be able to move forward," she said.

Ms Willis also pointed to the "breach of trust" on behalf of the hospitals.

"It’s the fact they had discussions with people who they trusted, who said to them this is what process is going to take place - and that process didn’t happen."

She called for a "root and branch" examination of what is happening in these institutions.

Separately, the 18 families affected by the incinerations at CUMH are still waiting for the outcome of an investigation into their cases.

In the aftermath of last year’s RTÉ Investigates report, the South/South West Hospital Group, which is responsible for CUMH, said an external expert group was reviewing how the incinerations happened.

It said that it expected the report to be completed by November 2021. However, more than seven months later, the affected families still have no indication when it will be published.

Ms Willis said the delays demonstrated "a huge lack of respect" for the families involved.

"They need answers because they cannot process what’s happened to them until they get to that point and until then they’re left in limbo. It’s incredibly unkind and unprofessional that this hasn’t been dealt with already in an appropriate way."

If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article, you can contact the Patient Advocacy Service, which offers free, independent and confidential support, on 0818 293 003 from 10am–4pm, Monday–Friday, or by emailing info@patientadvocacyservice.ie.