Church leaders in Northern Ireland have spoken of shame and regret about how thousands of unmarried women and young girls were treated in mother-and-baby homes.

They also encouraged their members to co-operate with an independent investigation being established by the Stormont Executive after consulting survivors.

A research report published yesterday estimated that more than 10,500 women and young girls entered homes north of the border between 1922 and 1990.

More than 3,500 others passed through the doors of launderies, some remaining their until their deaths.

Most of those unmarried mothers' babies were put up for adoption or put into children’s homes, with many saying they were forced to give their sons and daughters away.

The leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland today apologised for what happened, and asked for forgiveness from the survivors.

"I know that in the past, they were made to feel guilty and ashamed, I feel that now it's myself and others in the church, we have to take on that shame and guilt for the way that we bolstered, and perhaps influenced that culture of condemnation and concealment in a kind of a self righteous and hypocritical manner," Archbishop Eamon Martin told RTÉ News.

The Catholic Primate said that whatever happens next will be determined by the survivors, the mothers and their children, and urged anyone who can help to do so.

"I think for a lot of them, they’re looking to understand their own personal story," he said.

"Where did I come from, who am I, what is my full identity? I know a lot of people in Ireland search for their family tree, these are people who are uncertain of their own parents, grandparents and family members.

"I think whatever we can do at all levels in society, in the church, in the state, in the community, to hell them find answers to those questions us extremely important."

Archbishop Martin said the Catholic Church has to play its part in reparations and compensation for survivors of its homes and launderies throughout the island of Ireland.

"We bear a large responsibility for the culture in which all of this happened," he said.

"In many cases we were involved in the management and in the running of these services and therefore I think that if a system can be found which would be just, and proportionate, and in line with the factual findings of the Commission's north and south, then I think the church has to play its part."

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Thousands of women and young girls also entered homes run by Protestant churches, or organisations associated with them.

Those institutions will also be scrutinised by the independent investigative process being established by the Stormont Executive.

In a statement, Church of Ireland Primate Archbishop John McDowell said he acknowledged with shame that members of the church had "stigmatised women and children in a way that was very far removed from Christian principles."

He added: "The birth of a child should always be a time for happiness, and that many young women experienced it as joyless and cold is a matter for bitter regret.

"I am sorry and apologise for the role we played in treating unmarried women and their children in this way.
They deserved much better."

Archbishop McDowell said the Church of Ireland will give the report further careful consideration, and encouraged any individuals or agencies with relevant knowledge and records to co-operate fully with the investigation.

The Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Rev David Bruce, said the report published yesterday "sheds much needed light on a dark era in Northern Ireland's history."

He added: "We deeply regret and unreservedly apologise for the damaging effects of institutional care, in which the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, or its members played a part."

The Moderator said the church will co-operate with any forthcoming inquiry "as far as we are able."

The Salvation Army has said it will reflect on the report and co-operate with the independent investigation.