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Saturday, September 12, 2015

Thirsting for Truth: What I Wish the NJ Catholic Conference Had Said

This is another post by Jenn, Susan's daughter. Susan, adopted in New Jersey as a 6-month-old in 1950, first searched for her birth mother at the age of 47, when she was diagnosed with Stage II malignant melanoma. After her experience with the adoption agency, which told her that the case was closed after making only one phone call to her mother (standard protocol), she became involved in the fight for adoptee rights. In 2013, Susan was reunited with her two wonderful biological sisters a month after being diagnosed with Stage IV malignant melanoma. They had been searching for her. Finding them was one of the great miracles of her life and brought her peace "deeper than [she] ever thought possible." Susan died eight months later, on April 7, 2014, surrounded by her family. She believed that someday, though perhaps not in her lifetime, there would be justice for adoptees. 

All three of my children were baptized by Father Michael Doyle at Sacred Heart Church in Camden. They were baptized at an altar  that has been visited, through the years, by Mother Theresa, Cesar Chavez, Mairead Corrigan, Martin Sheen, Thich Naht Hahn, and many, many other admirable peacemakers, including Father Michael himself.

My mom and Joseph in July of 2013
Though she was not Catholic, my mom was the one who first brought me to Sacred Heart, years before, because she had heard of the beauty of the service, especially the singing, which she always loved. She was also there for each baptism, standing beside my family on the altar.

I thought of this two weeks ago when I opened The Catholic Star Herald and, to my great dismay, saw the headline: "Birth parents must take action to preserve their privacy." Ironically, it was right below a picture of a family next to a banner that read "Thirsting For Truth." Thirsting for truth, indeed.

Here is what, in a spirit of truth, I wish the article had said: First, the title. "Adopted Adults to Gain Access to Their Original Birth Certificates" sounds good to me. It is a statement of fact informing readers of the law that was signed on May 27th, 2014 (less than two months after my mom's passing). That law goes into effect on January 1st, 2017. In the 13 other states that have already enacted similar laws, thousands upon thousands of adoptees and birth parents (especially birth mothers, from what I have witnessed) have benefitted (For powerful insight into how this law actually helps birth mothers, see Jean Strauss' short film Four Birthmothers:

"For well over a century, the Catholic Church in New Jersey has provided adoption services." That is true. That can stay. "Throughout all those years, the Church promised to honor the privacy of birth parents and adoptees. That promise of privacy also was assured by law and affirmed by the State Superior Court." This is an outrageous lie. Birth certificates were originally sealed to protect the adoptee from the "shame" of  illegitimacy, a practice that is, thankfully, no longer needed. And birth mothers never really had any rights (see, for example, actress and birth mother Kate Mulgrew's beautiful memoir, Born With Teeth.  Her experience with the Catholic adoption agency where she relinquished her child is one I have heard echoed again and again and again: "Before I left ... there were things to do. I wanted to look [the director of the Catholic Charities adoption agency] in the eye and ask her for mercy, a sliver of mercy, nothing too untoward. I wanted to ask her if my baby was all right ... I wanted a photograph of my baby ... I pleaded, struggling to maintain my composure ... [making no progress, she then goes to speak to the director of the Catholic Home Bureau maternity services, who tells her, "You gave up that right when you relinquished your baby, didn't you?]
Me with Genevieve, now 9, on her baptism day at Sacred Heart.

"Any birth parents who wish to preserve their privacy must submit a Redaction Request Form to the New Jersey Department of Health ... the New Jersey Catholic Conference will be working to alert birth parents ... We need help. We ask everyone to spread the word that birth parents must take action to preserve their privacy. We need to notify family members, friends and neighbors that birth parents could lose their privacy. If you know a person who placed a child in adoption, please tell them that if they do not file a Redaction Request Form, their name and other information could be given to the adoptee." Oh my. Words like "alert" are so alarming! How about: "While those closely involved with adoption recognize that hearing from a relinquished child may, in some cases, be upsetting to a birth parent, they also recognize that all human beings have a right to know their identities. This fundamental right has been upheld by the United Nations, which in Article 8 of its Treaty on the Rights of the Child confirmed that "[1] State Parties undertake to respect the right of the child to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name and family relations as recognized by law without unlawful interference [and] [2] Where a child is illegally deprived of some or all elements of his or her identity, State Parties shall provide appropriate assistance and protection, with a view to re-establishing speedily his or her identity. Adult adoptees who obtain their original birth certificates are seeking the truth of their own lives, and in thousands of cases they have been able to do this while respecting the privacy of their birth parents. Thus, we need your help. Please let anyone you know that is adopted or that has given up a child for adoption that starting on January 1st, 2017, adoptees in New Jersey will (finally) have access to their original birth certificates. Birth parents can file a "Contact Preference Form" stating whether they would like contact directly from the adoptee, through an intermediary, or not at all (in which case they will be asked to fill out a medical and family history form). In other states where records have been unsealed, thousands upon thousands of adoptees and birth parents have found peace and healing after years of secrecy. More information about this law and what it means for adoptees and birth parents is available at How about that? How about: Because the New Jersey Catholic Conference values truth, mercy, and justice, it stands by this law, despite its former opposition to it.

We are all thirsting for truth. May each one of us some day stand on the altar of those who have given their lives fighting for it and find ourselves worthy. "  And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (John 8:32).
A favorite moment from this summer. My son Joseph with my cousin JT (the son of my mom's biological sister) at a coffee shop in Montreal. Joseph looks just like pictures of JT when he was young. This was the day after the women's World Cup game (vs. Germany), and though we both knew the other was there for the game, our phones weren't working so we weren't able to meet up. We simply ran into each other in this city of millions. You can see how thrilled Joseph is (he loves JT). I know this would have made my mom so happy. 

Reunion in Montreal. Love rejoices in the truth... (Corinthians 13) 


  1. What a beautiful article! The same alarming article appeared in the Beacon, the newspaper of the Diocese of Trenton, and I wrote a reply which they did not print. Here it is:
    To The Editor: The Beacon

    I was disappointed by the tone of the article in this week's Beacon about the new NJ adoption law, which sought to arouse fear in the hearts of mothers who has surrendered a child to adoption, urging them to register a veto on their adult children getting their original birth certificate information. I am one of those mothers, 47 years ago I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy in Paterson whom I was given little choice but to surrender for adoption because I was unmarried. Nobody promised me privacy or anything else at the time, not verbally and not on the surrender paper I signed which I was able to obtain later. The Bishops did not care about me then, and I do not need their "protection" now from my own son, nor do the majority of birth mothers who long to see their child again and know that he or she is well and happy. This new law is a cause for joy, not fear. I am sorry the council of Bishops has such a negative take on it.

    I would urge any birth mother out there who is considering filling a contact veto; do not be led by fear, but by love and forgiveness. These are Catholic values, not shame, lies, and secrecy. We are mothers who choose life; we have nothing to fear from giving our adult children the answers they need. I am happily reunited with my surrendered son, something that has brought peace and joy to my life. I had left the Catholic Church for over 20 years because of how I was treated as an unwed mother, but I did return, thanks to the kindness of a sister and pastor of my local parish. The new adoption law is about healing, about life going on, not about fear or promises that were not made and cannot be kept. Open the door, let the light shine in, do not live in darkness forever. Reunion is a blessing, not something to flee or fear. Some adoptees want a relationship, others only want information. We owe them that much.

    Mary Anne Cohen
    26 Highland Ave
    Whippany NJ

  2. Thank you, Mary Anne. What a beautiful letter. I hope it is circulated far and wide. I'm so sorry the Catholic Star Herald didn't print it. "Do not be led by fear, but by love and forgiveness." Yes.

  3. The Catholic Church here continues to tell women that the "sin" of giving up their child is still a stigma and shameful. There is no understanding of the damage done to women by their archaic, shaming attitude. We all need to let everyone know that the shame is in continuing to let adoptees be second-class citizens and allow them to be denied their identities.

    No one should be denied their identity because it will embarrass someone.

    1. Do you think that is why they printed this (that they truly believe women should be ashamed)? Or is it a propaganda piece designed to cover up abuses in adoption practice that the Catholic Church has committed over the years? Or is it an alert to men who want to keep secrets and may no longer be able to? I am honestly baffled by it and would love to know the truth as to how/why it was written. Also, the tone of the statement is so insulting to adoptees. Are they so dangerous as to merit a headline "Birth parents must take action!"? Thanks for reading, Lorraine.

    2. I think the Church is this way for all of the reasons you mention, including not wanting some of their priests to be outed as fathers.

      Birth parents should taken action. They should welcome their lost children!

  4. Something to be remembered is that names of first parents are to be given to the adoptee, not a list to be published in all the newspapers like unclaimed funds. People are confusing anonymity and privacy. Only my daughter would be given my name, not her neighbors, or mine. (And if they were given my name, I am long past caring about "hiding.")

    1. I know. My dad and I had to laugh (albeit a sad laugh) about the statement, "We need to notify family members, friends and neighbors that birth parents could lose their privacy ... If you know a person who placed a child in adoption, please tell them ... " If I had given up a daughter for adoption, and my NEIGHBOR came knocking on my door to tell me that she might now
      know who I was, I think I would feel as though my privacy had been invaded a lot more than had she come herself. Thank you for reading, and for commenting.

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  5. Great article. I am so glad you continue to carry your mother's torch. Thank you.
    It burns bright :)

  6. I would also like to remind all of my fellow activists to remember to include your discussions to others about adoptees' rights to our sealed birth certificates the following:

    Not all adoptees were born illegitimately. Many were born to married parents and were taken away due to abuse or neglect. These children landed in either orphanages or in foster care and then adopted. There are also adults who were adopted as children by their stepparents or adopted by their grandparents. There are also half and full orphans who were born to married parents, but who were given up to adoption by their remaining parent or by other family members.

    I am a half orphan who was given up for adoption by my father after my mother's death three months after she gave birth to me. There is nothing shameful about my birth, nor about my adoption. But my records are sealed and my birth certificate falsified because of the law targeting unwed mothers and bastards.

    By the frame of mind of certain Catholics to continue to spread the belief of shaming single mothers and their illegitimate children, the Catholic Church stigmatizes all adoptees. Stigma is destructive. Those in power in the Catholic Church must stop to think before they condemn others. Their cruelty toward two groups (the dreaded unwed mother and her illegitimate bastards) trickles down to point the finger of shame onto all adoptees as well. None of this belongs in any religious belief. And it certainly does not belong in social and legal policy affecting millions of adoptees who had nothing to do with falsifying nor sealing their own birth certificates. We must stop these crimes against innocent people.

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