Real-Life Woman Behind 'Philomena' Gets an Audience With Pope Francis

The real-life women behind "Philomena" was invited to the Vatican by the Pope

ByABC News
February 4, 2014, 11:23 PM

Feb. 5, 2014 — -- Philomena Lee, the real-life woman behind the hit movie "Philomena," got an ending to her story today that even Hollywood could not write, a meeting with Pope Francis.

Lee, 80, traveled to Rome at the invitation of the Vatican to meet the Pope, the head of the same Catholic Church that, six decades ago, forced her to give up her baby son for adoption by an American family because she was an unwed mother.

"Thank you. I'm very happy to meet you," Lee said, touching the hand of the leader of the faithful.

Back in 1952, Lee was 18 years old, unmarried and pregnant. She gave birth to a son in an Irish home for unwed mothers and, told what she had done was shameful, was forced to give up her son, whom she named Anthony, three years after his birth.

For 50 years afterward, she would periodically return to the home to try to get word of her son, but she never told anyone else about what happened because she felt ashamed.

Later on in life, Lee enlisted the help of BBC reporter Martin Sixsmith to track Anthony down. Their search led them to the United States, where she learned that her son had died nine years earlier of AIDS.

Ironically, Lee learned that her son had visited Ireland - and the home where he was born - to try and learn about her. He was told by the church that his mother had abandoned him.

Sixmith's book about her -- "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee" -- was adapted into the acclaimed movie "Philomena." British actress Judi Dench's portrayal of Lee earned her a Golden Globe Award nomination in the Best Actress category.

"No way. No way. No way would I ever have imagined it," Lee told ABC News' Cynthia McFadden, who traveled with Lee to the Vatican, of her journey that has taken her to Washington, D.C., as an advocate, and to the Golden Globes.

Lee and her daughter, Jane Libberton, have co-founded "The Philomena Project" to push the Irish government to open sealed adoption records to mothers and children looking each other.

An approximate 60,000 unwed Irish Catholic women were forced to give up their babies and Lee hopes that the pope may help those women and those children reunite.

"You can't go through life being so unyielding you've got to forgive," Lee said of how she was able to keep her faith. "You've got to. You just have to forgive."

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," she said, referring to many unwed Irish mothers who also had their children taken from them and who want to find out what happened to them.

Vatican sources told ABC News the pope is expected to screen "Philomena" today at the Vatican.

For more on the Philomena project, visit their website by clicking here.