Justice needed for the survivors of and victims of Bethany House abuse

Minutes before this man had been talking about the sanctity of each human life. Now he was dismissing the unmarked graves of the babies who died needlessly at Bethany and the stories of the home’s 25 survivors by saying it wasn’t “technically” a Church of Ireland home.

I HAD spent the night coring 30 mandarins and sticking candles and liquorice All-Sorts in them to make “Christingles” for the service on Dec 23 in my local Church of Ireland parish.

The orange is round like the earth. The ribbon is red like Christ’s blood. The sweets and fruit are the bounty of nature. And the light is the light of Christ’s love.

Which is all very well but you do tend to lose sight of the symbolism when your fingers are stuck up mandarin number 27.

I only had a short break after the Christingles service the next morning to bolt some food before singing my lungs out at the parish carol service. I was doing just that with RTÉ Radio One burbling away in the background when the new Church of Ireland Primate of All Ireland, Dr Richard Clarke, came on to talk about his new job.

It was as if he were talking to me personally. I was hanging on his every word. I wanted what he said to make meaningful my day and my night in the service of the Church of Ireland.

I liked what I heard. This thoughtful 63-year-old Dubliner said, “There is a very clear Gospel imperative that those that are at the bottom of the heap must be our greatest concern.”

I liked, too, his take on abortion as a social issue. He asked what it says about a society if a woman is suicidal because she is going to have a baby? He seemed to have a real sense of the value of each human life. “Even some of the apparently badly conceived lives can be wonderful lives”, he said.

Yes, Dr Clarke. But some of the “apparently badly conceived” lives which came into being in the Bethany Home for “unmarried mothers” in Rathgar were snuffed out within days, deaths in which the Church of Ireland is clearly implicated.

There was slaughter from 1935 to 1944 during which years 132 babies met their deaths there. And these are the ones we know about, buried in unmarked graves in Mount Jerome cemetery in Dublin. It is estimated there may be 17 or more babies buried elsewhere.

And when those lives were so cheap, how can we ever be sure how many babies died there from causes like “debility”, “general debility”, “stomach trouble” or “no cause”.

They died from neglect. They died because it suited. I won’t say no one cared about them because I’m sure some of their mothers did. But they had “sinned” and if their babies died they could just put up with it.

The academic Niall Meehan, who has uncovered much of this horrible history, quotes the State’s deputy chief medical adviser, Winslow Sterling Berry, excusing the home’s appalling record by saying that it was “well recognised” that “a lot of illegitimate children are delicate and marasmic.”

“Marasmic” is really another word for “starved”. So that explains that medical theory. But as soon as Richard Clarke was asked about the dying rooms of Rathgar and the Church of Ireland’s part in creating them, his first instinct was clearly to protect his Church.

“It wasn’t a Church of Ireland institution,” he said. “There was some Church of Ireland involvement certainly, but that’s a rather different matter.”

My sandwich got stuck. I could hardly believe my ears. Minutes before this man had been talking about the sanctity of each human life. Now he was dismissing the unmarked graves of the babies who died needlessly at Bethany and the stories of the home’s 25 survivors by saying it wasn’t “technically” a Church of Ireland home.

Every one of those babies came from a Church of Ireland background as do every one of the survivors who have come forward.

Bethany was opened in 1922 by the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin. The Church of Ireland Dean of Christ Church Cathedral presided at the evening meeting. It incorporated the Prison Gate Mission to women with criminal convictions which was part of the Church of Ireland’s charitable outreach campaign.

While the Church itself did not run the home, Church of Ireland clergy sat on its board, particularly those from an evangelical wing of the Church of Ireland called the Society of Irish Church Missions to the Roman Catholics.

The ICMRC kicked off in the mid-19th century encouraged by their belief that the Famine was a judgement on Irish Catholics for not converting.

The historian Miriam Moffitt has written that they saw it “as a fullfilment of Biblical prophecy.”

There is a picture of some of these brave volunteers for God taken during the 1934 Church of Ireland Synod, and while I’m sure some clergy hated what they stood for, they were not run out of the place.

Most of the women who went to Bethany were referred by Church of Ireland clergy. We even have a 1945 letter from the Archbishop of Dublin to the Minister for Justice, Gerry Boland, recommending Bethany as a “suitable” place of detention for a Protestant woman.

Some members of the Church of Ireland are not so slow to claim the home. The Rev Kevin Dalton described it in a memoir published in 2003 as “A Church of Ireland home for unmarried girls.”

He might just be in a position to comment. He lived there with his mother for a year. But I don’t want to sit here analysing how “technical” was the relation between the Church of Ireland and Bethany. It won’t do those poor dead babies any good. Nor will it help the survivors who refused to die no matter what ill-health they have had to carry through life.

WHAT matters is justice. The capacity to own our sinfulness and use what we have learned to do things differently in the future. That’s what the Gospel teaches me.

And I have heard this self-awareness clearly in some voices and actions in the Catholic Church. But none in the Church of Ireland.

I have been waiting patiently. Singing. Coring mandarins. But after hearing Richard Clarke’s interview I began to feel the rage which some formerly devout Catholic friends now feel for their church.

Except in some ways it’s worse. Because most of the media simply don’t want to know. It’s hardly surprising that the Residential Institutions Redress Board doesn’t either. Even Martin McAleese’s Inter-departmental committee on the Magdalene Homes excludes the Bethany Home.

Dr Clarke must act and he must speak or he will lose me and others like me from his Church. If the story of the home has not crossed his “radar very much in the last while”, as he said in his interview, that is because he has turned his radar off.

I have in my hand a copy of a letter written to him by survivor Victor Stevenson on Nov 18, a month before his enthronement, which remains unanswered. It asks a simple question: “How can we as a Christian organisation continue to ignore this dreadful part of our past?”

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