Its findings are unlikely to strengthen this society’s idea of self-worth but if they force us to confront the dysfunction at the heart of our treatment of vulnerable children and women then something of worth might be achieved.
The chilling story — the remains of 796 infants believed buried at a home run by the Sisters of the Bon Secours in Tuam; forced adoptions often secret or illegal; children offered and used as guinea pigs in vaccine trials — is so utterly appalling that any other response would not have been acceptable and would have perpetuated the dishonesty, cruelty, and institutionalised misogyny that underlines these horrors.
It may be half a century since the last child was buried at the Tuam home but that does not diminish the obligation to try to understand what went on, how such cruelty and evil was so very commonplace. That this inquiry follows others almost too many to count into the horrors inflicted on the vulnerable, the abandoned, and the ostracised by religious orders makes this story even darker.
It would be hypocritical and dishonest to blame only religious orders. What went on in these homes was widely known and tolerated. The sanctimonious turned a blind eye, believing that those who offended their religious views deserved punishment. That such behaviour was accepted as normal points to a religious fundamentalism willfully blind to a central tenet of Christianity: Love thy neighbour as thyself.
There is a profound hypocrisy, too, on the part of religious orders and of the elements of society that supported this system of gulags where the urge to judge and punish outweighed every other human impulse. That these forces vehemently opposed, and still oppose, social reform around divorce, school patronage, and women’s health moves their hypocrisy to an Olympian level. But that is the past; what of the future?
We have had many inquiries into the “who” and “what” so maybe it’s time to have one on the “why” — the psychology and emotions behind a place like the Sisters of the Bon Secours in Tuam where, if figures are confirmed, a child died every second week for nearly half a century. Is it insecurity? Is it plain bigotry? Is it a kind of self-loathing manifest as hatred for others? Are those questions still relevant or have we become better at looking after children in need? Why did society look away while women who had their children forcefully taken from them cried the bitterest tears? The questions are almost endless and if they are to be answered in a meaningful way it might be worth considering a commission chairman from outside of Ireland.
We have been here before and the horrors of our past suggest we can expect to be here again but if we are to slay the dragon then this inquiry must be above politics and beyond the reach of the religious ideology already in the dock. It would be wrong to prejudge but it is probable the commission’s conclusions will further reduce the role and influence of Catholicism in Ireland. How we react to how society endorsed, at least tacitly, this latest episode in the Irish Holocaust is by far the bigger and more pressing question.