Tuam babies - No excuses for ministers to stay silent

Just when people thought no more revelations remained to be uncovered, a truly shocking spectre — 800 dead babies dumped in a septic tank and innocent infants buried in mass graves — has come back to haunt the Irish State and the Catholic Church.

Somehow, the appalling image of babies being so callously disposed of leaves an even deeper scar on the collective mind than the scandalous abuse of tens of thousands of children in institutions run by nuns and priests. That ranks among the darkest chapters in Ireland’s recent history. A shocking legacy, some acts were so vile that Amnesty International Ireland portrayed them as “torture” and as “inhuman and degrading” treatment by a dysfunctional system.

Surely to God, we all thought, nothing further could engender greater public disgust and revulsion at the way members of religious orders abused the toddlers entrusted to their care. But, as a jaundiced public is now learning, innocent babies born to unmarried mothers were so badly neglected that many died of starvation and diseases more associated with the war zones of Africa than with places like Tuam in Galway, Cork City, or Letterfrack in Connemara.

Thanks to the tireless work of local residents in Tuam, more is now known about the frightening burial of babies in an old septic tank. Mass graves have also been found at Castlepollard and Roscrea. In the space of one year, some 57% of the deaths at the Bessborough mother-and-babies home in Cork were due to malnutrition. What a damning comment.

Dr Carole Holohan’s scathing report for Amnesty was appropriately called ‘In Plain Sight’ because the abuse went on under the unseeing eyes of officialdom. Ironically, it was launched in 2011 by the then children’s minister, Frances Fitzgerald. Now the justice minister, Ms Fitzgerald stands accused by Adoption Rights Alliance director Susan Lohan of knowing “all too well” about the mass graves issue. Allegedly, concerned groups have been sending her material since she became children’s minister in 2011 and a report on the issue was sent to her last July. Her inaction is perplexing.

It fuelled fears the matter would be swept under the carpet as Taoiseach Enda Kenny left on a trade mission to the US amid calls for his intervention. One local TD, Colm Keaveney of Fianna Fáil, called on the Taoiseach to offer a formal apology on behalf of the State for what he depicts as “appalling treatment of mothers and babies”. Reflecting a groundswell of public opinion, he stressed there was “no excuse for silence” on this issue.

In something of a damage limitation exercise, the new children’s minister, Charlie Flanagan, announced a cross-department initiative to find how the mass burial of deceased children at ‘mother-and-baby’ homes should best be addressed by the Coalition. Hopefully, his apt description of this tragic scenario as “a shocking reminder of a darker past in Ireland”, reflects an awareness of how important it is to shine fresh light on the dreadful behaviour of members of religious orders. It also has political significance as the first real test of his ministerial mettle.

Obviously, a public inquiry cannot be held into every grim discovery that comes to light. But there must be some means of addressing serious issues and of examining the mindset of so-called Christians who coldly converted a septic tank into a dark vault for the bodies of unwanted babies.


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