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Scapegoating the Sisters for the Deaths of 800 Babies

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?

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