Truth Sifting to the Top 2: AP Retracts False Accusations Made in Babies Buried in Septic Tank Story

Truth Sifting to the Top 2: AP Retracts False Accusations Made in Babies Buried in Septic Tank Story June 21, 2014


I’m writing back to back truth-sifting-to-the-top posts today.

It happens that way sometimes. The truth, after a loud cacophony of untruths, will suddenly start sifting to the top all at once.

It seems that the story of Irish nuns having dumped 700 baby bodies into a septic tank is just that: A story. Or rather, a hoax. Or, to put it bluntly the invention of an anti-Catholic press looking for anything at all to be turned into another scandalizing story about the Church.

Father James Martin, SJ, who is an editor at large at America magazine, pinged the Associated Press in public about their inaccurate reporting of the Septic Tank Story. The AP responded by printing a retraction.

The one time I asked for a retraction from a publication because of a story about me, the story was serious lawsuit bait. They printed a left-foot-of-honesty retraction kind of like this one. Instead of just saying “we got it wrong folks,” they spent most of the ink saying that I hadn’t been available when they tried to contact me to verify.

I should have demanded at least one other retraction, for the same reason, (lawsuit bait) but didn’t. I kind of regret that now. However, I’m sure their retraction would have been as murky as the one I got the first time. After being attacked like this for years, I’m slower than most to believe these too-bad-to-be-true exposes.

Since it wouldn’t be possible for either the dead nuns or the dead babies to sue, my hat is off to the Associated Press for giving it up and doing a retraction. I am also grateful to Father Martin for pushing them to do it. America Magazine has the clout to force the issue, something that not everyone does.

I want to ask Public Catholic readers to stop and consider all this in light of themselves and their reactions. The babies buried in the septic tank story sounded bogus from day one. It was implausible on its face. I wrote about this and then commented on it in the com boxes. The response was that a few commenters chimed in with reality-stretching explanations as to why the story could have been true, despite the impracticality of stuffing 700 bodies into a septic tank.

I think those people wanted to believe the story, for their own reasons.

On the other hand, a lot of good people got drug off the road by this story. I imagine there were heartsick Catholics all over the world going, “not again,” when they read this thing. I’m guessing that a lot of them got down at heart over it, and maybe even a few of them wondered if they would still follow the Church.

That was the agenda behind this story. The reason for jumping on this odd assortment of random facts and stringing them together into accusations of 700 baby bodies thrown into a septic tank by nuns who operated a Catholic orphanage was … well … to damage the Church and to destroy your faith.

I had no hard proof the story was bogus.

But my knowledge gained from having lived in a household that used a septic tank,

plus my understanding of the space requirement for 700 bodies,

plus my knowledge of the Church’s teachings about respect for human remains,

plus my understanding of the kind of people I know nuns to be,

plus my understanding of how lousy the popular press is with anti-Catholicism

led me inexorably to the conclusion that the story, minus some real proof, was, to put it bluntly, almost certainly a dead, flat lie.

However, I didn’t jump out there and say this is a lie. What I did was counsel you to wait and see how it all turned out; to let the truth sift itself to the top.

I’m going back over this now to caution readers, once again, about the popular media. You can’t believe them. They deliberately use stories that get you worked up and hook you into obsessive viewing throughout their 24-hour news cycle.

More to the point, much of the popular media is rabidly anti-Catholic. I look at a lot of news stories about religion, and I can tell you that I see story after story, trashing the Catholic Church, Christians and Christianity. The rare balanced — not favorable, but balanced — story stands out like a flashing light.

Most of what the media is saying about the Church is carefully selected and edited to put the Church in the worst possible light. I think the reason for this is that the Church has taken courageous stands on social issues that go against the media zeitgeist.

In this atmosphere, my advice to let the truth sift itself to the top is doubly important. Do not allow yourself to be yanked around emotionally by these stories. Do not bite down on the the totally untrue implication that you have to decide who is right or wrong and what should happen to them.

There are plenty of things in your life that you need to decide, and plenty of things you need to be concerned about. But these endless cycles of outrageous and manufactured stories are not among them.

When it comes to negative reporting about our Church, get out your salt. Take every negative story published about the Church that does not have substantial objective facts that you can look at yourself to back it up with as much salt as you can load in your wagon and wheel in.

Here, courtesy of America, the National Catholic Review, is the left-footed retraction from the Associated Press. Notice it falls over itself with one thing that has been lacking in the reporting of this story: Specificity. The retracting is limited to specific facts the AP got so wrong there is no denying it. Even then, they toss in the idiot jibe that “that may have occurred” regarding refusal of baptism. No proof, no fact; just speculation to gloss their mistake.

Ireland-Children’s Mass Graves story

DUBLIN (AP) — 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

For more details, check out Kathy Schiffer’s great post on this topic. 

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment

36 responses to “Truth Sifting to the Top 2: AP Retracts False Accusations Made in Babies Buried in Septic Tank Story”

  1. It did seem a little hard to believe— and am glad the paper finally decided to correct the misinformation. The unfortunate thing about it is there will still be folks who will believe it no matter the retraction.

  2. All true what you say. But it’s also true that the responsibility for the easy ‘believability’ of such outrages rests squarely on the doorstep of Catholic clergy and bishops. The harm the child abuse cover-ups have done to the Church and it’s faithful are almost incalcuable.

  3. Wouldn’t this comment line up with blaming the victim? Maybe if the church did not teach care for the orphan then this would have not happened either. But, I guess the nuns are going to pay the penalty for doing the right thing in trying.
    I for one was hoping for society to look at other institutions and really get serious about child abuse. It seems like the only victims that anyone cases about are clergy victims. I for one find that to be infuriating.

  4. To believe this story you had to believe that nuns hated women who had babies outside marriage so much, and hated their babies so much, that they would disregard all Catholic beliefs regarding the rituals surrounding death and burial and throw the bodies of the children into sewage. I doubt there is any other group of people the media would dare portray as being so deranged and hateful. Sadly being Catholic is 90% of the proof that they need.

    The issue of how illegitimacy was dealt with in Ireland(and elsewhere) in the early half of the last century is also used to attack the Church. As Catholics we have to acknowledge that the social stigma attached to legitimacy not only hurt women but also hurt their children. The infant mortality rates were several times higher than the general population. Much of the explanation for this is the practice of putting women into ‘Mother and Baby Homes’ that were old and totally unsuited to look after so many children. In an age before antibiotics and vaccinations disease would spread through the home quickly killing many of the unfortunate children.

    There is no reason to suggest that the nuns willfully neglected these children. They took in women who society had rejected. It is also worth noting that the rejection was not just related to Catholic views of morality, many of these views were formed in the previous century when the ruling British Victorians(Protestant) and continued on in Ireland after independence. In fact the Protestant run Bethany Home also had very high rates of infant mortality but for whatever reason the media and government do not portray the people who ran the home as cruel.

    Today we forget that Ireland was a terribly poor country at the time. People developed such harsh views of women would had children outside of marriage not just for moral reasons but also because they knew that if illegitimacy became more common there was no way that society could protect women who had been abandoned by the fathers of their children. As Ireland became more prosperous attitudes changed(as they changed in the many other countries who held similar attitudes).

    We can only hope that the propose inquiry will honestly look at all the issues involved.

  5. What? That’s unfair. No clergy has ever been accused of killing infants or children. The child abuse issue has nothing to do with this. If your criteria is the coverups, then why don’t you say that every single crime committed in the world potentially was committed by a priest. Totaly unfair.

  6. This proves that the media is predisposed to publish every bad rumor about Catholicism. The media are neither fair nor intelligent. They have a narrative in their minds and they go with whatever seems to support it.

  7. My first reaction to anything written in the secular media about anything Catholic is to not believe a word of what is written. So far, so good.

  8. And now on to the mass graves in Texas. It’s the fault of George Bush / Catholics / teachers / police officers…

  9. During the Solidarity period in Poland (1980-1981), demonstrators often carried placards that said, “The media lies”. This statement becomes valid again, this time in North America.

  10. Great article, it sets out the background, which is sorely needed.

    The investigation, so far, has been limited to the homes run by the Catholic church. Therefore, anything they find will be blamed on the church, rather than existing social or economic conditions.

    In order to have a valid investigation, they need to look at homes run by the government as well, and see if conditions were the same there or not.

    “Why did Minister for Children Charlie Flanagan not mention the county homes in his announcement of the commission of inquiry? Is it because they are so forgotten that no one informed him or his civil servants? Or was it because they were not run by religious orders? Is it is because of the anti-Catholic bias that seems to have clouded the minds of so many otherwise perceptive commentators in the media?”

    This is what is so funny – people are now discovering what people knew sixty years ago – that orphanages had a high rate of death – in the US, sometimes the rates rose to 90%. Reformers realized that clustering children together merely allowed diseases to spread unhindered,due to the close quarters. So now the papers are focusing on the fact that there were high levels of death, as if this is some sort of new revelation.

    That high rate of death in orphanages is the reason that reformers successfully replaced orphanages with foster care. Nowadays we have foster care, but no orphanages.

  11. I was one of those who said, Oh, not again. It doesn’t cause me to question the Church but it grieves me to think of those who do as a result of the ceaseless propaganda out there.

  12. Yes Rebecca, I agree with you one hundred percent. When you here anything that comes from the secular media about the Church or anything else you have to take it with a grain of salt. Too many Catholic sites fell for it hook line and sinker, They do not bother to act more prudently to see since the Irish Media is hostile to the Church. We really sadly in this day and age cannot believe anything or everything we here because it may NOT be true. Myself I have not trusted the secular media for over five years now they all have an agenda. I would honestly look to independent news sources, to make sure what may be reported even makes sense. Consider the source first and don’t automatically ASSUME its true just because its the AP.

  13. The press can afford to retract now because the lie is out there and people believe it. The retraction will not change that for most people. For years we will hear of 800 babies in Septic Tanks and like the Black Legend surrounding Pius XII all the explaining in the world will not change anything, people will only see clarifications as an attempt to justify or deny. The damage is done – the media are experts at this.

  14. That’s a pretty good one. And Brendan O’Neill is not actually a Catholic or indeed a close friend of the Catholic Church.

  15. I agreed, perhaps too quickly, I admit, because I do think that the sex abuse scandal has given believability to lies about the Church. I think it has damaged the Church and the prophetic voice of the bishops badly at a critical time in our history.

  16. Manny, I agree too. There are many people who feel that the Church can’t be trusted about anything because the sexual child abuse scandal was handled so badly. Lots of people are angry and hurt because of this. It is going to take generations to fix it.

  17. “I think the reason for this is that the Church has taken courageous stands on social issues that go against the media zeitgeist.”

    Probably. I think there is another reason too. Those who want the State to be supreme have hated the Church since the days of the Caesars. That preference is probably held today by those in the very tight nexus of political power and media oligopoly.

  18. I refused to read the story. Not that I wanted to ignore it but that has been my mode of operendi with any blaring headlines about the Church and/or our Holy Father written by the secular press..I wait for various trusted Catholic sources to get the truth.

  19. We have been lied about since the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, the lies believable or not, will come and people who want reasons to hate us will believe them. I think as Christians we need to have some better truth filters in place instead of accepting as truth the lies that are dished out about our history.

  20. The reputation of the clergy in Ireland is even more tarnished than here in the US. The Church is hated by a large number of former Catholics in what was once one of the the most Catholic countries in the world and it had much to do with clergy and sexual and physical abuse scandals in orphanages/schools. Feel free to ignore the obvious Manny simply because it make you uncomfortable and you think it unfair. It won’t change reality.

  21. I’m not uncomfortable. I can be fair and objective. The majority of people I know don’t go around blaming every thing on the Catholic Church. You personally have a distorted view of the Church if that’s what jumps to your mind when you see stories like that. That was a cheap shot.

  22. How many is lots of people? 2%? Maybe 5%? That’s not lots. The majority of people I know don’t go around blaming every thing on the Catholic Church. You personally have a distorted view of the Church if that’s what jumps to your mind when you see stories like that.

  23. I think you need to go back and re-read my original comment without the chip on your shoulder. I didn’t blame the Church. I said the fact that people are willing to believe the worst about the Church when stories like this come out is a direct result of the priest sex scandals/cover ups. If you deny that then you deny reality.

  24. When something is published in the newspapers there is an aura of credibility no matter what is said. Look at the Obama birth certificate crap from four years ago. Just because it was published in papers millions believed it and pushed it to way beyond when it was clear that he was born in the US. If your newspaper published an article that your neighbor killed someone in a car accident five years ago, the presumption is that it’s true, even if it’s wrong. If a newspaper publishes stories about the Catholic Church, people’s credibility has nothing to do with the child abuse scandals. One just assumed it is true because any crazy thing can be true and one presumes the news is credible. There is no link between the credibility of this story and the child abuse history. I am not denying reality. You are perverting reality.

  25. I have no idea what the percentage is. I’m not saying people’s reactions are right, I’m saying that there’s still a problem with credibility.

    Personally, I wondered why the septic system didn’t have problems a long time ago given what happens here if something is flushed that shouldn’t be. I’ll spare you the details!

    I found this article:

    “In an online survey of Catholics who left the church, 20 percent of respondents who said they were returning to the church listed anger at church leadership over the sexual abuse scandal as one reason for their departure. Among those who say they are not returning, 64 percent said anger over the scandal was a reason they left.”

    “In the 2011 study of 1,442 adult Catholics, 69 percent of respondents said the Catholic bishops have done a fair or poor job in handling accusations of sexual abuse by priests. More than four in five respondents said the issue has hurt church leaders’ political credibility, reported researchers D’Antonio, Mary Gautier of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate and Michele Dillon of the University of New Hampshire.”

  26. You took the words out of my mouth (or the keys from under my fingers). For the love of Heaven, people STILL think that Columbus’ opponents thought the world was flat!

  27. OK, but I bet they left for many reasons. They just picked this reason because it was easy to articulate and it was readily around. I bet they would have left the church anyway if there was no scandal. Yes there is blame to throw at the Church, but a small percentage of priests were the problem. I’ve never met a problem priest. Most of them work hard for very little personal gain. Actually none.

  28. The effects are still being felt in dioceses who did have problem priests. The scandal caused huge emotional and financial turmoil that exists to this day. Families and friends have been torn up because of the scandal.

    You are lucky if your diocese isn’t one that was involved. Ours has had to pay millions to the victims while we have bake sales to pay for roofs and furnaces.

    That it was a small percentage of problem priests doesn’t matter. The betrayal of all the people who moved the priests to other parishes is the issue. It is going to take time for the hurt to fade.

    I do think that the media uses the scandal to beat on the Church for any reason they can find.

  29. I don’t think you are wrong, Sus. I know there were some predatory priests, a fair number of priests who engaged in homosexual behavior with adolescent boys, and lots of cover ups. None of that should have happened and it is wrong and horrible.
    What I question, though, is the high dudgeon regarding the Church. The #1 most likely person to abuse, physically or sexually, a child is a live-in boyfriend, by multiple percentages. #2 is a stepfather. #3 is a public school teacher. No question about those statistics at all. They are iron-clad. I never hear anybody, not Oregon Nurse, not on the news or papers, nobody decry, point fingers, distrust or declaim that. If what we are concerned about is children and their safety, why not? Looks to me like the whole finger pointing is just to get the Church. What does it look like to you?
    Btw, this problem is getting worse with all the out of wedlock births, so we have a lot more child victims.

  30. You exaggerate (not on purpose, just your perception) the number of people personally effected by the child abuse scandal. People are leaving all religions. This became an excuse to leave the Catholic Church. Actually the Catholic Church has done well with fewer people leaving the church than other denominations. How many Lutherans are around? How many Episcopaleans? Even Baptists have seen huge losses. The priest scandal was a financial burden but the number of people who truely left for this sole reason are few. Peace to you. I’m not arguing. 🙂