#800deadbabies: A Fresh Catholic Horror

In the last few years, Ireland has been reckoning with a shameful part of its history: the Magdalene laundries. Established in the 1700s and surviving well into the 20th century, these were church-run institutions, overseen by nuns, where women were sent for transgressing against conventional morality or custom, or simply because they were viewed as a burden to society. Prostitutes, unwed mothers, rape victims, orphans, the mentally and physically disabled, or those who were deemed too attractive or too flirtatious, all could and did end up there.

Supposedly for reform and rehabilitation of these “fallen” women, in reality the Magdalene laundries were prisons where the inmates were used for slave labor, mostly doing menial jobs like laundry for no pay. Most of the women incarcerated there were brutally abused and tortured, both physically and psychologically, by church overseers. Over 10,000 women were forced into this system over its lifetime, with the complicity of the Irish state. Some were imprisoned for decades.

Because record-keeping in the Magdalene laundries was deliberately scanty, historians are still uncovering the truth about what went on within their walls. And this week, there was an explosive new revelation.

A local historian, Catherine Corless, was researching a Magdalene laundry in the town of Tuam, run by the Sisters of Bon Secours, that operated from 1925 to 1961. Over this forty-year span, Corless uncovered death certificates for 796 children, all of them born to unmarried mothers who had been sent there. She was able to prove that these children had been buried in an unmarked mass grave on the grounds – including at least some that were apparently dumped in a disused septic tank. (Some reports have stated that all 796 bodies were found in the tank, which appears to be a miscommunication, but even the less sensational version is ghastly enough.)

It’s well known that children born to women in the Magdalene laundries were badly mistreated and neglected. They died at a rate four to five times higher than the general population, from diseases like measles, tuberculosis and pneumonia, as well as outright malnutrition. Even a report in 1944, when the home was still in operation, described the children living there as emaciated and pot-bellied. (This is a symptom of kwashiorkor, a nutritional deficiency that normally only occurs in famines.)

The looming question, given how widespread the Magdalene laundry system was, is whether there are more children’s mass graves waiting to be discovered. (There are already rumblings of a much bigger burial site at another location in Blackrock, County Cork.) But whether or not this was an exceptional case, the attitudes that caused it certainly weren’t.

During this era in Ireland, the culture was permeated with Catholicism’s wicked theology of sin, shame and human depravity, which gave rise to the belief that to be pregnant outside of marriage was “the worst thing on Earth“. Women who found themselves in this situation, along with their children, were judged worthless and disposable.

Remember, this is the church that claims above all else to be “pro-life”, yet for decades it ran a slave-labor camp where hundreds of children were neglected to death and their bodies thrown away like trash. This shows, as if more proof were needed, the moral bankruptcy of this religion and the utter hollowness of its pretense to be the supreme moral authority.

Even in extremis, however, the church still has its apologists: like Rod Dreher, who takes pains to insist he’s not defending the Magdalene laundries, but complains that it seems “terribly unjust to single out Catholicism for special contempt”. (For the record, I promise to show the same level of harshness in criticizing any other belief system that produces mass graves of children.) He also insists that they won’t change any of the doctrines that led to this end result: the Catholic church “does not operate according to the standards of sexually permissive North Americans, thank God”. This is the boast of the closed-minded, an argument from one for whom no evidence is sufficient to sway him from his belief that ancient ideas of morality should be preserved unchanged, regardless of the stigma they produce or the suffering they cause.

P.S.: There’s a crowdfunding drive for a memorial for the Tuam children, since the Catholic church seems uninterested in paying for one themselves. Please donate if you think it’s a worthy cause.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Space Blizzard

    This country has such a dark past when it comes to the catholic church. It’s frustrating just how seemingly little the church will ever be held responsible- even though the abuse scandals caused widespread outrage, it all just died down. Ireland has a serious problem with political apathy, in my opinion.

  • BeaverTales

    Why are so many Christians willingly blind to atrocities committed in the name of their god? Is it because the Bible approves of so much cruelty towards women and children? The more I learn about this, and see the reaction of the Roman Catholic Church to the unfolding news, the more it disgusts me.

    Adam is right: this is not a Church of Life. Some of Tuam’s timeline happened during WWII, for instance, and look at the disgusting behavior of both Protestants and Catholics in Europe at the time. Many of today’s Christians will ignore the fact that the *vast majority* of continental Europe’s Protestants and especially Catholics were not only silent about the pogroms of the Nazis, they clearly colluded and collaborated with them. Most Christians were fine with the extermination of Jews, gays, the disabled, because Christian doctrine already condemned them, The prelate in Rome was notoriously silent “in the name of neutrality” and declined to help those trying to escape the Nazis except for a few exceptions, like Jews who had long ago converted to Catholicism.

    Christians will usually point out that a rare few of them were persecuted in Nazi concentration camps (usually those who spoke out about what was happening, or who were members of unpopular Christian groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons). They proudly point to the rare few who helped Jews escape (like Oskar Schindler) or hide (like the patrons of Anne Frank’s family) as proof that True Christianity#&153 is heroic and corruption-proof. They are blind to the flaws of their religion that let the murderous Nazis in Germany and the murderous nuns in Ireland to thrive. Large numbers of people cannot be murdered like this without the tacit consent and approval of their surrounding communities.

    However, we can count on the apologists even today to remain silent about the concentration camps in Ireland, just like they often are about the ones in Germany…they often try to distract from their own failings by doubling down on red herrings about the atrocities of any groups other than their own. (Rebecca Hamilton in the Patheos “Public Catholic” channel that idolizes folks like Bill Donohue from the pro-life movement and regularly attacks non-Christians, hasn’t even mentioned the Irish atrocities, for instance).

    The Catholic Church simply must be held accountable for this. No more free passes. There is no statute of limitations for murder in the US, hopefully it is the same in Ireland.

  • Margaret Whitestone

    It’s bad enough that there’s yet another atrocity found to hsve been committed by the Catholic church. That there are apologists out there who are more worried about people condemning the church than they are about hundreds of abused and murdeed children shows how much religious ideology corrupts.

  • 8DX

    Yes, but millions of abortions. So there!

  • Tova Rischi

    On the one hand, I thought you weren’t going to concern yourself with getting worked up by the news stories? On the other hand, fuck that noise. This is something for concern.

    It’s simply amazing how many bastards there are on this site alone (check out the catholic channel!) willing to defend an abomination in a misplaced sense of protection. If the church actually wanted redemption and converts it would have apologized and taken responsibility to correct the wrongs committed in its name, like it could and should have for all of its transgressions against human rights. But this is just one more scrap to show how little the organization is concerned with doing right and how concerned it is with protecting its capital, whether money, clout, or image.

    I mean holy shit, this is why the USSR and it’s daughter nations took lengths to ban religions especially Christian. This is a great part of why the PRC chooses their own bishop. There’s only so much time until it bites them in the ass, and I hope I can speak for my generation, Catholics included, that that’s a threat.

  • Nathaniel

    As someone who has been to the Israeli Holocaust museum, its a little more complicated than that.

    There’s an exhibit that is dedicated to the “friends of the Jews,” those who helped save at least one Jewish person from persecution or death, usually by hiding them or helping them escape to another country. Possibly one of the most fascinating parts of that was a map showing the total number of Jews saved in different countries in continental Europe. What it showed is that how many people saw fit to help Jews was generally based on two things:

    1. How much Jews were like “normal” people. Countries that had large populations of Jews living lives like their Christians neighbors in cities like Denmark generally had large numbers of Jews saved and many people willing to help them. Poland in contrast had mostly Orthodox Jews living in isolation from their Catholic Polish neighbors, so they were already seen as “weird” and other when the Nazi’s came.

    2. How much of a history of antisemitism the country had. This may seem to be a restatement of the first one, but not quite. As a percent, less Jews were saved in France than Denmark because of a history of antisemitism, despite quite a few assimilated French Jews in the country. Germany also fits the bill, as there was a large secular Jewish group in Germany, but a mere eight years of constant Nazi demonizing of Jews, down to making children’s board games of “Kick Out the Jew.” lead to not a single Jew being saved from Germany, and barely any from sister nation Austria.

    Is the history of both Protestant and Catholic antisemitism shameful? Yes, very shameful. And we are still reaping the results. But how successful the Nazis were in their goals in Europe had less to do with the specific religion of the country’s populations and more to do with the factors above.

  • Nathaniel

    Nah, USSR banned religion because it was a rival source of power, and because Stalin had hated clerics from a very young age. The Catholic church is a pretty nasty institution, but that doesn’t make the USSR good.

  • Tova Rischi

    I’m not denying that, but you have to understand there was popular support for a lot of those measures, way before Lenin ever staged the coup that consolidated the power in his hands. Russia was swinging back from theocratic abuses and swung rapidly far the other way leaving people behind. The sheer number of colors in the civil war should point at not only how diverse opinions were but how a number of simple threads were the cause of coalition.

    I haven’t heard that about Stalin, but he’s a shitbag so I’ll believe it until I’m not a night without sleep to research it. But if I recall correctly Stalin showed preferential treatment to Georgia’s OC, partially at the request of his mother, partially because he went through seminary, nearly becoming a priest until they basically kicked him out because he kept getting arrested by the tsarist police.

  • Nathaniel

    Its his experiences at seminary that made him hate clerics. He spent most of his time there studying revolutionary thought and basically dared the lead people there to kick him out for years. They finally obliged him.

  • BeaverTales

    The point I think you are missing is that Christians today happily disavow their predominant role in the rise to Nazism, and 80 years later seize on the few who fought Nazism as being typical Christians. They were not. The anti-Semitism, homophobia and disdain for “God’s cursed one’s” (disabled people) was perfectly in line with Christian prejudices values at the time.

    Part of the Roman Catholic liturgy (the Solemn Collects on Good Friday, for example) at the time was to pray for the conversion of the Jews, for instance. The Jews were scapegoats for Christ’s death, instead of the Romans who actually crucified him. Again, not a coincidence that they were blind to the Nazis.

    You’ve forgotten that all the famous people who were exceptions were a tiny proportion of the Christians in Nazi Germany, yet are brought up as being “typical Christians” by the apologists now that they’re dead. How Jews behaved in Denmark or Poland or elsewhere isn’t relevant…Christian leadership has demonstrated over and over again that it very easily loses its moral compass. It’s just difficult to see when you don’t learn from history, as many of today’s Catholics refuse to do by looking at the dead Irish kids.

  • BeaverTales

    Yes, they have talked about it…and most of them are wrapped up in the apologetics or saying “there’s not enough info to make a decision”. I mean, there are 800 dead children buried in a mass grave and/or a septic tank. How much fucking information do you need that something wrong occurred.

    How many of them are looking at the corruptible part of their faith that allowed it to happen in the first place?

  • busterggi

    If this is an example of Jesus’ objective morality then I object.

  • busterggi

    Excuses, excuses.

    What, is the ‘no true Christian’ arguement not working anymore?

  • Nathaniel

    You can’t say “Christians” are disavowing their role when there are a non negligible number of Christians who fully acknowledge the role that their religion played in the Holocaust. Hell, pretty much the entire population of Germany has spent the last fifty years beating itself up over what they did, and last I checked there are still quite a few Christians in that country.

    And you last part is still overlooking what I pointed out. Denmark had essentially what was a conspiracy to evacuate all the Jews in the country out of German reach. And it worked. This happened because the country from the Monarch on down was willing to protect their Jewish friends and fellow citizens. And just like the rest of Europe, Denmark was heavily Christian.

    Christianity has provided a fertile field for antisemitism. But being Christian doesn’t mean someone was antisemitic. Or allowed antisemitism to grow without fighting. Or has whitewashed the antisemitism of other Christians.

  • BeaverTales

    We are experiencing totally different realities then. I see very little self-examination by most Christians about how they were so easily led astray on human rights issues. Instead, there is more doubling down on how their leaders are the gatekeepers of morality and that the Bible is the literal Word of God. As for the Roman Catholic Church specifically, they won’t even pay for a memorial for 800 dead babies (the money is being raised privately) and hide their assets and scapegoats others (gays) for a culture of pedophilia that is unmatched in modern history.

    I see zero responsibility for anything…just weasel words, No True Scotsman fallacies and wild contortions of logic which serve no purpose except to avoid genuine self-examination and reform. Reform seems to come mainly from the bottom up in the Church (populism), and rarely from the top down.

    Society has changed today and the RCC apologists are indeed whitewashing history as always. Anti-Semitism was never an “official” policy of the church…some Popes like Calixtus II in 1120 actually defended Jews, but that did nothing to prevent the Church from sanctioning the Inquisition, for instance, which was begun primarily to root out Jews from Spain. They sanctioned enslaving “heathens”. Wash-rinse-repeat does not change the corruptible cloth that is Christianity itself.

    History is filled with examples of the bulk of Christianity gone astray and corrupt leadership leading to yet another human atrocity, and followed by waves of apologists calling it “an aberration” and only remembering the rare examples who bucked the trend. How many aberrations does one need to see before one starts looking at the Church as being as corruptible as the souls it claims to lead? How much history does one have to ignore to say that Christianity is a religion of peace??

  • Nathaniel

    It really depends on what kind of Christians you talk to and are exposed to. My mother is a Christian, and I have no reason to believe that she would excuse away the history of Europe’s antisemitism and where it came from. Nor would Fred from Slacktivist on this very site.

  • BeaverTales

    Again, pointing out rare counterexamples only proves the rule.

  • Nathaniel

    You keep on saying they are rare. I don’t believe that they are rare. Nor do I believe that people who do down play the role of their religion in antisemitism are rare. There are a sizable number of people in each group.

    Honestly, using your logic someone could dismiss the entire atheist/freethought movement as a bunch of nasty misogynists based on comments from people Christopher Hitchens or Thunderfoot. And then whenever someone pointed out the existence of people like Adam, they could just dismiss them as “rare exceptions.”

  • BeaverTales

    There is no comparison with Atheism, and I think instead of sticking to the topic of the abuses of the RCC you are trying to change the subject. Atheism carries the death penalty in 13 countries…we face imprisonment in many more. Even some Christian nations still make blasphemy illegal. This isn’t true of Catholicism, and criticizing atheists isn’t illegal anywhere (nor should it be).

    If it were not for freethinkers, secularism would not be a staple of government in the Western world. While there have been nominal non-freethinking atheist (actually communist) governments enforcing a fungible set of laws meant to replace religion, yet shared the same purpose of controlling people. You won’t find any freethinkers who subscribe to a single philosophy of atheism or who believe in forced conversion.

  • J-D

    If the Magdalene laundries were established in the 1700s they long predate the Irish state. Any complicity of the Irish state can only relate to the period since it was established in 1922. Before that, from 1801, Ireland was legally part of the United Kingdom (of Great Britain and Ireland), and up to 1800 a legally separate Kingdom of Ireland that was effectively under British political control.

    Obviously this doesn’t alter the role played by the Irish state from 1922 on, and nor does it in any way alter the role played by the Catholic Church, but you did refer to the complicity of the Irish state and the detail seems worth getting right to me.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Moderator note: I don’t mind people objecting to my posts or to the comments of others, but I do insist that everyone make an argument in their own thoughts and their own words. I’ll post this one, but future comments which contain large amounts of cut-and-pasted text won’t be approved.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    On the one hand, I thought you weren’t going to concern yourself with getting worked up by the news stories?

    I try not to, but however jaded I think I’ve become, it always seems there’s some new story that breaks past my cynicism and demands I write a response. I think what really made me angry this time was finding out that kwashiorkor is normally only found in famine victims.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee
  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Fair point. But by perpetuating the Magdalene laundry system after becoming a sovereign state, I’d argue that Ireland inherited the culpability for it.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Well, we do know that earlier clergy-abuse scandals have seriously angered the Irish, because they’ve been leaving the church en masse, even if there weren’t many explicit protests. I wouldn’t be surprised if this story accelerates that trend, especially if more mass graves are found.

  • J-D

    That’s why I wrote ‘this doesn’t alter the role played by the Irish state from 1922 on’ (whatever that role was; I haven’t read enough to know).

    Another point that may perhaps be worth mentioning as part of the total historical picture is that once the Irish state was established the Catholic Church exercised a lot of influence over it (in the decades we’re discussing; that influence has declined more recently). The Catholic Church would not have had the same level of influence at the governmental level in the earlier period of British rule. But perhaps this isn’t relevant.

  • unbound55

    This becomes the crux of the typical excuses I’ve been hearing lately. Something along the lines of, “Oh, that was something bad that happened in the past”. How is that any different than the previous nonsense from Church leaders asking people to just not talk about it. And, what about now?

    Where is the strong statement from the Church leaders condemning the action and actually investigating this? Many of the perpetrators are alive. They should be brought to justice. Will the Church be leading the investigations and handing over the murderers (yes, the nuns are murderers as are at least the local church leadership that coveted the money in lieu of feeding the children) to the local justice system? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

    Like all of the other excuses the Church leaders like to make, no real actions will be performed. They’ll talk about how it was bad, and how it shouldn’t have happened, and ask people to pray (i.e. do absolutely nothing). Just like the still on-going child rapes. No serious inquiry, no willingness to bring people to justice…just more cover-ups and telling people to stop talking about it.

    The Catholic Church leadership of yesteryear is the same as they are today. Not willing to do the morally correct thing. Their actions speak very loudly, and those actions are of the hideous beast they have been for a very, very long time.

    And don’t even get me started about the massive hypocrisy of demanding no abortions while they let fully independent human beings die a slow and painful death while directly under their care.

  • 92JazzQueen .
  • Azkyroth

    The church needs to outgrow its obsession with controlling sexuality and acknowledge that having consensual sex with another adult is not a “sin.” That’s the root of all this evil.

  • GCT

    Two words: blood libel.

  • GCT

    So, in support of your contention that they take these things seriously, you posted an article that points out that this is the first time that a priest in Mexico has been turned over to the authorities. And, you think that helps your position?

    As for the second link, we’ve heard that line before, with the child abuse scandals. Nothing comes of those supposed probes because they don’t want to find anything wrong and fix it.

  • GCT

    I thought the claim was not that modern Xians would excuse antisemitism (although many still do) but that Xians of the time would excuse it. And, although there are places you can point to, like Denmark, we can also point out that most other places had Xians that were not kind to Jews. Not that the people of Denmark were particularly kind to Jews – many of them simply thought that killing the Jews was too harsh. Many here in the US thought that killing them was too harsh, but then turned around and engaged in antisemitism of a lesser nature all the same.

  • Mikazaru

    Adam, as an Irish person I just want to thank you for bringing this to light, and like so many other bloggers caring so much about a problem that is far from their country of concern. The calls for investigation close to home may not have gathered the necessary momentum if it were not for the international pressure.

    It’s sickening what apologists have twisted this story into, especially on Patheos Catholic, scouring the web for whatever factoids and postulations that reinforce their view, and rubbishing anything not rubber-stamped by a court or government report as “anti-Catholic hearsay”. I’ve already heard from them that the Magdalene scandals were overblown, I doubt any of them would have the courage to say that to an actual victim.

    The Irish people and government have to their credit admitted fault, and anger seems to be as much with them as with the church although we’re careful not to lose track of the main culprit. They’re the only ones circling the wagons in a pitiful attempt to maintain an image that they lost long ago. If anyone is still reading this I would encourage you to go over to Patheos Catholic (they seem to congregate on Pia de Solenni, the main apologist) and give them a piece of your mind and a dose of actual facts, they’re rewriting history over there, and as with most religious communities, I’m afraid that left unchecked too many people will believe them.

  • Pofarmer

    Ya know what, Fuck YOU. It’s the Catholic fucked up Godamned doctrine that these women and children are tainted in the first place that causes this horrific fucking treatment and and Horrid conditions. It’s not the people, it’s the doctrine. The Church itself is the root of it, and I sincerely wish it and all it’s dogma and doctrine and failed moral preening would quickly go the way of the Dodo.

  • Mickey

    “That’s the root of all this evil.”
    Ah, no, religion is the root of all evil.
    (I’m not singling one in particular, ALL religion)


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