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Mass babies’ grave scandal pushes Irish govt, Catholic Church toward inquiry

Published time: June 05, 2014 10:07
The entrance to the site of a mass grave of hundreds of children who died in the former Bons Secours home for unmarried mothers is seen in Tuam, County Galway June 4, 2014. (Reuters / Stringer)

The entrance to the site of a mass grave of hundreds of children who died in the former Bons Secours home for unmarried mothers is seen in Tuam, County Galway June 4, 2014. (Reuters / Stringer)

The Irish government is under pressure to order an inquiry into a recently uncovered mass grave for almost 800 children who died at a Catholic Church facility for unwed mothers and their children. Most of the bodies were dumped in a sewage tank.

The mass, unmarked grave in the town of Tuan, western Ireland, was unveiled by a local historian, Catherine Corless, who was gathering information on the mother-and-baby home which functioned there in the first half of the 20th century, run by the Bon Secours order of nuns.

Back then, unmarried pregnant women were ostracized by conservative Irish society and sent away to special church-run institutions, where mothers often had to engage in unpaid hard labor, while their children were taken away from them to be either adopted or raised in orphanages.

The burial place appeared to be one for the children who died at the facility.

I was dismayed to find that in fact the number of children who died in the Home during its existence 1925-1961 numbered nearly 800,” Corless wrote on Facebook, commenting on her research. “I now have all those children’s names, date of death, and age at death, which will be recorded into a special book.”

Locals first learned of the mass burials in the 1970s. By that time the home for mothers and babies had been closed and the area turned in a residential one. Two boys accidentally broke apart the concrete slab over the mass grave and discovered little skeletons there. The place was then sealed again, but still remained unmarked for decades.

Corless is now engaged in a fundraising effort to get the place marked with a monument bearing all of the 769 names of the dead children. She says they died of malnutrition and neglect. A sewage tank served as a graveyard.

If you look at the records, babies were dying two a week, but I’m still trying to figure out how they could [put the bodies in a septic tank],” Corless told the Irish Mail. “Couldn’t they have afforded baby coffins?

"Harrowing details" as Children's Minister Charlie Flanagan put it, of burial arrangements for children at the church-run institutions, have led to calls for an inquiry into what happened decades ago.

"Many of the revelations are deeply disturbing and a shocking reminder of a darker past in Ireland when our children were not cherished as they should have been," Flanagan said in a statement cited by Reuters. A government report on the scandal is expected by the end of June.

Labor senator Lorraine Higgins has called for the Catholic Church to reveal more details of the incident.

Now is the time for the church authorities to tell us where the rest of the bodies are,” Higgins said, The Irish Times reported. “We need to know how many died in each of these homes throughout the country. We need details about each one of these children and where their resting places are.”

The Archbishop of Tuam, Michael Neary, said that the diocese was not running the home. He told the order of nuns who did that it must co-operate with any inquiry into the discovery.

"Regardless of the time lapse involved, this is a matter of great public concern which ought to be acted upon urgently," Neary said.

Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, told The Irish Examiner he would support exhumation of the children’s bodies if necessary for the investigation.

It’s not the first time that the Catholic Church in Ireland has found itself under fire over inhuman practices in its institutions in the past.

A year ago the Irish government agreed to pay up 58 million euros ($75 million) in compensation to hundreds of women, who were forced to work at the notorious Magdalene Laundries, also run by the Catholic Church. A teenage girl or young woman could be sent to the laundries just over suspicions that her behavior could be contrary to the Church’s conservative morals. The inmates at the institutions, run by Catholic nuns, were forced to do physically demanding work while living in prison-like conditions.