Thursday, June 05, 2014


The site of a mass grave for children who died in the Tuam mother and baby home, Galway
Tuam adds yet another horror to the huge list of Irish Church scandals. I can't, I don't want to defend them, I find it disgusting and unsettling but the question that comes to my mind is, do these scandals arise because these institutions were Catholic or because they were Irish?

It is either that Catholicism was dysfunctional, or Ireland was dysfunctional, the other possibility is that Irish Catholicism was particularly dysfunctional. The other possibility is that what is revealed is done in a sensationalist way, to do as much damage to Irish Catholicism as possible.

Religious men and women do not exist in a vacuum, they are in the world but the they are not suppose to be of the world. I remember an Irish Mercy Sister, now dead, saying to me when I asked why she had come to England in the 1930s to pursue her vocation saying, 'Because in Ireland we had nothing, you English left us with nothing, except our faith and our poverty. The Irish State expected the Sisters and Brothers to deal with the people it itself was unable to deal with, with no resources, except what they could beg in Ireland itself'. She herself had left school at thirteen, her family survived on money sent by her father who did seasonal farm work in England and older brothers who had emigrated to England and America. Her mother brought up the family, whenever the father returned there was another pregnancy, she as child was barefoot and often hungry, it was only when she became a Sister she had shoes all year round. 'My mother and the older girls would go hungry so the boys and the younger children could survive', she said, it seems as if half her brothers and sisters had died in childhood. I remember asking her why the boys were fed in preference to the girls, her reply was interesting, 'The boys needed to be strong in order to swing a shovel, it was our investment in our future!'


Unknown said...

Don't play their game, Father. I went to a Catholic high school in England One day I went to the local shop during the lunch break and was given six lashes of the belt. Latter that same day I received another six lashes for using a swear word on the bus home the previous evening. This occurred in the early 80's! The history and context of these events is everything. Tuam was one of hundreds of such homes in Ireland at the time, a time when the Church almost took over the role of the state. Naturally, there are going to be such occurrences when the Church is into and involved in everything. There's no big scandal, just human
nature. Post Constantine everyone gravitated to the Church, seekers and more unsavory types. Not surprising then that such things are going to occur? Nor is it surprising that the Church is being singled out by the media for special attention..

nickbris said...

It takes the heat off Mr Putin for a while.

The best place to start attacking Catholicism is always going to be Ireland.

There was never enough money to bury the dead in nice tidy cemeteries so mass burials were always the norm for those who had no family.

These reports will always be used to destroy the Church. We are at war

Kathleen said...

You have it in one Father. The Sister you speak of was talking from experience and that was certainly the case in Ireland after it became independent of Britain. The religious sisters and brothers did the best they could, and families just didn't have enough food to go round in the 30s and 40s. Consequently the mortality rate was extremely high.

Our Lady of Good Success-pray for us. said...

The land of Saints, who must be weeping over their old soil before the throne of heaven.

GOR said...

I can relate to what that Sister had to say.

It is hard for us today to imagine what life was like in Ireland through the first half of the 20th century. It was a hand-to-mouth existence for a majority of the people even into the 50s and 60s. No jobs. No prospects. No money. Emigration in the 1950s ran from 50,000 – 80,000 per year in a country of less than 3 million.

As a child it was embarrassing to me that we were constantly in debt to the grocery store for basic food. Purchases were put ‘on the slate’ and you paid off a little each week. It wasn’t until my older sister was of working age that the bill was finally cleared.

From the age of 12 or earlier rural children worked to supplement the family income – usually on their knees in the fields thinning Sugar Beet for the local farmers. You made ten shillings a day for 8 – 10 hours work. But meals were included - which was a distinct bonus. From there you might ‘graduate’ to Summer work in a warehouse or wholesale grocery – if you were lucky. There you could make £3 - £4 a week.

Yet we were happy, had the Faith and trusted in God. So, is the post-Celtic Tiger era better…?

Fr Ray Blake said...

GW the point I was making, is what you say, the Church did what the State did elsewhere.

As for violence, it was indeed a violent time. A directee once told me he was still scarred in mind and body by the beatings he received at one of our more expensive English Public Schools.

Catholicus said...

With respect Father, I think you have jumped the gun on this a little. What facts do we really know from this story? The anti-Catholics want an image of evil nuns killing children and secretly dumping their bodies in a septic tank. We know that children died over a long period and were buried in the grounds of the home. They died of the conditions poor children died off in those days before vaccinations and anti-biotics. They were buried in paupers graves. The area may once have been occupied by a septic tank but ther is nothing to suggest they were "dumped in tank". So let's wait for the real evidence to emerge and try and recall the reality of life for all children at that time, not just in Ireland, but accoss the world.

Mr Grumpy said...

Is it true that these children were routinely denied Baptism? If so it doesn't seem to me that that can be blamed either on poverty or on the zeitgeist, and the words of Pope Francis a few months before his election seem entirely apposite:

Francis said...

"The Church did what the State did elsewhere." Exactly.

Because social services, healthcare and education were largely run by the Irish Church up until the mid-20th century, any malpractice or problem at any Irish school, borstal, orphanage, hospital, care home, hospice or whatever will be laid at the door of the Catholic Church.

To put it another way, an old scandal at a UK orphanage will have taken place at some nameless institution and be the fault of Rother District Council. Barely newsworthy. But in Ireland, it will have happened at the Sacred Heart institution and therefore be the fault of the Vatican. Shock, horror, banner headlines.

Liam Ronan said...

The Irish were treated as less than human for centuries. Is it a wonder then that some came to regard themselves in such a way? The miracle is that not all did.

Insofar as past self-enforced privations which now seem abysmally cruel to our enlightened minds, I offer just one word for consideration: 'triage'.

Our Lady of Good Success-pray for us. said...

'the church did'...what? Does the magisterium teach us to do what? so the church now teaches us to kill our babies with the help of the state? No, we just go ahead and do that anyway despite what the True Church teaches. They haven't even investigated yet and it seems we've jumped on the 'it's the Church's fault'. In an era of influenza and rife with poverty and war, suddenly it is the Church's fault there is a report that for forty years there are some utterly shameful
remains, meanwhile we have a pope who's 'off the cuff' a year ago has probably patted on the back a multitude more of mothers relieved of the gift of motherhood. Both are reprehensible but how many catholics seem well able to stomach this cruel indifference from The Pope? most, it would seem. But that's Protestantism.

An old Catholic, nearing 80, once said that the difference between continental Catholicism (he missed out Britain) and Irish Catholicism is that the wars hammered Calvinism into the Irish Church, so it became something different. He said he had figured out why, on the continent, Catholics think nuns are great, but in Ireland, cruel and cold (although apparently the 'magdalene laundry syndrome' is the stuff of movies, not reality) - the answer, for him was the victory of Calvinism even if thinly veiled in a Catholic exterior.

Maybe he is right. I know a whole generation of my family who consider themselves, like much of the hierarchy, 'recovering catholics'; which means whatever has gone wrong in their lives they blame on the Church of Christ, no matter how ludicrous the lack of taking personal responsibility.

When does one separate Faithful Catholics from nominal catholics?

George said...

Yes, my only question was the same as the one asked my Mr. Grumpy. Is it true that the babies of unmarried women were denied baptism? Can you answer that Father. Did something like that ever enter into moral theology manuals?

TLMWx said...

Tuberculosis? pox ? diphtheria? poverty? oh no twas the nuns that did it. Pardon me but since when did Catholics believe newspapers that
promote and condone child sex abuse
promote and condone child murder
promote and condone catholic hatred

Why on earth would even entertain for a split second that these slurry spreaders could possibly be telling the truth and that Catholic nuns could be accused of child neglect. Have you gone mad! Father Ray why do you like to believe this. Why are you not ashamed even to entertain the thought that a Catholic sister could be complicit in child neglect. Why do you spend so little time analysing the liar press and most of your article imputing guilt on Irish Catholics. You are too fast to believe wicked things about Catholics and I don't think it is good that you do. The press is guilty of lying until proven innocent when it come to Catholic matters. Your first position should be to wonder why someone is telling more lies about Catholics.
As regards the Irish Government, you know that they are looking to pass pervert legislation and they always sally forth with an attack on Catholicism first before they ram through their perversions of the moral order. Same old same old. I think you are helping the enemy Father Ray and I think you should stop!

George said...

I remember reading in some medieval history textbook that an ancient pope (I'm fairly certain this was prior to Gregory VII) sent as legate a monk from Palestine or Egypt to Ireland to reform their moral theology manuals. At that time the Irish confessors were giving out outrageous penances.

What is it about the Irish that produces these abnormalities in orthopraxis?

Fr Ray Blake said...

George, most unlikely

Sean W. said...

Refusing (public, liturgical) baptism was neither *necessarily* a sin or abuse then and it still is not today; canon law explicitly requires a "founded hope" that a child will be raised in the faith before a pastor can baptize him (though of course the praxis on this is pretty loose today). Benedict himself admitted to having waffled on this for some time and, though he came down on the side of giving the baptizand/parent(s) the benefit of the doubt, he admitted that pastors could disagree in good faith without necessarily failing to be of one mind with the Church.

And of course "they refused to baptize these children" (publicly/liturgically, since that is what is generally meant) does not mean they never ultimately baptized them, quietly, in danger of death, which is a reasonable thing to do. I certainly have no evidence otherwise and none of the journalists provide any, and I see no reason to give benefit of the doubt to journalists (the most corrupt and debased and degenerate profession in the world today) in preference to Catholic nuns, anyway.

Frankly I have a hard time seeing what I am supposed to be outraged about here, though of course I don't necessarily know all the details. "Lots of people died there!" Yes, something like 800 in the span of about 40 years, a rate of about 20 a year. Pretty remarkably low when you consider the crushing poverty, unemployment, malnutrition, disease, the Great Depression, the Irish Civil War, WW2, etc. "But people died there at a much higher rate than elsewhere!" Duh, they went there in the first place because they were desperate and poor and starving; where else would they have gone? Who else would have taken them in? "But they buried them in a mass grave!" TB, diphtheria, typhoid, etc., are ridiculously contagious, and they had a large number of small, sickly, malnourished children in their care, and dead bodies are a disease vector in themselves. What else were they supposed to do? Leave them to fester in the sunlight for a few days while the overworked nuns neglected their other patients to hack down a forest and sand them into coffins? "But they were in a septic tank!!!" A repurposed septic tank, i.e., one not being used as a septic tank, and it was used because it was large enough to store the bodies and relatively structurally sound. And they appear to have built a Marian grotto over it and the locals continue to treat that ground with reverence. "Secrecy!!!" Yet they have records (admittedly incomplete, which is understandable given the circumstances)? "Abuse!!!!!" Eh?

Like I said, maybe there's more I'm missing, but it appears we are supposed to be angry about the fact that people died of natural causes under the Church's watch at like the worst time in recent Irish history. If there was anything like abuse, cruelty, or mistreatment, they provide no evidence of it. I'm all for chastising sinners and all, but where's the sin?

John Vasc said...

Fr Ray, you have put your finger on it: Ireland's social services and largely education were mainly provided by religious. So any defects in the society can now be conveniently (and lucratively) laid at the door of the Catholic Church.
Those who attended Irish state schools in the 1930s and 1940s say that the punishments meted out there were no whit less harsh than at the Christian Brothers' schools. It was simply the disciplinary culture of the time and place.
And as you have said, English public schools were notorious (from the late 18th century until quite recent years) for the severity of their corporal punishment.
It does no good to dwell on the past, and even less to try to scapegoat it from our rather pampered modern 'human rights' viewpoint.

Just another mad Catholic said...

Maybe its the Rose in me, but give me the Jansenistic, Calvin flavoured Catholocism of the Irish anyday over the crass, pleasure obsessed societiy I grew up in.

Cosmos said...

I have no idea what happened there, but I do think we need to get out of the habit of judging the past, especially poor places in the past, by our own standards. I think it's often very hard to understand from the outside.

J said...

Many bad things happened in the Church, even horrible things. But I´m not sure if this is one of them. And this is not denial.
Gross numbers taken the children mortality rate was lower in that place than in the rest of Ireland.

And I would like to know what happened to the children that died in a French (par example) Hospice run by the State on the same period. Not to mention another countries. ¿Where are them buried?

A different question is about Baptism, but I am sure that that is not an issue for the press.

Victoria said...

You may wish to read the following:

Our Lady of Good Success-pray for us. said...

"According to Irish Central, “The certificates Corless (the Irish historian who has 'uncovered' the story) received record each child’s age, name, date – and in some cases – cause of death.”" Apparently there is no cover up. The figure of 800 has been tossed out of nowhere and the world media are running with it. The Grave has been know about for decades.

Our Lady of Good Success-pray for us. said...

Further from Mr Verrecchio's post:

"According to Irish public health records, for every 1,000 deaths of infants under one year of age in the general population in 1944, nearly 200 of them were the result of “diarrhea and enteritis,” the latter being a bacterial infection that typically clears up on its own.

A closer look at these records indicates that a large percentage of deaths in children under five years of age occurred as a result of conditions that are easily treated today."

Ma Tucker is right. This is the 'nuns did it', spin, whereas the nuns were the only ones willing to take on these unwanted mothers and their babies.

p.s. We forget (in these days of abortion on demand) that once upon a time infant mortality was greater than the survival rate. I used to live near an old grave yard and you could walk around reading the list of mother's children that didn't make it passed a few months old, five or six or more to a family.

Nicolas Bellord said...

Catholicus says: " recall the reality of life for all children at that time, not just in Ireland, but across the world." I think in the case of Ireland you have to wind back the time and compare the early 20th century there with the 18th century in England such was the poverty. And who was responsible for that poverty? Might it have been the Protestant English?

Cormac said...

I think a number of points should be made here.

Firstly, we all know the media are no friends of the Church. This is not to say that we should simply reject everything that is said by them. There seems to be little doubt what went on this place. Burying children in a septic tank is unacceptable, period. It is indefensible. Ok, we all know that the government was also culpable, but why do defend something like this?

Secondly, the old chesnut that these were 'poorer times' is neither a proper defence nor accurate. Someone above makes this defence that mass burials were always the norm for those who had no family. The religious order, the Bon Secours in this case, were more than adequately paid by the government to look after these children. So poverty in this case is no excuse.

I really do think this siege mentality does us no good. We should know when to stand up and fight but we should also know when to put our hands up and admit that actions like this were wrong.

Cormac said...

Sean W's comment sums this attitude up really for me. This sort of 'it happened, deal with, why should I give a damn' attitude. I hope I'm not the only one that is concerned by comments like these?

These 'natural causes' that he speaks of seem to give him little concern. I was listening to a lady who had been in this home speaking the other day. Interestingly she said that in the home babies that were born with physical defects (thus making them less desirable for adoption) were put into a 'dying room' and deprived of care. At best this was gross neglect. And yet we continue to defend this. The mind boggles. Hang on, another media conspiracy....

Aussie said...

It is good to read the honest, well reasoned responses in the comments section here to Church-bashing by the media, defending the nuns that the media wish to demonise.

Written and oral histories relate that the Irish suffered harshly but were faithful Catholics and a loving people. They did their best in very difficult circumstances and their priests and religious were wonderfully generous at home and abroad.

The Catholic Church in Australia, my homeland, was established by the Irish and nurtured by their missionaries throughout most of its 226 years of European history. The world is richer for the Catholic Church in Ireland. I hope it rediscovers its past Catholic glories soon and retrieves its Catholic zeal. Perhaps that's what the media fears and are therefore doing their best to make the Irish feel ashamed of and shun their Catholic past.

Sean W. said...

Brother Cormac, thank you for your input. But I fear that in your haste to make a (what is, to my mind, very valid) point re: bunker mentality, you have perhaps misread what I said. (FWIW, I am maybe the person least prone to bunker mentality, and would happily jump on board with dumping on the institutional Irish Church for its many, many sins).

"It happened, deal with, why should I give a damn" is certainly not my attitude. What happened there is a great tragedy. What I have argued is that it is not a sin on the Church's part -- or more precisely that, if there is a sin, the journalists in question have furnished no evidence of it.

My impression of the state of Ireland at that time is that it was a truly awful time, that death from disease and malnutrition was not unusual, and that the Church there was overwhelmed. What the journalists have provided in the articles I have read is evidence of people doing the best they could with what little they had more than evidence of evil heartless old nuns butchering babies cause they're unprofitable (or whatever). Certainly burying bodies in a repurposed septic tank (or any sort of mass grave) is a terrible thing but there are certainly circumstances where it is the only viable option (i.e., rampant sickness and the need to quickly dispose of the dead for the health and safety of others). If these impressions are wrong then, obviously, my evaluation of all this will change; my position is simply that, in the absence of more evidence, we should give benefit of the doubt to nuns over atheists who hate and persecute the Church all the time as a matter of course.

I was not aware that "babies that were born with physical defects (thus making them less desirable for adoption) were put into a 'dying room' and deprived of care." If this is true in the sense that you mean it (i.e., that children died of neglect, deliberately, under the nuns' care), then that is indeed a terrible sin, though none of the articles I have read allege that. (The alternative, I suppose, would be that "dying room" was a typically brusque Irish euphemism for what we might today call a "palliative care ward" and that "deprived of care" means "not given futile medical treatment in advance of an unpreventable death").

Aussie said...

@ Cormac, you say that Sean W's comment conveys a "why should I give a damn attitude". I have read and reread his comment and I can't see that at all. What he says makes sense.

mick said...

The letter below appeared in the Irish Times

Sir, – There is some loss of perspective in the recent outcry about the sad infant deaths in mother-and-baby residential homes in the past.
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]. The risks would have been much increased if the infants were not breast fed.
In foundling homes in the US 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 unpasteurised human milk substitutes were the main factors. – Yours, etc,
North Circular Road,

Mary Kay said...

Mick, Ann Frost, Sean, thank you for your thoughtful commentary. We have become a society of knee-jerkers, always ready for the next scandal, perhaps to feel better about personal failings. In the US at that same time, my grandmother died of influenza along with her new twin daughters, and they were buried together, hopefully with a coffin. But it was not uncommon in the early 20th century. Although antibiotics have done much to improve the general health of the world, I learned in nursing school that the great strides in hygiene and understanding of contamination did more to decrease all deaths, more than medication. We can't understand how recent these improvements are.

My poor Finnish grandparents came to this country in those days, and it was very normal that there were many deaths and much illness in any family at that time.

I wonder if this 'report' isn't a backlash to the increasing popularity of the traditional Mass in Ireland. The media have an obligation to defend 'the cause' and try to indoctrinate people (by shame or otherwise)so that the Church does not once again regain its former power. Either that, or the reporter spotted a lucrative opportunity and jumped in.

Alberta said...

Dear Father, I agree that more facts need to be uncovered. Please stay on this story and don't let the hate mongers control the narrative. Defend what is defensible even if it means doing some asking around yourself and then post it on Gloria.TV for us in the USA.

Shane said...

The Irish Times reports that holes are beginning to appear in this story and the researcher is claiming that her research is being misrepresented by the media.

Shane said...

I show in this post (skim down past the IT repost) that the Tuam home actually had around the same mortality rate as Dublin and actually had a lower mortality rate than Cork, Waterford, or Limerick

pooka said...

It is true that the Church in Ireland became the provider of many social services which elsewhere were provided by the state. To suggest that it is therefore no reflection on the Church if the abuse delivered in those services was no worse than was contemporaneously present elsewhere, misses the point. The state elsewhere did not claim to be instituted and guaranteed by the divine nor did, or does, it routinely declare its leaders and functionaries to be saints. (Incidentally, I don't think abuse in eg British state schools ever reached the scale suffered in Church institutions).

In answer to Fr Ray's question, the root cause was a dis- functionality in Irish Catholicism, a function of the corrupting influence of power. The colonial suppression both the catholic faith and Irish nationalism melded to the two in the Irish culture. It engendered a fierce and unquestioning loyalty to the Church and it was that loyalty which the Church systematically exploited for generations, for its own institutional interest and that of its functionaries.

That betrayal has had profound consequences and it is unlikely that the Church in Ireland will ever fully recover.

Unknown said...

What annoys me more than anything in these matters is when people appear able to make statements which simply cannot be substantiated at this point. For example, Cormac, you say that the nuns were adequately funded by the government. How on earth can you make such a sweeping statement? What is your source?

John Fisher said...

Father there is no scandal. Babies bodies were not dumped.. there was no septic tank. take a look at the photos and look at the interview in the Irish times with the local historian who wanted nothing more than a monument with names on. No dumped bodies... no septic tank... just a piece of anti Catholic garbage.
I was born in a convent the child of a single mother who raised me within a large Catholic extended family. I also new the Bon Succour Sisters. They were brave selfless woman who routinely served the elderly sick, orphans, single mothers and dying.

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