Mother and baby homes: Report is a study in amnesia

There is much talk now of the moral compass, which is simply a novel description of whatever it is in our hearts and minds that enables us to distinguish right from wrong, and act accordingly. It is not, in any sense whatsoever, a criticism of the Commission of Investigation into mother and baby homes — whose fifth interim report was published yesterday — that it is no nearer finding out what was going on in the hearts and minds of the people who were responsible for the lives of children committed to their care at Tuam, Bessborough, and elsewhere than it was when the commission began its gruesome work in 2015.

Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone all but accepts this when she says that while the commission’s report is a “significant piece of work” on burial arrangements (such as they were) at these Christian institutions.

Nevertheless, it leaves many questions unanswered. Perhaps we will have to accept that some answers will, like the bodies thrown in underground chambers and unmarked graves, remain lost — along with verifiable written records and, crucially, memories.

The commission’s latest report is a study in amnesia. Galway County Council members and staff, it argues reasonably, “must have known something” about burials in Tuam between 1925 and 1961, since its Board of Health and its sub-committees held their meetings in the home, where repair work was done by council employees. Who, then, has information — written records or just fragments of memories — that could help the commission? No hands have gone up.

The Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary simply do not know where the hundreds of children who died in Bessborough, or in hospital after transfer from that home, are buried. The Order’s affidavit on burials, says the commission, is in many respects “speculative, inaccurate and misleading”. So, no help there then.

The commission knows about a nun who was at Bessborough for most of the half-century between 1948 and 1998. Could she help? No, she had no memories or knowledge of child deaths, certainly not of the 31 children who died there between 1950 and 1960. Another member of that congregation remembers only one death during her time there.

There has been the suggestion that many hundreds of children were literally sold to America, where they might have had the prospect of better lives, but this is dismissed by the commission. The notion, however, was feasible, given what has been learnt so far about the preoccupation of the religious orders with human trafficking and wealth.

The plea made yesterday by Ms Zappone was poignant: “There must be more people who know more about the burials arrangement than was made available to the commission. If anyone has that information... please come forward.”

If her call remains unanswered, the commission’s next and final report will be unlikely to get us any closer to the roots of a disgrace that stains the heritage of both our country and the Catholic Church.

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