A reader cries out

A reader cries out June 5, 2014

“What do we say about the 800 dead children buried in a septic tank in Tuam, Ireland–by nuns?

I think “Horrible and shameful” and “Kyrie Eleison” is a perfectly appropriate response. They were human beings and deserved Christian burial, not this.

As far as I can piece together from the story, it is an indictment of a culture and a time when a particular view of sexual purity was vastly more important than human life and dignity. The idea (behind the whole culture and with acquiescence and support from the Church) was to punish the “fallen woman” and then to leave the child in the “care” of nuns when mom finally left her indentured servitude to find some kind of life. I would be interested in hearing stories from children who survived the place on what that care consisted of. As to the children who died, it does not appear murder was involved (thanks be to God), and I don’t know what the childhood mortality was in the rest of Ireland at the time. It was a poor country with lousy healthcare under, recovering from being ground under the English boot, so a high infant mortality rate–and an even higher one for those at the bottom of the social ladder, would not surprise me a bit.

But everything you need to know about the attitude toward the dignity of those children (and the very high likelihood of neglect and abuse when they were alive) is told you by their burial place. One hopes they received the sacrament of baptism at least. And it is a credit to the Irish that when the grave was discovered, they treated it as a graveyard and gave them their dignity at long last.

But this is one more reason that the Irish Church is in dire trouble, and one more wound on the Body of Christ. Kyrie Eleison is the only reply to it, along with prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

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  • Rachel

    I think this is also a reminder that there was no “golden age” of Christian society. During the 19th/early 20th centuries, etc there was a veneer of “respectable” Christian piety that did, as you said, “when a particular view of sexual purity was vastly more important than human life and dignity.” As much as we lament how far south morality and purity has gone in the current day, it is honestly not much different from what happened decades, even centuries ago. What honestly matters is how we treat the person. There was a coldness and a severe lack of love in some respects during that time when Christian society was considered the respectable norm. No wonder we have lost much of that influence and why there are those who are scared of the influence gaining ground again. The immorality that goes on today is terrible but I think that these kind of historical reminders help to put it all into perspective. This is also why it is so important to know one’s history instead of believing that things were so much more rosy back then when they were not.

    • chezami

      Yeah. All of this happened during the Glorious Age of the Traditional Latin Mass. Not a cure all for the Church’s ills.

      • Chuck

        Taking a dig to troll a subset of your readers in order to drum up a reaction…living up to the internet blogger reputation…

        • anna lisa

          Don’t you think it’s a perfectly *telling* point? I had the same reaction when I discovered that there were *more* sexual crimes against children in my archdiocese *before* Vatican II, when people were supposedly better.

          • chuck

            I don’t think so. I’m not aware of a single trad who claims that no problems ever existed prior to Vatican II. I am, however, aware of several non-trads who like to give the impression that all trads hold such a view.

            • Matt Talbot

              Chuck – So, you would agree that returning to the Church culture that obtained before Vatican II would not be a good idea?

              • Frank Sales

                Andrew Sullivan uses this tragedy to assert yet again the evil that is the Church doctrine of no sex outside of marriage. His motto is not “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” but “come on Dad, give us a break”.

          • Morris

            Is there really an argument that “people were supposedly better” before Vatican II? It seems that the argument is often more like “The religious orders were rapidly evacuated and open dissent was widely promulgated by remaining religious (see Reaction to Humanae Vitae) at a time that coincided with the council and the changes to the liturgy. Coincidence?” One could advance the argument that “When an emphasis is placed/retained on holiness/piety/reverence it tends to ‘keep’ people ‘better’, just as when an emphasis placed on familiarity it tends to breed contempt’ (see stats on belief in the Real Presence, attendance at Mass, etc).

            • Matt Talbot

              When an emphasis is placed/retained on holiness/piety/reverence it tends to ‘keep’ people ‘better’

              Except that too often, the emphasis was overwhelmingly placed on obedience over all else.

              The cultural effect of Vatican II was that it basically ratified a change that had already taken place. The clericalism and rigid structure of the Church before the Council – and here I mean how it presented itself to the laity – was tooled for the medieval world where very few common people were educated and society was structured along feudal lines.

              The spread of literacy and universal education meant that rote instruction and “because I say so” was becoming transparently inadequate as a response to disagreement.

              • petey

                “The cultural effect of Vatican II was that it basically ratified a change that had already taken place.”

                this is an important point and one not emphasized often enough.

              • LFM

                “The clericalism and rigid structure of the Church before the Council – and here I mean how it presented itself to the laity – was tooled for the medieval world where very few common people were educated and society was structured along feudal lines.”

                This is a common misunderstanding of Catholic history. In fact, the ‘pre-Vatican II’ Church of the 19th and early 20th centuries was the result of two related events: the rise of Protestantism, leading to the Council of Trent (1547-63), which was an attempt to contain the damage done, and the rise of the nation-state, often deeply hostile to the Church and determined to suppress or control Catholicism for its own benefit.

                The medieval Church was, in fact, a far less ‘clericalist’ and rigidly structured institution than the post-Tridentine Church. Saints were made by acclaim, not papal fiat; priests were thin on the ground in rural areas, so monasteries did much of the work of upholding the faith; frequent communion was not encouraged and confessing sins was something that even the most pious lay people only did once a year, if there was a priest available.

                At the Council of Trent the Church attempted to introduce changes to these practices, having been rebuked by the Protestants for excessive laxity and worldliness. But change was a long time coming, and the hostility of the new nation-states made it even harder to achieve. Successive kings of France flatly refused to ratify the Council’s decrees.

                • Matt Talbot

                  Point taken, LFM – I mixed several historical factors together in my reply.

                • Thanks, LFM. Very neat summary. The papal canonization procedure began long before Trent though. It first existed in the 11th century, and was made mandatory in the 13th.

                  The immediate pre-conciliar rigidity and clericalism had a variety of causes; one important one was the aftermath of the Modernist controversy in the early 20th century, and the draconian reaction to these theological vagaries on the part of the Vatican, by Pope Pius X around 1909-12. The was actually quite an overreaction by clerical watchdogs. Huge numbers of quite innocent people were accused of heresy and some priests unjustly banished from their dioceses, even in later decades. Pope John XXIII, a young priest in Italy at the time, even fell under suspicion. This was immensely important, especially in Italy. As a result there was an insistence on conformity everywhere as a safeguard. There was huge suspicion still at the time of the Council.

                  Some people are unfortunately still on this kick. Pope John is still a Modernist to many people, just because he was once accused of it. Don’t bet on the fact that he’s now declared a saint to put it to rest.

                  At any rate, a good many people don’t properly understand this history.

                  • LFM

                    Sorry – I didn’t check the date of the introduction of mandatory papal canonization. Thanks for the correction and for your discussion of the Modernist controversies. I do not know the period well but do know that many not obviously ‘Modernist’ theologians fell under suspicion then and in some cases their reputations have yet to recover. I would still maintain, though, that it was the rise of the nation-state and its hostility to the Church that led to the Church’s hostility to Modernism in theology and indeed to every manifestation of modernism in public life.

                    • I’d agree. History is really complicated.

      • freddy

        Wow. Snark and pettiness in two short sentences. But you can’t fool me, Mark: I’m on to you! Your pithy comment above obviously has a deep meaning and is meant to undercut the traditional atheist reply of “See, Catholics stink and do ugly things, so religion is a sham and God doesn’t exist” Also to undercut contemporary thought that we moderns are the pinnacle of creation and our ancestors are to be pitied and despised. The result is a beautiful reflection on our brokenness, our oneness with the past, our hope in building Christ’s Kingdom, our love for all His people, and our need for continued healing and forgiveness. Thank you and God bless you!

  • Andy, Bad Person

    My wife and I just saw “Philomena” last week (which is based on a true story). This is scarily in the same vein. Hopefully it carries the same ending of forgiveness.

  • fondatorey

    What we should say is: how about some facts to back up the speculation.

    The headline to me sounds like the story is that nuns were flushing dead babies down the toilet – infanticide? – anyway a horror. The actual facts of the story (that we know right now) are that a local historian in Ireland speculates that a large number of dead children may have been improperly buried in what is a known graveyard (based on some paperwork and an account of kids playing where the burial happened and stumbling on a bunch of bones). She may be correct, and there may be a lot of dead children who suffered abuse and died as a result and were then callously disposed of but there is no actual evidence of this. Asking for evidence to prove serious accusations and withholding judgement is proof that you are covering something though, so we can’t do that.

    • OldWorldSwine

      What in God’s name would you consider “evidence”?!

      • Dennis Mahon

        Well, we could start be determining *how many* children are actually buried there – no one has actually opened the water tank & counted how many there are, and in what condition they were interred in.

        And it’s not a “septic” tank – septic tanks weren’t introduced to Ireland until the 1950’s, and the majority of deaths occurred in 1946.

        • OldWorldSwine

          Great. That’s just how I’ll respond to all my horrified non-Catholic friends; “Well, it wasn’t really a septic tank, and there might well be less than 800 bodies there…”

          • jaybird1951

            You could respond to them that the facts are still very unclear. What everyone thought they knew about the Magdalene homes and the nuns was disproved by an Irish government report. That is reason enough to withhold judgment until more information is available. Can your non-Catholic friends at least understand that?

            • Matt Talbot

              What everyone thought they knew about the Magdalene homes and the nuns was disproved by an Irish government report.

              Actually, the report detailed the horrors endured by children (and inflicted by nuns) there. I wrote about it here:

              http://vox-nova.com/2009/09/06/sins-that-cry-out-to-god/

          • Dennis Mahon

            ….Or you could remind them that the MSM is horrendously biased against the Catholic Church, and we should take what they say with a large dose of salt.

          • Rebecca Fuentes

            The buildings used by the nuns caring for the mothers and children were used as a workhouse for famine victims (not run by nuns). There seems to be some questions as to whether the bones came from the time when the nuns used the buildings or before, from the time of the workhouse.
            So, we wait for the facts.

      • fondatorey

        Have you read the story? The headlines do not follow from the known facts, they are a confident assertion of speculation as truth.

        • OldWorldSwine

          After looking at some other sources, I am pulling back cautiously to wait for more information. You may be right, and I may have been a bit rash. The general treatment of the mothers and orphans, though, is pretty undeniable, and bad enough. We’ll have to see how the “mass grave” story plays out, however.

      • Elizabeth K.

        Wouldn’t *bodies* be a good start?

  • Michaelus

    The evidence is the rumor that some boys said saw a pile of bones under a broken piece of concrete somewhere near this place in the 1970’s. That is it (well – a local woman did some research and she cannot find burial records matching 796 death records – is that evidence?). This is a pure hysteria. We bury thousands of poor orphans every year in the USA without headstones or a week of requiem masses.

  • wlinden
  • anna lisa

    I wonder why the Irish are particularly Puritanical…?
    I also saw Philomena, saw The Magdalene Laundries, years ago, and was disgusted. The fact that Philomena could forgive is a good indication that she found some goodness and love in an otherwise misguided place. There must have been saintly women there, transmitting the love of Christ, despite the devilish ones. I *highly* recommend the film “Ida”. The message goes beyond just forgivness. It left me more moved than any movie that I’ve seen in years.

    As for the way the bodies were buried, I’m disgusted, but I also don’t understand the idea of European charnal houses either. It is interesting that someone just pointed out that septic tanks didn’t exist in the 40s…? –And I’m sad to say that only two of my babies of the eight I’ve lost had Catholic burials, (yes, some were lost to the sewer system, and one to a hospital incinerator despite my best efforts to avoid this.) I know that the two that were buried with a separate burial spot and a priest presiding are not more loved, by God or me.
    We are not made for this world.

    • OldWorldSwine

      The Magdalene Laundries story was definitively shown to be a fraud, though I know not nearly as many people know that as have heard the original sensational story. It was debunked by an Irish government panel assigned to investigate. It just never happened, and that’s now an established fact. But as they say, “A lie can run around the world before the truth can get its boots on”.

      That being said, the treatment of the mothers and orphans in this case seems pretty well established.

    • Dennis Mahon

      Irish priests and nuns were often trained in France, and were heavily influenced by Jansenism.

  • LFM

    Having spent many years as an archival researcher into abuse in Church-run institutions, both Protestant and Catholic, I’ve learned that all official reports on such scandals should be read with caution and a degree of skepticism. In them, the experience of the few is extrapolated as the experience of many; the most extreme abuses are highlighted as if characteristic; and the fact that there are at least some ‘survivors’ who had good memories of their church-run schools or orphanages gets left out of any official documentation of these tragedies.

    Moreover, there is often lawsuit money involved, which encourages alleged victims to lie (especially as payments quite logically depend on the duration and severity of the abuse suffered), while governments, having reached a settlement with the courts, do not want to risk allowing official reports to paint a balanced picture of, let’s say, church-run orphanages, for fear of offending the victims and provoking further lawsuits. In any case, even when governments accept legal responsibility for church-run institutions, they have no stake in their moral reputations. [Edited by writer for clarity, 2:31 EST]

  • Fr. Denis Lemieux

    My response was to offer a Mass for the children buried there.

  • petey

    i was well into adulthood before i discovered that there were seven siblings in my father’s (Co. Clare) family, not six. the oldest disappeared from the census about the age of 20. she’d had a pregnancy, and away she went, with child. so i have/had a first cousin in the world somewhere whom i’ll never know.

  • Cypressclimber

    While I don’t think we should flinch from facing facts, I do insist on getting the facts; and there has been more than enough dishonest distortion of the facts, when it comes to how religious institutions such as this have been depicted, that I’m going to hold off.

    As someone else noted, the “Magdalene Sisters” story has been seriously challenged; so was the “Philomena” movie. And it’s not as though there isn’t a long, well documented history of wild claims by anti-Catholics.

    • Benjamin2.0

      Another approach is to simply grant all the premises and show that they don’t reach the intended conclusion.

      “Catholicism is false because Catholic orphanages in early 20th century Ireland had 100% mortality rates, and the people running them were axe-murdering cannibals? How does that refute any truth claim other than ‘Catholic orphanages in early 20th century Ireland were swell places to live’? That’s not exactly one of our more essential dogmas.”

      • I think it’s supposed to be one more piece of evidence for an inductive argument that Christianity is inhumane.

        • Benjamin2.0

          ‘Inductive argument,’ or ‘fallacy of composition with far too small a scope to even make that cut’? I swear, this stuff could only convince a moron. Far too many people find it convincing. Therefore, the world contains far too many morons.

          A bad syllogism, more than we can expect from our drug-addled foes. I sometimes wonder if the results of our social deconstruction will look, through squinted eyes, like a zombie apocalypse.

  • Alma Peregrina

    “As to the children who died, it does not appear murder was involved (thanks be to God), and I don’t know what the childhood mortality was in the rest of Ireland at the time. It was a poor country with lousy healthcare under, recovering from being ground under the English boot, so a high infant mortality rate–and an even higher one for those at the bottom of the social ladder, would not surprise me a bit.”

    Also, we must remember that those were children’s institutions, and had a high mortality rate per se.

    Even today, children daycares, with all their high standards, are dens of infections. Readers with little children will know how common it is for children (and even parents) to get sick with something they got in daycare.

    Orphanages and institutions had all that, AND children actually lived there, all cramped up AND in a cultural environment that didn’t prize hygiene AND when no antibiotics were known.

    From what I researched, I wouldn’t want to be an orphan before the 1980’s. In any institution whatsoever.

  • elizacoop

    The dead have been housed in all sorts of ways over the centuries. Is there evidence that these children were disposed of with no reverence whatsoever? Imagine the conditions of WW2 Ireland. The famine had put the fear of extra mouths to feed into everyone who remembered it or heard the stories. The austerities that the English and Scots suffered during WW2 were just everyday life in Ireland. Maybe we could hold some compassion for the desperation of the Irish people of the time and gratitude for the efforts – even if they were imperfect and inadequate- of those sisters. I’m not RC, but I see the way the RC is bashed in the press and the rush to judgement from every single such story. Truth is usually more complicated.