In Irish children’s deaths, clarity doesn’t thrive in a septic tank

The accounts of cruelty, neglect and other abuse of children under Catholic Church care in Ireland cannot and must not be ignored. But in their tales about babies buried in septic tanks and such, news media need to be scrupulous with facts and clarity.

A case in point: two articles on St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway, both from The New York Times.

In his June 4 article, writer Douglas Dalby mentioned “allegations that a Roman Catholic religious order secretly buried up to 796 babies and toddlers born to unmarried mothers in a septic tank over several decades.”

By this past Monday, he backpedaled a bit. He said his main source, historian Catherine Corless, based part of her allegation on a 48-year-old man who said he’d seen a hole filled with 15-20 small skeletons — back when he was 10:

Where and how the bodies of the children were actually disposed of remains a mystery — and a scandal in tiny Tuam, population 8,200, that has for the moment revealed more about the ways local lore and small-town sleuthing can be distorted in the news media juggernaut than about what actually went on decades ago at the state-funded home for unmarried pregnant women run by the Bon Secours Sisters, a Roman Catholic order.

“News media juggernaut” is not too strong a term for what happened in the mainstream press. Our friend and ally Rod Dreher found a clutch of mainstream media outlets — from The Guardian to the Washington Post to Al-Jazeera — alleging that a full 800 children’s corpses were dumped in a scandalous mass grave.

You can see quite a lot of that on YouTube as well, with titles like “Bodies of 800 Babies Found in Septic Tank in Ireland” and, of course, “Another Atrocity from the Catholic Church.”

Who says these media reports are wrong, simplistic or radically blown out of proportion? For one, Corless herself:

“I never used that word ‘dumped’,” Catherine Corless, a local historian in Co Galway, tells The Irish Times. “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.”

What did she say, then? That perhaps 796 children affiliated with the children’s home in Tuam died between 1925 and 1961 — mainly of tragically childhood (especially in an era of crushing poverty in Ireland) diseases such as measles, whooping cough, bronchitis, influenza and tuberculosis — and that they weren’t buried in local cemeteries. She concluded that many of them were in an “unofficial graveyard at the rear of the former home,” the Irish Times reports. How many? We do not know. One thing is clear, however, death certificates were filed for these children, so we are not talking about secret deaths.

At least Dalby of the New York Times avoided blaming the Roman Catholic Church en Mass, as it were. The Associated Press wasn’t so scrupulous, as uber-GetReligionista tmatt said a week ago.

“In keeping with Catholic teaching,” AP said, “such out-of-wedlock children were denied baptism and, if they died at such facilities, Christian burial.” AP, however, didn’t try to trace such abusive attitudes to any particular church document, nor did it cite any church leader.

Why the j’accuse masking as coverage? I could guess at a few influences. There’s the natural antagonism of mainstream media toward institutional religion. There’s the influence of the 2013 movie Philomena, telling of the Catholic Church throwing a pregnant teen in a convent, then wresting her child away.

And there’s been a string of reports and studies on actual scandals in the Irish church. Dreher mentions the so-called Ryan Report, which details “chronic beatings, rape and humiliation” in Catholic-run industrial schools and orphanages. As Dalby reports, no less a church figure than Archbishop Diamuid Martin of Dublin has called for an investigation in Tuam, even for digging up likely sites of children’s remains.

That and more must be done to protect Irish children, prevent further abuses, and purge abusers from Catholic ranks. Other things should be done less: sensationalism, speculation and guilt by association. As abuses in Ireland are unearthed, shoddy, inaccurate and simplistic reporting should be buried.

To read a rather vicious takedown on the mainstream coverage — yet one that includes some crucial facts and corrections — check out this Sp!ked essay from the other side of the pond. Hold on:

The media got a whiff of Corless’s findings and turned them into the stuff of nightmares. ‘Bodies of 800 babies, long-dead, found in septic tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers’, declared the Washington Post. ‘800 skeletons of babies found inside tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers’, said the New York Daily News. ‘Galway historian finds 800 babies in septic tank grave’, said the Boston Globe. ‘The bodies of 800 babies were found in the septic tank of a former home for unwed mothers in Ireland’, cried Buzzfeed. Commentators angrily demanded answers from the Catholic Church. ‘Tell us the truth about the children dumped in Galway’s mass graves’, said a writer for the Guardian, telling no-doubt outraged readers that ‘the bodies of 796 children… have been found in a disused sewage tank in Tuam, County Galway’. The blogosphere and Twitter hordes went even further than the mainstream media, with whispers about the 800 babies having been murdered by the nuns and demands for the UN to investigate ‘crimes against humanity’ in Tuam.

On almost every level, the news reports in respectable media outlets around the world were plain wrong. Most importantly, the constantly repeated line about the bodies of 800 babies having been found was pure mythmaking. The bodies of 800 babies had not been found, in the septic tank or anywhere else. Rather, Corless had speculated in her research that the 796 children who died at the home had been buried in unmarked plots (common practice for illegitimate children in Ireland in the early to mid-twentieth century) and that some might have been put in the tank in which two boys in 1975 saw human remains. The septic tank or the grounds of the former home have not been excavated. No babies have been ‘found in a septic tank’, as the Washington Post, Guardian and others claimed. The claim that the babies were ‘dumped’ into some kind of sewage system is wrong, too. Corless says the nuns ‘made a crypt out of the old septic tank’. She now says her research has been ‘widely misrepresented’ and that she ‘never used the word “dumped”’ to describe the possible placing of some dead children into a makeshift crypt (‘possible’ being the operative word).

More to the point, it’s actually not possible that all 800 dead babies are in this tank-cum-crypt, as pretty much every media outlet has claimed. Mainly because, as the Irish Times reports, the septic tank was still in use up to 1937, 12 years after the home opened, during which time 204 of the 796 deaths occurred – and ‘it seems impossible’, the paper says, ‘that more than 200 bodies could have been put in a working sewage tank’.

Strong opinions here, yes. But this is what you would expect from a hit piece that is critiquing hit pieces.

(VIDEO: One of many sensationalistic clips on YouTube about the children alleged to be buried in Tuam, Ireland.)

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About Jim Davis
  • fredx2

    I guess hats off to the New York Times for once. At least they seem to have realized that these were “allegations” and not proven facts. Most of the other news outlets said that 800 babies FOUND in a mass grave” or something similar.

    But seriously. Imagine you are a journalist, and that someone comes to you with a sensational story about 800 kids chucked into a septic tank. You ask her how she knows. She says “I found 800 death certificates issued for children at the home”. You say “OK, how do you know they were buried in this tiny plot, in a septic tank”. She says “I don’t know. I am assuming they were, because I did not find any records of their burial in the regular town graveyard”

    Wouldn’t this raise numerous red flags for any serious journalist? For an editor? “You mean you don’t really know where they were buried? You are assuming?
    Yet they ran with the story, and not only did they run with it, they presented it as “800 babies FOUND in a mass grave”
    It seems a violation of journalism 101.

    And not only did the media run this story when it should not have been run, the Independent of England called for “Vengeance” against the nuns.

  • fredx2

    Here are some statistics about orphanages in general. I think this information breaks the attempt to link any maltreatment specifically with the Catholic church. Any orphanage in any backward country is an awful place to be:

    All of the followings stats refer to today’s situation, worldwide:
    “According to data released in 2003 as many as eight million boys and girls around the world live in institutional care. Some studies have found that violence in residential institutions is six times higher than violence in foster care, and that children in group care are almost four times more likely to experience sexual abuse than children in family based care.

    “Studies have shown that 10% – 15% of these children commit suicide before they reach age eighteen

    These studies also show that 60% of the girls become prostitutes and 70% of the boys become hardened criminals”

    An article in the Washington Post (“The Orphan Train”) outlines life for an American child of unwed parents in the 1920′s:

    “During those years, orphanages were few in number, often grossly overcrowded. Children typically received minimal food, education and attention. Many an American child would have recognized themselves in grim poorhouse portraits drawn by author Charles Dickens. .”

    “As an adult, Winefred Lorraine Williams learned that she was placed in a New York City orphanage soon after her birth in 1922 because her unmarried mother feared the wrath of her prominent family if they discovered that she had a baby.

    Williams still remembers the stern caretakers at the orphanage, her thin clothes and constant hunger. Then a train ride changed her life.

    In 1926, Williams and 13 other orphans were scrubbed, dressed in new clothes and put aboard a westbound train at Grand Central Station. The children were not told where they were going or why. They had no idea that they were on an ”orphan train” or that they had become participants in the largest children’s migration in history”

    And this was in a first world country.

    From a book on Orphanages in the early 20th century – again, this is in the United States:; This article is from the Johns Hopkins Magazine.

    http://pages.jh.edu/~jhumag/496web/orphange.html

    “Conditions varied, but tended not to be good. Many orphanages were highly regimented, especially early in the century. Children marched to meals, which they ate in silence. They wore uniforms and sometimes had their heads shaved. Corporal punishment was common, with inmates routinely beaten across the hands with leather straps. The diet tended to be poor. Says Crenson, “Inmates, as adults, recalled that they were hungry all the time.” He found accounts of the kids in a Cleveland orphanage breaking out to raid a nearby bakery; he came across another story about Jewish kids saying kaddish for their orphanage’s wretched cook–in the hope that she would die.

    Orphanages often were dangerous. The mortality rate was not much better than on the streets. Older, bigger, tougher kids preyed mercilessly on younger, smaller inmates. Says Crenson, “As hard as it was to leave kids at the mercy of some adults, it was much worse to leave them at the mercy of 100 kids. Living in an orphanage meant either being a predator or a victim.” He found accounts of older boys sodomizing younger ones. There were institutions that were well-run by compassionate people, but in general an inmate’s life was a tough one.”

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    It’s a great story – for a particular angle of coverage (for example, you mention the film “Philomena” and the journalist involved in that, Martin Sixsmith, is penning a few sensationalist stories on this topic as well) or just from the point of “attention-grabbling headline needed to sell papers”.

    I’m not surprised it’s gone global, so to speak. I would be very surprised if many of the organs of opinion being shocked and horrified ran any stories on comparable homes during the same time span in their own countries – just for purposes of comparison.

    You all heard about the tragic story of Savita Halappanavar because that was a great story for the angle of “If only repressed priest-ridden Catholic Ireland permitted abortion like a modern country, this death would have been avoided!”

    How many of you read about the maternity services at the Midland Regional Hospital in Portlaoise? The recent report released on foot of the deaths of four babies there over a six-year period? Of course, there was nothing related to abortion involved there, so obviously that made it a story without interest outside of Ireland!

    I’m not denying there were terrible attitudes and terrible privations in the Ireland of the past, nor the strong Jansenist strain in Irish Catholicism. But I am fed-up of the ‘movie of the week’ versions of recent Irish history, never mind that the attitudes to pregnant unmarried women haven’t changed all that much in society in general: I’ve heard a lot of talk about “forced adoptions” where the women in these homes were persuaded or even coerced into giving up their children for adoption, but I’ve heard nobody complaining about – including many of the same organisations that supported it – the provision in the Children’s Referendum of 2012 that:

    “Provision shall be made by law for the adoption of any child where the parents have failed for such a period of time as may be prescribed by law in their duty towards the child and where the best interests of the child so require.”
    In other words, children taken into care or placed in foster care may be adopted without the consent of the parents where the State judges the parents have “failed in their duty”. Organisations such as the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which are now welcoming the setting up of an enquiry into these mother-and-baby homes, including “illegal” adoptions (that is, where society in the persons of the forces of the State and the Church thought it was for the good of the child to put it up for adoption regardless of the wishes of the mother or without her consent) were part of the coalition of groups pushing for a “yes” vote in the 2012 referendum – the same referendum where, if society in the person of the forces of the State, thinks it’s for the good of the child, they can be put up for adoption regardless of the wishes of the parents.

    The more things change, the more they stay the same!

  • boinkie

    The UK has a strong libel law. Does Ireland also have one?

    • Almario Javier

      If a UK paper published such an article, even if the accused is not a UK resident, IIRC one can bring suit for libel.

  • Robert Hyde

    The AP story mentioned above was also so negligently wrong as to be malicious. Illegitimate children are not and were never denied Baptism in the Catholic Church, on the contrary, baptizing infants and soon as possible was a great concern of Catholic parents, clergy and sisters in the era of this mothers’ home. It is true that stillborn children were and are not baptized and in that era would have been buried in unconsecrated ground, now stillborn or unbaptized deceased children may be buried in Catholic cemeteries.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    The worst offender for this was The Washington Times with its headline, “Catholic Church tossed 800 Irish orphans into septic tank grave” http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/jun/3/mass-grave-800-children-found-near-irish-home-unwe/ *head-desk* *head-desk* *head-desk* I called them out on it, but they never changed it. Oh well.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Here’s an interesting question — when are we going to see the corrections rocket around the world the way we did the originally wrong story? I know, I know — interesting to speculate on that, but hell will have frozen over by the time that happens.

    • http://a-star-of-hope.blogspot.com/ JoAnna Wahlund

      I wonder when all of the outraged commenters from GR’s previous post about this story, who attacked the Catholic Church in general and other commenters in particular who wondered about the veracity of this tale, will come back to apologize. Not holding my breath on that, either.

      • Jane Dunn

        I wonder when Mattingly is going to quote the parts of Corless’s response that don’t line up with the Catholic Church as victim story. I also wonder when Mattingly or any of the Catholic Church as victim sympathizes are going to acknowledge that Ruthie Gledhill, touted at the GR blog as one of the best religion writer currently writing, and writing at the a Religious News Service, reported that the Catholic Church at that time/place did not baptize ill illegitimate children. That would interfere with the vast left wing conspiracy theory. I’m not holding my breath on any of this either.

        And the “everyone else was just as bad so move along there’s nothing to see here” attitude doesn’t make whatever happened in Tuam any better. It only makes the proponents of such an outlook appear heartless.

        • http://a-star-of-hope.blogspot.com/ JoAnna Wahlund

          Ah, so no apology from you. Gotcha. I also don’t see a “everyone was just as bad so move along” attitude” — I see a “infant/child mortality back then was astoundingly high so it’s not surprising that so many children died” attitude. Are you blaming the Church for not having access to 21st century medicine in the early 20th century now?

        • http://a-star-of-hope.blogspot.com/ JoAnna Wahlund

          As for Gledhill, she’s flat-out wrong. I don’t know what source she is using but the Catholic Church as never, as doctrine, taught that illegitimate children could not be baptized. Did individual priests defy Church teaching and refuse to do so? Probably. Priests are sinners too. But it is absolutely wrong to say that “the Catholic Church” did not baptize ill or illegitimate children (at any time/place) because that is patently false.

          Edit: So I went back to reread the article you posted at the previous article: http://www.religionnews.com/2014/06/06/irish-archbishop-adds-voice-calling-investigation-septic-tank-burials/

          Ruthie Gledhill never says that the Catholic Church refused to baptize illegitimate children. In fact, the words “illegitimate,” “baptized,” and “baptism” don’t appear in the article at all. So why do you say that Gledhill made these claims when she did not? Are you referencing a different article of hers?

        • http://a-star-of-hope.blogspot.com/ JoAnna Wahlund

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