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Scapegoating the Sisters for the Deaths of 800 Babies

Scapegoating the Sisters Courtesy of Brian Lockier

Public Domain/Image Courtesy of Brian Lockier

Susan E. Wills - published on 06/10/14

The septic tank story is falling apart, but anti-Catholic bigotry lives on.

The headlines have been sensational and the narratives grotesque. You’re probably familiar with the outlines of the story that exploded onto the front pages of newspapers around the world last week. It’s been reported that the bodies of 800 babies who died of starvation and neglect had been secretly and unceremoniously dumped into a septic tank near a now-demolished home for unmarried mothers and their children, formerly operated by the Bon Secours sisters in Tuam, County Galway, Ireland.

It hardly mattered that such assertions were based on speculation, and likely false. The Horror House story was the perfect vehicle for holier-than-thou secularist journalists and commentators to spin their case that Catholic dogma on sexuality and marriage is pernicious, and that Catholic clergy and religious are guilty of hypocrisy. (References to hypocrisy in Facebook comments on a news story are too foul to link.)

The familiar argument goes like this: While the Church preaches medieval concepts like chastity and the sanctity of every human life, it demonizes and punishes single women for having sex and getting pregnant, by forcing them to work without pay, by maltreating their children, and generally adding to the world’s suffering and misery.

There are calls for vengeance (how Christian!) against the Bon Secours sisters. Do they really deserve a place in history alongside the likes of Pol Pot and the Butcher of Treblinka?  

Not to minimize in any way the harsh life, early death and undignified disposal of the remains of these little ones (wherever they are resting), looking at the known facts and considering the widespread penury that engulfed much of rural Ireland in those decades, it appears that the Bon Secours sisters were probably doing the best they could under utterly wretched circumstances.

We’re able to discard the more sensationalized claims thanks largely to four people. Catherine Corless, a local historian living near Tuam, obtained and catalogued the publicly-available death certificates of the 796 children who died at St. Mary’s Home in the 36 years it served as a shelter for unmarried mothers and their children, from 1925 to 1961. Catholic writer Caroline Farrow collated historical accounts of the property, based on archived news clippings and historical records posted by historian Liam Logan. Tim Stanley, an American historian who writes for the (U.K.) Telegraph, summarized and publicized these invaluable sources.

What’s in the tank?

Septic tanks are not the size of double-wide mobile homes. In 1975, two local boys cracked and pried up part of a cement slab covering the tank and discovered and reported finding skeletal remains. According to the Irish Times, one of them, Barry Sweeney, said the slab was about the size of his coffee table and he believes there are “about 20” bodies in the tank. At the time it was assumed that the remains were of victims of the potato famine (1845-1852) when St. Mary’s Home was a Workhouse that sheltered as many as 2,881 paupers. The famine claimed the lives of 1 million Irish. The remains of some children from the Mother and Baby Home era could, of course, be there as well, but are likely to be found in unmarked graves on the property or at a nearby children’s burial ground (one of over 400 “CBGs” in Galway alone).

The “bodies of 800 babies” assumption came from conflating the boys’ 1975 discovery with a 2012 report by local historian Catherine Corless, stating that she had reviewed the death certificates of 796 children who died at St. Mary’s in its 36 years of operation. Is it even plausible to think that anyone would open and close a septic tank filled with decaying corpses 22 times/year to toss in the newly deceased?

Are the deaths of 796 children proof of abuse or neglect by the sisters of Bon Secours?

No. The infant mortality rate in Ireland was one of the highest in Europe. One blogger researched the infant mortality rates in major cities of Ireland between 1925 and 1937. He discovered that the rate at St. Mary’s (17 deaths/year among an average of 200 children, or 8.5% mortality rate) was equal to the rate in the general population of Dublin (8.3%) and lower than infant mortality rates in Cork (8.9%), Waterford (10.2%) and Limerick (13.2%).

State-issued death certificates showed that the St. Mary’s Home children “died variously of tuberculosis, convulsions, measles, whooping cough, influenza, bronchitis and meningitis, among other illnesses.”

Caroline Farrow quotes (and links to) a letter in the Irish Times that offers context for the high infant mortality rates in homes like St. Mary’s:

Cohorting infants in institutions puts small infants at risk from cross-infection, particularly gastroenteritis. Early infection to the gastrointestinal tract can cause severe bowel damage. Without the availability of recent technology, many such infants would die from malabsorption resulting in marasmus [severe malnutrition]. …
In foundling homes in the U.S. in the early 20th century, mortality was sometimes reported as greater than 90 per cent among infants cared for in such institutions. Lack of understanding of nutrition, cross-infection associated with overcrowding by today’s standards, and the dangers of unpasteurized human milk substitutes were the main factors.

What do we know of how well St. Mary’s was run and the children were cared for?

Catherine Corless published a summary of her research on the Facebook page Mother/Baby Home Research. “The Bon Secours Sisters,” she writes, “were a nursing congregation who had come from Dublin to take charge of the hospital wing of Glenamaddy Workhouse.” After Ireland won its freedom, all the Workhouses were closed, but Galway County decided to open a Mother/Baby Home at the site of the Tuam Workhouse. “The Home building itself was [then] in a good structural state but needed quite a bit of repair.” The building and land belonged to the Galway County Council (GCC) which was “responsible for repairs and Maintenance.”

The GCC contracted with the Sisters of Bon Secours to provide shelter to unmarried mothers and their children for a weekly fee of 10 shillings (half a pound Irish) for the “maintenance and clothing of inmates” (Connacht Tribune, 1928), as well as the salaries of doctors. Mothers who could pay £100 for the delivery services, could leave after giving birth. Others had to agree to stay there for a year, working to reimburse these costs by “filling domestic duties, cooking, cleaning, minding the babies and children and tending to the gardens.”

The archives reveal differing opinions on how well the home operated. A Mayo Health Board report in 1935 declared, “Tuam is one of the best managed institutions I have seen in the country.” A newspaper story reporting on an inspection in 1949 stated that inspectors found “everything in very good order and congratulated the sisters on the excellent conditions.”

Yet a 1944 report by the health board stated that some children were “emaciated,” “pot-bellied,” “fragile,” and with “flesh hanging loosely on limbs.” And in the 1950s, a travel writer visited the home and wrote: “The grounds are well kept and had many flower beds. … Each of the Sisters is a fully trained nurse and midwife. … The building was fresh and clean.”

The archives expose decades of tension between the desires of the sisters to provide better care for the mothers and children and the desire of the community (“ratepayers”) and Council board members to pay as little as possible for these “misfortunates.”

In November 1935, solely as a cost-cutting measure, the Mayo Board reduced the age at which the Home children could be “boarded out” to age four for both girls and boys. The nuns objected, stating that they would be unwilling to renew their contract with the Council, if that were the case. They wanted to keep the girls under their care until after they received their First Holy Communion and been properly instructed in the faith, adding, “That would be a great safeguard to the little girls going out into the world.” The Board “compromised” by reducing the boarding out age of girls to five instead of the threatened four.

Money could be found in 1929, in the midst of dire poverty, to add a “special maternity ward” to the buildings, but this was done mainly because married women (who were paying customers) were refusing to give birth at the public hospital in Connacht as long as unmarried women from the Home were giving birth there. Isolating the Home women in a ward that lacked the hospital’s level of trained staff and equipment, assuredly contributed to higher maternal and infant mortality rates.

In 1951, the “sisters were begging the board for a grant, saying the building “desperately needed renovations, the children were sleeping in attics in terrible conditions and the building [was] considered a fire risk.” Nine years later, £90,000 was appropriated for the Home, but the Council reneged, closed the “dilapidated” Home in 1961 and put the cash toward improvements to a nursing home run by the Sisters of Bon Secours.

Curiously, an article on the closure of St. Mary’s, explaining that the home “falls under the economy axe,” also noted that

the nuns have set the highest standards in the running of the institution and the care of their charges.

In those years, too, the supply of food, clothing and other necessities has been a valuable trade for local business houses, who will feel the loss when the institution is closed.

All of society failed these children. Those who would scapegoat the sisters should perhaps examine themselves first. How generous am I with my money and time in seeing to the needs of those on the margins of our society? Am I outraged by the number of children intentionally killed before birth and the barbaric manner in which their bodies are disposed of? What am I doing about it? Does it bother me that over 40% of births are now to single moms and that so many biological fathers casually escape responsibility for their children? Do I lift a finger for any of these single moms or volunteer for programs that help boys become responsible adults?

Susan E. WillsJD, LLM left the practice of law to join the USCCB Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, where she served for 20 years as Asst. Director for Education and Outreach until her retirement in 2013. She now serves as Aleteia’s English edition Sprituality Editor. 

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