The Real-Life Woman Behind the Oscar-Nominated Philomena, and Her Emotional Meeting With the Pope

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After nearly a lifetime of unanswered questions and draining quests to find the truth, a visit with the Pope finally offered Philomena Lee, an Irish woman forced to give up her child after three years of raising him in a home for unwed mothers, long-awaited solace. “Philomena Lee… says that after meeting Pope Francis she feels forgiven and has forgiven,” Reuters says of the meeting.

“I felt such a sense of relief yesterday for the guilt I carried and that I still carry a little bit today because you were made to feel so, so bad about having a baby out of wedlock. I felt such a sense of relief that I had been forgiven,” Lee told Reuters after meeting the Pope on Thursday.

Catholic institutions ripped away the young children of at least 60,000 unmarried Irish women, putting the infants and toddlers up for adoption against their mothers’ will. Lee, a victim of the forced adoptions, garnered international attention when BBC reporter Martin Sixsmith penned a novel — The Lost Child of Philomena Lee — about her heart-breaking struggle; the novel was later adapted for the silver screen by BBC Films and BFI Films Forever. The film earned four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, and a nod for Judi Dench, up for Best Actress. The Academy will announce the winners on Sunday, March 2.

International acclaim and four Academy Award nominations, however, did not ease the pain of losing her child, Anthony, at age 3. Lee was in for more heart-break. Lee’s joint search with her daughter, Jane Libberton, did not have a happy ending. “By the time Lee and Libberton solved the mystery, however, they were too late: [Anthony, renamed Michael] Hess had died of AIDS in 1995. His ashes had been buried at the the convent at Hess’s request—he hoped that his mother would return and find him,” The Atlantic reports.

The convent, like many others, sealed its adoption records, making it extremely difficult for Lee and Hess to uncover the truth. Since the unsuccessful search, Lee and Libberton began The Philomena Project, “a campaign calling for access to adoption records in Ireland and elsewhere so mothers and their children can be reunited while there is still time,” according to Reuters.

Although Lee’s meeting with the Pope offered emotional resolution and self-forgiveness, Lee recognizes that many women continue to suffer from the forced adoptions. ABC News adds, “On stage at the Golden Globe Awards last month, Lee said the film with her name wasn’t just about her. ‘It’s the shared story of the women who have yet to receive the justice they deserve.’”

 

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