Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Irish "Septic Tank" Infant Burial Story Largely Debunked.

Here is one of the early reports:

"NEWSER) – Between 1925 and 1961,..........t as Ireland is now learning, some of those illegitimate children encountered a fate much worse.

The Irish Mail on Sunday reports that 796 of them were heaped into a mass grave — a septic tank, specifies the Washington Post — and forgotten. There is no gravestone, and no Home for that matter; housing and a playground occupy the long-ago razed location. But "the bones are still there," says Catherine Corless, the historian who learned about the children after hunting down death records tied to the Home."

One thing that we know with absolute certainty is that, if the story paints an ugly  picture of Catholics, the media will kick into high gear and run with it.

The second is that, of the initial story is not bad enough to suit the tastes of reporters, key details will be changed to make it very bad.

The third is that many people will enthusiastically swallow any of these stories as true, that (despite the actual facts) decades from now we will still hear people bringing it up, and the same will never admit that the report was so wildly exaggerated as to be a case of willful misrepresentation.

There is no doubt that the conditions of some of these facilities were appalling and that some of  those who were responsible for operating them were clearly guilty of  apathy and a lack of empathy.  

Nothing, however, takes away from the fact that - mere decades before the events in the report, children born to unwed mothers in Protestant England were often sent to workhouses where they were required to engage in what amounted to slave labor. We ascribe this to the times as they were in Victorian England, but in Ireland, where (to my knowledge) so such forced labor existed, the Catholic Church is given the blame.

When one looks at the history of homes for orphans or "illegitimate children" in other Catholic countries such as Spain, Portugal, and Italy the difference between these and England is like night and day, but this does not provide the desired  picture of the Catholic Church, so the spotlight is fixed on dirt-poor Ireland.

I for one wonder of the fathers of the children in the Irish "homes" were able to sleep at night with the knowledge that the girls they hurt and their children were (assuming that the fathers were unaware of the infant deaths) effectively cast out of society.

The truth of the common (apparently not mass) graves may never displace the original reports:

"Revelations this month that nuns had buried nearly 800 infants and young children in unmarked graves at an Irish orphanage during the last century caused stark headlines and stirred strong emotions and calls for investigation. Since then, however, a more sober picture has emerged that exposes how many of those headlines were wrong..........

The Associated Press was among the media organizations that covered Corless and her findings, repeating incorrect Irish news reports that suggested the babies who died had never been baptized and that Catholic Church teaching guided priests not to baptize the babies of unwed mothers or give to them Christian burials.

The reports of denial of baptism later were contradicted by the Tuam Archdiocese, which found a registry showing that the home had baptized more than 2,000 babies. The AP issued a corrective story on Friday after discovering its errors.

Brendan O'Neill, editor of the London-based online magazine Spiked, said journalists worldwide "got a whiff of Corless's findings and turned them into the stuff of nightmares." He noted that several top newspapers in the United States stated that 800 baby skeletons had been found in a septic tank, and that commentators fueled by a "Twitter mob" mentality compared the deaths to Nazi-era genocide.

The Irish Times in Dublin interviewed Corless about why she thought the former septic tank could have become a bone repository. She explained that her assertion was based on the study of old site maps and the 40-year-old recollections of two local men who, as boys, had found an underground chamber on the site containing skeletons. It had sounded to her like the tank could be the location.

But the newspaper spotted discrepancies in Corless' maps, and found records showing that the actual septic tank remained in use until the late 1930s, which meant it could not have been used as a burial spot. Other analysts pointed out that the decommissioned septic tank would be too small to hold many bodies. And the two men who had reported seeing skeletons in 1975 said, on reflection, that they doubted more than 20 were inside the concreted hole........."

"For a month now, sections of the Irish and international media have been convulsed by reports of shockingly high mortality rates at a state-funded, Church-run mother and baby home in the west of Ireland. It has been difficult to separate fact from fiction and too few commentators have sought to get to the bottom of the story, with many instead choosing to focus on salacious exaggerations, misinformation, and untruths.

Yes, there was a shockingly high infant mortality rate in the Tuam mother and baby home run by the Bon Secours congregation of nuns. Between 1925 and 1961, 976 infants died. Many of the children, it appears, were buried at an unmarked grave, which was lovingly tended by local Catholic families for decades. Now, the tragic deaths of so many youngsters should be devastating enough in itself to warrant further investigation. But some media commentators and seasoned campaigners immediately sought to exaggerate the story in the most appalling fashion. The children were soon forgotten in the dash to hang their deaths as a crime around the neck of Catholic Ireland.

In media reports, the common grave soon became a “mass grave” and then a “septic tank.” The nuns were accused of “dumping” the children in the grave, and there have been suggestions that police should open up a criminal investigation into the deaths despite absolutely no evidence that any of the tragic deaths were in untoward circumstances. The government has promised a Commission of Inquiry to look at the issue. However, some are wary that the terms of reference may be set so narrowly as to include only Catholic-run institutions, leaving out so-called “county homes” where many unmarried mothers lived with their newborn babies. Former residents of a Protestant-run home in Dublin have also complained that their plight has been ignored.

The world’s media soon arrived, inevitably adding more heat than light. A Washington Times headline screamed, “Catholic Church Tossed 800 Irish Orphans into Septic Tank”; Salon’s stated: “An Irish Catholic Orphanage Hid the Bodies of 800 Children.” More fuel was added to the fire by Father Brian D’arcy, a liberal priest and darling of the Irish media, who likened the nuns’ behavior to that of the Nazis during the Holocaust.
So quick has been the rush to judgment that an eminent media outlet has been forced to roll back on earlier versions of the story. The Associated Press has issued a correction to earlier stories which included claims that were demonstrably untrue. In a response issued at the weekend, the AP admitted that

in stories published June 3 and June 8 about young children buried in unmarked graves after dying at a former Irish orphanage for the children of unwed mothers, The Associated Press incorrectly reported that the children had not received Roman Catholic baptisms; documents show that many children at the orphanage were baptized. The AP also incorrectly reported that Catholic teaching at the time was to deny baptism and Christian burial to the children of unwed mothers; although that may have occurred in practice at times it was not Church teaching. In addition, in the June 3 story, the AP quoted a researcher who said she believed that most of the remains of children who died there were interred in a disused septic tank; the researcher has since clarified that without excavation and forensic analysis it is impossible to know how many sets of remains the tank contains, if any. The June 3 story also contained an incorrect reference to the year that the orphanage opened; it was 1925, not 1926.

Despite the misreporting, it’s important to be clear: the Tuam mother and baby home was a terrible place with awful conditions that reflected a society build on petty snobbery; “illegitimate” children and unmarried mothers were treated in a very unchristian fashion by a country that professed to be a bastion of Catholic virtue. It is unlikely that other, similar homes—whether run by the Church, state, or another religious denomination—were any less harsh...................

The government Commission of Inquiry is expected to begin work within weeks. But what are the “known unknowns” in a sea of misinformation?

“I never used that word ‘dumped,’” says Catherine Corless, the local historian who painstakingly compiled the infants’ death certificates. “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.”

Mrs. Corless, who lives near the site of the Tuam mother and baby home, has been working for several years on records associated with the institution. 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 Sisters, was in operation.

The children’s names, ages, places of birth, and causes of death were recorded. The average number of deaths during the 36-year period was just over 22 a year. The information recorded on these state-issued certificates shows that the children died variously of tuberculosis, convulsions, measles, whooping cough, influenza, bronchitis, and meningitis, among other illnesses.

The deaths of these 796 children are not in doubt. Their numbers are a stark reflection of a period in Ireland when infant mortality in general was much higher than today, particularly in institutions, where infection spread rapidly. At times during those 36 years, the Bon Secours Sisters housed more than 200 children and 100 mothers, as well as those who worked at the home, according to records Mrs. Corless has found.............

Mrs. Corless believes that many of the children were buried in an unofficial graveyard at the rear of the former home. This small, grassy space has been attended for decades by local people, who have planted roses and other flowers there, and put up a grotto in one corner. Mrs. Corless was keen that a memorial with the children’s names should be erected. Local Mass-goers were soon alerted and parishioners began taking up a collection for such a memorial.

If the commission is to paint a complete picture of what happened at the home, it will have to base its work on what is actually known and what can be uncovered. It will also have to focus on the wider context of post-independence Ireland.

According to Shane Dunphy, a social worker and expert on child protection, the commission should have a wide remit. He believes that religious orders can “answer very pertinent questions about why exactly the death rates in the homes were so at odds with that of the rest of the population, and if adoptions that occurred were forced and illegal.” However, he questions whether the nuns should be the only ones in the frame. “The Irish government must be viewed with a cold eye, as they specifically asked the religious orders to take the leading role in child care and protection in the newly founded Irish state.”.......

Historian Dr. Finola Kennedy feels that the investigation must concentrate on facts and not lurid headlines. “If the full story proves true, that would be savagery. But I, no more than anyone else, don’t know the full facts.”

Dr. Kennedy, who is the author of Cottage to Creche: Family Change in Ireland (Institute of Public Administration, 2001), contends that the national soul-searching now underway has underestimated the overarching fact of crushing poverty as it existed in the early years of the fledgling state...........

“We had the Civil War and the cost of damages on top of poverty as the new state began,” Dr. Kennedy points out. “What funds we had were spent on rebuilding.”
It was into such a reality that the nuns were so warmly received, “including, let’s not forget, those nuns who started the health services still benefitting Ireland today,” she says. “Mother and babies homes were part of a whole system of containment at the time and look sad and painful places now.”

“Now cast your mind back 50, 60 years—the challenges faced were incredible,” she adds. “People today don’t realize how poor we were then.”............

“These historical figures place current concerns about baby-home death rates from the past in a new perspective,” according to Mr. Costello. “They reveal a far more complex situation in which the whole of Irish society was aware of these figures, but accepted them.”

Mr. Costello believes that the traumatic founding of the Irish state must also be considered. “Ireland in the 1920s, the Ireland of the Troubles and the Civil War, was a violent place where murder was common. In 1921 there were some 1,096 male homicides from gunshot wounds. In addition 37 women died of gunshot wounds.”

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