A woman who concealed the births of four stillborn babies and kept three of them in her wardrobe for two decades escaped jail today.
Bernadette Quirk illegally buried one baby in a cemetery and wrapped the other three in newspaper and rags and kept them in a small plastic bin with an air freshener, Liverpool Crown Court heard.
The 55-year-old said she gave birth to the babies between 1985 and 1995.
Their remains were discovered last July by Quirk's daughter, Joanne Lee, who contacted police.
Quirk, of St Helens, Merseyside, admitted four counts of concealing births and was given a two year community order, subject to supervision, and ordered to take part in a women's intervention project.
"She had a number of sexual relationships during this period."
There was no explanation about why Quirk kept the remains with her - moving home several times in the intervening years.
All of the babies were girls, the court was told, and Quirk said two were twins, although DNA evidence said it was possible she was wrong.
At the end of July last year, Quirk's daughter discovered the remains of one baby in her mother's wardrobe at her house in Harlow Close.
Officers searched the property and Quirk directed them to the remains of two more infants, also wrapped up in the bedroom.
The defendant told detectives she gave birth to the four babies at her old home in Brandreth Close, St Helens, and they were all stillborn.
Forensic tests suggested they had congenital disorders and Quirk was charged with concealing birth contrary to the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.
In mitigation, Quirk's barrister, Ian Morris, said she embarked on a series of inappropriate relationships following the breakdown of her marriage.
He said she hid the pregnancies because she was ashamed of what she had done and did not believe in abortion.
"She desperately wanted to hide the pregnancies to protect herself and her family from what she had done," Mr Morris said.
"She suffered the agony of childbirth without comfort or support and then made the discovery that the children were stillborn."
Mr Morris said Quirk, who uses a walking stick and suffers chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, had been forced to move away from her home and family after the offences came to light.
"Half her life has been characterised by unhappiness, loss and suffering," he added.
"She regrets the great distress she has caused her family.
"It may be considered cruel to jail this woman, given what she has suffered."
Three fathers of the dead infants were traced by police and gave victim impact statements which were handed to Judge Henry Globe, QC, but not read out in court.
The judge told Quirk: "You led a chaotic and dysfunctional lifestyle in the course of which you became pregnant on a number of occasions.
"You concealed those pregnancies from those around you and each time you gave birth alone.
"You then chose to conceal the fact of the births and hid the remains in your home.
"This is not a case of forgetting or putting it out your mind, you had constant thoughts of your concealment.
"While the circumstances and reason for the stillborn births will never be established, your chaotic lifestyle of alcoholism and promiscuity were such as to put the good health of your unborn children at risk."
The judge said the fathers of the children, and Quirk's surviving children had all been affected by her actions.
He added: "You have had to suffer four stillborn children and had to live with the consequences of their deaths and the concealment which must have caused you much anxiety and distress."
Speaking outside court on Quirk's behalf, Mr Morris said: "It's quite clear she did this to spare her family shame and unfortunately that's exactly what's not happened.
"She's extremely regretful for that. She's very sorry to her family and she hopes they will forgive her. That's the priority on her mind. She's not concerned about herself.
"She gave birth to a number of children without anaesthetic and without any care for her own medical consideration, for the sake of protecting her family from a number of unwanted, unplanned, embarrassing pregnancies.
"And the cruel irony is this has all dramatically backfired on her. She regrets deeply what has happened, but just wishes to apologise, primarily to her family.
"She's received contact from her grandchildren, she's extremely grateful for that and she hopes that's the first step towards trying to make things right with her family.
"I think Bernadette's extremely grateful to Judge Globe for his extremely humane approach to the case.
"There have been a lot of suggestions unfortunately that perhaps these children were not stillborn.
"All the medical evidence produced by a variety of experts for the prosecution suggested that they were, in fact, stillborn.
"And I think the rumour-mongers have been a little unkind to this lady."