A forced adoption and the lifelong search of a mother

LeeLee (above) can still remember the last time she saw her son (right), when he was being taken away at 3. (NYT)

Philomena Lee is 80 now and she has made peace with many things. Yet, her voice catches when she describes her last glimpse of her firstborn child as he was being taken away to be adopted by an American family.

Lee desperately wanted to keep the boy, Anthony, who was three. But it was 1955. Locked in a Roman Catholic home for unwed mothers on the grounds of a country convent in Roscrea, Ireland, she had signed her rights away at the nuns' insistence. She never even got a chance to say goodbye. Racing to an upstairs window, she got there just in time to see Anthony's face looking out the back of a departing car. "I can see him like it was yesterday," Lee said. "I will carry that picture in my head always."

Lee, who lives on the outskirts of London, talks candidly about those difficult years when, barely out of a convent school and completely ignorant about sex, she became pregnant at 18 and entered the ranks of thousands of disgraced women in Ireland who were sent to live in church institutions for unwed mothers. Though the Mother and Baby homes were supported by the state, the women were forced to work long hours and had little choice but to give up their children.

Lee's ordeal and her lifetime of searching for her son are the subject of a new movie, Philomena, directed by Stephen Frears, which opened in the US recently to glowing reviews. Judi Dench plays Lee.

Tall, dignified and with her sense of humor intact, Lee said she was pleased with the movie, but many of the film's comic bits never happened.

The film has set off something of a firestorm in Ireland, where many Catholics are trying to come to terms with a series of revelations about the Church's past abusive practices, in which orphans, runaways and others considered delinquent were subjected to systematic and sustained physical, sexual and emotional abuse in many cases with the government's help.

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