‘I never used that word ‘dumped’,” Catherine Corless , a local historian in Co Galway , tells The Irish Times. “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.”
The story that emerged from her work was reported this week in dramatic headlines around the world.
“Tell us the truth about the children dumped in Galway’s mass graves” – TheGuardian.
“Bodies of 800 babies, long-dead, found in septic tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers” – The Washington Post.
“Nearly 800 dead babies found in septic tank in Ireland” – Al Jazeera.
“800 skeletons of babies found inside tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers” – New York Daily News.
“Almost 800 ‘forgotten’ Irish children dumped in septic tank mass grave at Catholic home” – ABC News, Australia.
Corless, who lives outside Tuam, has been working for several years on records associated with the former St Mary’s mother-and-baby home in the town. Her research has revealed that 796 children, most of them infants, died between 1925 and 1961, the 36 years that the home, run by Bon Secours, existed.
At this point, it doesn’t appear that the story, while still horrific, is not as bad as it appeared when first reported. That is, it doesn’t seem that the children were especially mistreated at the Catholic home, and their bodies disrespected because they were the issue of unmarried parents. It seems — I keep saying “seems,” because there’s still a lot we don’t know about the “Home Babies” case — anyway, it seems that the high death rate had a lot to do with Ireland’s poverty at the time, and while illegitimate children were harshly and cruelly stigmatized in Ireland at the time, that ought to be understood in context of the era, its intense poverty, and the conservatism of all Irish society, not just the Roman Catholic Church. I could be wrong. We’ll see.
It’s wrong to call all this “good news,” but to me, it is a relief to learn that the Church may be less culpable than the initial reports indicated. I posted the shocking first story, and have posted the debunking follow-ups as they’ve become available. That hasn’t stopped pious Tom Piatak, a stringer for a turgid Midwestern monthly, from losing his grip over my blogging. A “bitter apostate” he calls me, which is theologically ignorant; according to the Catechism , an “apostate” is one who totally repudiates Christianity, while a “schismatic” is one who affirms Christianity but who does not submit to the Roman pontiff. But this isn’t really about theology with him, but rather tribal breast-beating:
Rod Dreher’s desire to pass judgment on Irish Catholicism on the basis of one poorly sourced story, and Andrew Sullivan’s desire to jettison sexual morality on the basis of that same story, tell us that they cannot be trusted when it comes to the Catholic Church.
Well, gosh, if I’ve lost Tom Piatak, I’ve … lost Tom Piatak. Somehow, I’ll recover. We mustn’t be too quick to move on, though; the Archbishop of Dublin has called for a full investigation of the situation in the Catholic homes , an inquiry free of Church and State. Said Archbishop Martin: “We have to look at the whole culture of mother baby homes; they’re talking about medical experiments there.”
Medical experiments? Here’s what the archbishop is talking about :
Scientists secretly vaccinated more than 2,000 children in religious-run homes in suspected illegal drug trials, it emerged today.
Old medical records show that 2,051 children and babies in Irish care homes were given a one-shot diphtheria vaccine for international drugs giant Burroughs Wellcome between 1930 and 1936.
There is no evidence that consent was ever sought, nor any records of how many may have died or suffered debilitating side-effects as a result.
If this is true, one concern is that doctors, with the consent of the directors of these homes, allowed illegitimate Irish children to be used as guinea pigs, presumably because in the eyes of the Irish church and Irish society at the time, they lacked full human dignity. This is not proven, but Archbishop Martin is certainly correct that a full and independent investigation must happen.
For the record, contrary to Piatak, my “passing judgment on Irish Catholicism” was not based on this one alleged incident in Tuam, but on … well, let’s turn once again to Archbishop Martin, back in 2009 :
One of Ireland ‘s most senior clergyman admitted yesterday that an imminent report on the sexual abuse of children by clergy will shock the country and reveal that thousands of children were abused by priests.
In an unprecedented homily for Holy Thursday, Diarmuid Martin, the Archbishop of Dublin, warned that the depth of the abuse “will shock us all”.
The report from the commission on child sexual abuse will be published in May, and according to Martin it will throw up challenges to the Catholic church in Ireland it has never experienced before.
At a mass in Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral, Martin said: “It is likely that thousands of children or young people across Ireland were abused by priests in the period under investigation and the horror of that abuse was not recognised for what it is. The report will make each of us and the entire church in Dublin a humbler church.”
The Ryan Report was devastating:
Rape and sexual molestation were “endemic” in Irish Catholic church-run industrial schools  and orphanages, a report revealed today.
The nine-year investigation found that Catholic priests and nuns for decades terrorised thousands of boys and girls in the Irish Republic, while government inspectors failed to stop the chronic beatings, rape and humiliation.
The high court judge Sean Ryan today unveiled the 2,600-page final report  of Ireland ‘s commission into child abuse, which drew on testimony from thousands of former inmates and officials from more than 250 church-run institutions. Police were called to the news conference amid angry scenes as victims were prevented from attending.
More than 30,000 children  deemed to be petty thieves, truants or from dysfunctional families – a category that often included unmarried mothers – were sent to Ireland’s austere network of industrial schools, reformatories, orphanages and hostels from the 1930s until the last facilities shut in the 1990s.
The report found that molestation and rape were “endemic” in boys’ facilities, chiefly run by the Christian Brothers order, and supervisors pursued policies that increased the danger. Girls supervised by orders of nuns, chiefly the Sisters of Mercy, suffered much less sexual abuse but instead endured frequent assaults and humiliation designed to make them feel worthless.
“In some schools a high level of ritualised beating was routine … Girls were struck with implements designed to maximise pain and were struck on all parts of the body,” the report said. “Personal and family denigration was widespread.”
The report concluded that when confronted with evidence of sex abuse, religious authorities responded by transferring offenders to another location, where in many instances they were free to abuse again.
“There was evidence that such men took up teaching positions sometimes within days of receiving dispensations because of serious allegations or admissions of sexual abuse,” the report said. “The safety of children in general was not a consideration.”
Read the executive summary of the Ryan Report here,  if you can stomach it.
This is why it is easy to jump to conclusions about atrocities involving the institutional Catholic Church in Ireland. It doesn’t justify it — and I regret having been so quick to believe the absolute worst about the Tuam home — but it does explain why people find the most ghastly accusations credible. In charity, perhaps Tom Piatak is entirely unaware of what has been happening in the Irish church over the past decade. In the comments thread of a piece on the Jesuit magazine America‘s site, Piatak posted a remark deploring anti-clerical hysteria in Ireland  in the wake of the Ryan Report (and in this instance, he was correct). But I cannot find any evidence that he was in the least troubled, or even aware, of the depths of criminality and depravity perpetrated upon children by agents of the Church in Ireland.
Things like this don’t matter to knotheads who cannot hear any criticism of their church without playing the anti-Catholic bigot card, but do please keep it in mind when judging the reliability of Tom Piatak’s opinion on matters related to the Catholic abuse scandal.
I would also be careful about trusting Piatak’s knee-jerk opinions about things that appear in TAC. He once accused us of being inaccurately named (as “conservative”) because of several articles that appeared on our site that failed to meet his standard of a proper conservative position on same-sex marriage. Of course Piatak made no mention at all of my longstanding opposition to same-sex marriage on my TAC blog. It’s no sin not to read my stuff, of course, but by not doing so, Piatak missed all the blog posts sympathetic to Catholicism that I’ve written over the past three years. Piatak has a lot of reading to do. After he reads up on the difference between an apostate and a schismatic, and after he immerses himself in the Ryan Report, he should read the 2010 homily of Archbishop Martin , on the future of the Irish church, after the damaging revelations of the Cloyne Report.  Excerpts:
Why am I discouraged? The most obvious reason is the drip-by-drip never-ending revelation about child sexual abuse and the disastrous way it was handled. There are still strong forces which would prefer that the truth did not emerge. The truth will make us free, even when that truth is uncomfortable. There are signs of subconscious denial on the part of many about the extent of the abuse which occurred within the Church of Jesus Christ in Ireland and how it was covered up. There are other signs of rejection of a sense of responsibility for what had happened. There are worrying signs that despite solid regulations and norms these are not being followed with the rigour required.
There are those who claim that the media strategy of the Church in the Archdiocese of Dublin following the publication of the Murphy Report was “catastrophic”. My answer is that what the Murphy report narrated was catastrophic and that the only honest reaction of the Church was to publicly admit that the manner in which that catastrophe was addressed was spectacularly wrong; spectacularly wrong “full stop”; not spectacularly wrong, “but…” You cannot sound-byte your way out of a catastrophe.
Some will reply that sexual abuse by priests constitutes only a small percentage of the sexual abuse of children in our society in general. That is a fact. But that important fact should never appear in any way as an attempt to down play the gravity of what took place in the Church of Christ. The Church is different; the Church is a place where children should be the subject of special protection and care. The Gospel presents children in a special light and reserves some of its most severe language for those who disregard or scandalise children in any way.
In analysing the past, it is important to remember that times may have been different and society and other professions may not have looked on the sexual abuse of children as they do today. It is hard however to understand why, in the management by Church authorities of cases of the sexual abuse of children, the children themselves were for many years rarely even taken into the equation. Yes, in the culture of the day children were to be seen and not heard, but different from other professions Church leaders should have been more aware of the Gospel imperative to avoid harm to children, whose innocence was indicated by the Lord a sign of the kingdom of God.
The Catholic Church in Ireland is coming out of one of its most difficult moments in its history and the light at the end of the tunnel is still a long way off. The Catholic Church in Ireland will have to live with the grief of its past, which can and should never be forgotten or overlooked. There is no simple way of wiping the slate of the past clean, just to ease our feelings.
On matters Catholic, trust the judgment of Archbishop Martin, who seems like an honest and humble pastor, over Tom Piatak’s.