A new report from the Irish government finds that about 9,000 children died in Catholic Church-run homes meant for unwed mothers between 1922-1998. The government helped fund these faith-based torture chambers where some victims were treated like lab subjects, testing out vaccines without any consent from their parents.
It’s the latest milestone in a years-long reckoning with how the Catholic Church has hurt generations of Irish citizens with its rejection of abortion rights and treatment of women in general.
All this began in 2014, when several media outlets ran a disturbing story about how two boys stumbled upon a septic tank in the city of Tuam (near Galway City), only to discover human bones in them.
Researcher Catherine Corless, who had been looking into a home in the same region once run by the Bon Secours nuns, realized that many of the children who had died in their care (up to 800 of them over several decades) had no records of public burials. She wondered if all those children had been “buried” inside the septic tank.
It was a devastating realization that came decades too late for anyone to do anything about it. But what was also troubling was how no one knew about this until 2014. Did the nuns really get away with all this maltreatment? Did they really toss aside the human remains so callously?
“I suppose we can’t really judge the past from our point of view, from our lens. All we can do is mark it appropriately and make sure there is a suitable place here where people can come and remember the babies that died.”
Oh, hell yes, we can judge the past. It’s not like this happened so long ago, and the Catholic Church is hardly blameless when it comes to scandals.
Later that month, however, the Associated Press reported that the story, which by then had made headlines all over the world, was greatly exaggerated. The septic tank may not have been a burial site at all, and the number of children who died in the nuns’ care may not have been close to 800 at all. It was more like 18. That’s 18 too many, of course, but a far cry from what initial reports suggested.
That when the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was formed to investigate the matter. In 2017, three years after the story first broke, they confirmed everyone’s worst fears.
The Commission has completed two test excavations of the Galway site and today confirmed that “significant quantities of human remains have been discovered” in a structure which appears to be “related to the treatment/containment of sewerage and/or wastewater”.
There were remains found in at least 17 of the 20 chambers. A small number of the remains were recovered for testing. A scientific analysis has put the ages of the deceased at between 35 foetal weeks to two to three years old.
Radiocarbon dating suggests that they are from the time the Bon Secours home was in operation between 1925 and 1961. A number of the samples are likely to be from the 1950s.
Today’s final report is even more damning:
Ireland was a cold harsh environment for many, probably the majority, of its residents during the earlier half of the period under remit. It was especially cold and harsh for women. All women suffered serious discrimination. Women who gave birth outside marriage were subject to particularly harsh treatment. Responsibility for that harsh treatment rests mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families. It was supported by, contributed to, and condoned by, the institutions of the State and the Churches.
A total of about 9,000 children died in the institutions under investigation — about 15% of all the children who were in the institutions. In the years before 1960 mother and baby homes did not save the lives of ‘illegitimate’ children; in fact, they appear to have significantly reduced their prospects of survival. The very high mortality rates were known to local and national authorities at the time and were recorded in official publications.
The Catholic Church ended up killing babies and children in their attempt to paper over their very existence. Much of this cruelty occurred before 1953, when adoption became the preferred approach. And Ireland has, in a sense, revolted against the Catholic Church’s rules more recently, voting in 2018 to legalize abortion.
These children, so poorly cared for by a group of Catholic nuns over several decades, were tossed aside so carelessly both in life and after it.
The Irish government says it will soon issue a formal apology to anyone affected by those homes. Whether living victims will receive any compensation is still up for debate.
(Image via Shutterstock. Portions of this article were published earlier)