Ireland is once again being roiled by scandal involving the mistreatment of children in the care of the Catholic Church. The contention that the remains of as many as 800 children and infants were found in the septic tank of a hospice once operated by a religious order of women has shocked the nation. The government of Ireland is considering an investigation into what a spokesman called that "deeply disturbing" discovery of an unmarked cemetery at the home that was operated by the Bon Secours sisters. According to media reports, 796 children died at the facility between 1925 and 1961. A statement made by Ireland's national police, the Gardai, has however cast doubt on the claim that the children were indeed buried in a septic tank. According to a report in the Irish Times, the Gardai the claim has yet to be tested.
Indeed, investigator Catherine Corless - whose research has been cited for revealing that 796 children died at St Mary’s home - says that the burial of the children has been greatly misrepresented, including by the Washington Post. According to the Irish Times, Corless said in a June 7 report, "I never used that word ‘dumped," adding, “I never said to anyone that 800 bodies were dumped in a septic tank. That did not come from me at any point. They are not my words.”
Catholic Archbishop Michael Neary declared in a statement that, while the diocese did not have any involvement in the operation of the home for the children of unmarried women and girls in western Ireland near Galway, he was shocked and horrified to learn of the scale of the number of corpses buried at the home. "I can only begin to imagine the huge emotional wrench which the mothers suffered in giving up their babies for adoption or by witnessing their death. The pain and brokenness which they endured is beyond our capacity to understand," he said in a statement. "Regardless of the time lapse involved this is a matter of great public concern which ought to be acted upon urgently." The Bon Secours order was not available for comment.
Catholic Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has called for an investigation that would be independent of either the Catholic Church or the state.
Public records in Ireland indicate that 796 children died in the "mother-and-baby home" before its closure, according to local reports. Unmarried women were given a home and their children were educated in local schools. Some of the children were adopted by couples in various countries, including the United States. Historian Catherine Corless said the infants' bodies were buried in a septic tank on the grounds of the hospice. Some children were as young as three-months-old at the time of death.
During the 20th century, many of the social services of impoverished Ireland were operated by orders of clergy and religious women, including homes for unwed mothers. During that time, tens of thousands of unwed pregnant women, including rape victims, were sent to give birth. Homes such as the one in Tuam received government funding, and were overseen by the government.
Ireland's Justice Minister,Frances Fitzgerald, has requested a police report into the burial of the children. On June 8, Fitzgerald said that is no criminal investigation into the matter at this time. A member of the lower house of Ireland's parliament, Colm Keaveney, has called for closing off the site of the allegedly illegal burial so that a forensic investigation can be conducted by a team of experts led by State Pathologist Marie Cassidy. Keaveny is a member of Fianna Fail, a centrist political party founded by Eamon De Valera, the American-born hero of the Irish independence from the United Kingdom during the early years of the 20th century.
“The failure to take immediate action to seal off the area is further evidence of the Government’s disjointed approach to this issue. We need the Taoiseach (prime minister) to take a strategic leadership role.”
Justice Minister Fitzgerald said her government is examining “how this complex, disturbing and tragic situation” can be addressed. “The interdepartmental process is gathering information cross-departmentally so that the Government can make informed decisions on how best to proceed,” she said. “The Department of Justice has also been liaising with An Garda Síochána (national police), so that the information available to them can feed into the interdepartmental process.”
She added, “It is very important that we address these disturbing issues as sensitively as possible. There is no doubt that coverage over the last few days will have inevitably evoked very painful memories for people, many of whom are now quite elderly.”
Ireland's national police,. reportedly, had been conducting a “scoping exercise” before revelations about the burial were reported by public media. Police are seeking to research the history of the section of land where the bodies were buried during the time the Sisters of Bon Secours were in charge of the hospice. Complicating the issue is that a poor house was once located in the same place during the famine of the first half of the 1800s when British rulers, faced by a blight that ruined the essential potato crop, preferred to see the Irish starve or emigrate. There may be bodies of children at the site who died nearly 200 years ago.
The Gardaí reported that the remains of children and infants were exposed when the earth gave way while two boys were playing there in the 1970s. It was at that time that the grave was blessed and closed.