Philomena tells the story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), a British woman who goes in search of her son who was adopted almost 50 years earlier and taken to America. Based on Stephen Frears’ book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, the film shows Martin Sixsmith (actor/director Steve Coogan), a disgruntled ex-BBC journalist, teaming up with Philomena to help her confront her past and write a book about the supposed injustices committed against her and her son.
Early in the film, Philomena, a young Irish teen, gets pregnant out of wedlock and is sent by her family to wait out her confinement and birth at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Ireland, a home for unwed mothers and their children run by the Catholic Church. At the Abbey, Philomena is denigrated by the nuns for her immoral choices and then spends the next several years working hard labor, only getting to see her son about once a day. Although she signs a document relinquishing her child, she is still shocked when she discovers that her son is being adopted by an American couple, presumably after they pay the nuns a steep price for the child.
Fifty years later, Philomena remembers the circumstances with regret and goes on a mission to track down her long-lost son, making a pilgrimage to America with Sixsmith at her side. While there, she discovers that her son, a gay man, had been a successful senior level aide to President Reagan and had died just a few years earlier, presumably of AIDS. After returning to Britain, she discovers that her son had made a similar journey the year before he died to the Abbey in Roscrea, looking for Philomena. Philomena and Sixsmith pressure the Abbey to explain why the records of her son’s adoption had never been made available to her and why the Abbey hadn’t contacted her when her son showed up. The nuns implied that the records had been destroyed in a fire. Later, it’s implied that it was a fire they started.
In the end, Philomena makes peace with her tragic past, forgiving one particular nun who was supposedly the main barrier between Philomena and her son, and visiting her son’s grave (he chose to be buried at Roscrea). It is a bittersweet ending, one that raises serious concerns about the Irish Catholic Church and its potential involvement in child trafficking.
That is, if it were true.
According to Bill Donohue with the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, so much of the film is fabricated that it’s hard to tell if injustice really was committed against Philomena at all. For one, in the 1950s, the Catholic Church in Ireland was the only group caring for women in distress. They would welcome women in crisis and arrange adoptions for their unplanned children. There is no evidence that children were “sold” to the “highest bidder.” There is no evidence that women were forced into slave labor. And the “cruel, harsh” nuns that the film depicts were often the ones working hardest for family unification. Never did the Catholic Church imply that they burned the records in a fire. And Philomena never actually traveled to America looking for her son.
Perhaps the film is meant to be more about Philomena’s personal journey than about the wrongs committed in the name of adoption. But anyone talking about adoption must get the facts straight. The future of hundreds, thousands, even hundreds of thousands of children are jeopardized by media that looks for the “shock stories” (no matter how true they are) over and above the countless stories of ethical situations that have placed children into loving families.
Yes, it is important to expose and bring to light the abuses in the world of adoption. Crooked agencies actually do engage in child trafficking. Biological parents are sometimes given faulty information about the finality of relinquishing their parental rights. But films like Philomena probably do more harm than good by creating problems where there might have been none and injuring the ability of families to adopt legitimate orphans. For instance, bad press and the exaggeration of one or two unethical situations have contributed to Russia’s adoption ban and the current shut-down on all adoptions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
As Christians, we are called to promote the truth, to bring injustice to light, and then to do our best to fight it. We are called to battle against those who pervert real adoption by turning it into child trafficking. At the same time, we must continue to advocate for the legitimate fatherless and uphold agencies, systems, and efforts that are seeking to place genuine orphans in loving homes.
One of the ways we can do this is making sure Hollywood gets it straight. A “harmless human interest story” is anything but harmless when the future of our most vulnerable children are at stake.Media: