Following the revelations surrounding Tuam, the Irish Government announced that there would be a comprehensive Inquiry into Irish Mother and Children Homes. Like with the investigations into child sexual abuse, and the Magdalene Laundries, there were initial hopes that justice would be done for victims. But, as with previous investigations, it seems the Government is preparing to compound the suffering of victims with an inappropriate response.
This Article considers the concerns over the recent Government Report on what should be covered by the Mother and Baby Home Inquiry. It also considers some of the misreporting which occurred in the backlash over the initial Tuam journalistic inaccuracies.
Finally, it deals with the curious assertions which have emerged in recent times by Conservative Catholics, claiming that they are a type of oppressed minority in Irish Society, and that there is an anti-Catholic prejudice in Ireland. Such allegations are unfounded, and undermine our ability to deal with wrongdoing where the Church is involved. On the contrary, Irish Society has a problem with unquestioning reliance on our traditions, and much of our traditional concepts and practices stem from Conservative Catholic Doctrine. The conditions surrounding the Mother and Baby Homes were created because of our overreliance on the prevailing conception of the “traditional family”. This same unquestioning reliance can be seen in current laws in force which are immoral but remain unchanged because of our Society’s unwillingness to question our traditions, or to deviate from Conservative Catholic Doctrine.
First, a brief summary. Following the revelations from Catherine Corless that she had discovered death certificates for 796 children who died in a Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Galway, and her statements that evidence suggested that some of them may have been buried in what at one point was a sewage tank, headlines around the world stated “800 children buried in septic tank”. Following the discovery that this was not the case, a number of newspapers carried corrections, and there were questions raised over the lack of journalistic diligence in fact-checking. Against this backdrop, people began to come forward with stories of being subjected to treatment in these Homes which amounted to torture, and the large numbers of people who were forcibly separated from their families in these homes, and who have been searching for reunification ever since, began to enter common knowledge.
A number of Articles were written on the initial misreporting, but many of them contained inaccuracies and misreporting themselves, and it was disturbing to see how many writers seemed to think that the main issue was how many children were or were not buried in a sewage tank, and not the high mortality rate or the conditions in these homes.
Probably the worst offender was a deeply flawed Article by Brendan O’Neill on Spiked-online, which was widely circulated, called “The Tuam Tank: another myth about evil Ireland”. Aside from significantly misrepresenting several well-documented issues, this Article criticised prejudiced “Catholic-bashers”.
Mr’ O’Neill States: “It is amazing how many of the recent revelations of Catholic Ireland’s screwed-up past have proven to be false”. He then gives three examples – Tuam, Letterfrack, and the Magdalene Laundries. Three is not an amazingly large number. Further, the way he presents these situations is extremely inaccurate.
As regards Letterfrack Industrial School, O’Neill points to sensationalist accounts of “Holocaust-style brutality”. While indeed there was some inaccurate and sensationalist reporting regarding Letterfrack, which O’Neill cites, he does not mention at all the findings of the Ryan Inquiry, which stated that at Letterfrack “sexual abuse was a common problem”. The Inquiry further stated that “physical punishment was severe, excessive, and pervasive”. The Inquiry questioned how sexual molesters were permitted to remain at the school so long, and were not removed by the religious congregation which ran the school.
Not even alluding to the fact that there was indeed severe wrongdoing at Letterfrack is highly questionable, and presents the situation as if all claims of wrongdoing were without foundation – when this was clearly not the case.
O’Neill then says “Many of the more shocking claims made about Ireland’s nun-run Magdalene Laundries, in movies, books and newspaper articles, were called into question by the Irish government’s exhaustive report published last year”.
Here O’Neill is referring to the McAleese Report. Describing this report as “exhaustive” is entirely false.
The McAleese Inquiry’s terms of reference were limited to investigating State involvement with the Laundries only. The Inquiry further did not investigate or make findings about abuse or lines of responsibility for abuse in the Magdalene Laundries.
The report has been criticised as being extensively deficient by the UN, Amnesty International, and the Irish Human Rights Commission. Among other flaws, they point out how the accounts of survivors were not properly considered in the report. Amnesty International stated that the inquiry: “is a model of how not to carry out effective investigations into past human rights abuses”. The Irish Human Rights Commission has also criticised the Report, and stated that the rights of women in the laundries were violated in a number of ways. The Organisation Justice for the Magdalenes Research, a group which represents women who were in the Laundries, has been continuously stating that women were subjected to a wide range of abuses, and is calling for the Laundries to be included in the Mother and Baby and Baby Homes Inquiry given the significant overlap between the Homes and the Laundries, so that the Laundries can be properly investigated in line with Ireland’s International Human Rights Obligations.
While again there has been sensationalist portrayals and reporting surrounding the Magdalene Laundries, this is no justification for misrepresenting the facts.
Then when writing about Tuam, O’Neill only deals with inaccurate reports that 800 children were buried in a septic tank. He does not even mention claims that the infant mortality rate was far too high for such a home at the time (whether this is true will be established by the Inquiry). He does not mention the terrible conditions that people were subject to in these homes, or the stories that women were coming forward with at the time he wrote his article.
What we had with homes such as Tuam was State-sponsored “disappearing” of what Society regarded as an inconvenient conflict with their traditional practices. The centrality of the concept of the “traditional family” made people view women pregnant outside of marriage as sinners, and their children as sub-human. Such women were shipped off to Homes run by religious orders, where there was systemic separation of the women and children so that the children could be adopted by married couples. In the Homes, women were sometimes treated to horrific treatment by the religious orders which ran these homes, which sometimes amounted to torture. Women have said that they were denied painkillers during childbirth (even when they were available in these Homes in recent times before the Homes were closed) and medical care during and after childbirth as a punishment due to the fact that they had “sinned”. Further, in some homes like Bessborough (more detail below) children were allowed to die from easily preventable diseases due to a voluntarily low standard of care on the part of religious orders.
Surely the salient issue is not initial sensationalist misreporting, or how many children were buried in a septic tank, but whether children were buried that could have lived if proper and available care was provided, and whether women were subjected to unacceptable treatment in the Homes.
The misreporting in the backlash did not stop there however. There were a wide range of Articles in the vein of O’Neill’s, many of which have been insightfully dealt with by Tanya Gold in an Article for the Guardian.
Along with O’Neill, one of the worst offenders was the Article by Rosita Boland in the Irish Times “the Trouble with the Septic Tank Story”. This Article actively misrepresented its interviewee’s views. The Article falsely stated that Catherine Corless had issued a retraction in relation to Tuam. This has been significantly criticised by Corless’ family. As Corless’ daughter has noted, the Article by Boland even contradicts the video which is attached to it.
After viewing the death certificates, Boland then stated that the numbers of children who died at Tuam was a “stark reflection of a period in Ireland when infant mortality in general was very much higher than today”. So, at a time when numerous analyses of the infant mortality rate at Tuam were circulating, many of which stated that it was too high taking all circumstances into account, Boland states conclusively after viewing the death certificates that the large numbers of children which died was due solely to infection and disease. This gives no regard to the fears that a voluntarily low standard of care may have been a contributing factor to deaths of children. This is what happened at Bessborough. When Dr. James Deeny inspected the Bessborough home in the 1940s he found that large numbers of children were being allowed to die from easily preventable diseases. He sacked the Mother Superior, and the mortality rate in the following years never exceeded single figures – down from a rate of 100 out of 180 babies in one year before the change.
Before Deeny came to Bessborough, the death certificates of these children who had been needlessly dying would have just stated that they died from infection/ disease. Death Certificates do not tell the whole story, so it is highly premature to attempt to tell the whole story in sole reliance on them.
This was an Article by one of Ireland’s main broadsheet’s, a publication which until that point had written almost nothing about the Homes, and then when it did make a contribution it was to misquote one of the main figures in the debate and appear to assert that an Inquiry was not even necessary.
Allegations of Prejudice
In understanding why the Article by Boland and so many others went so much further than just highlighting the inaccuracies of sensationalist headlines, to actively try and diminish the importance and need for an Inquiry into Mother and Baby Homes, a possible motive can be seen in the Article by O’Neill.
It puts forward a claim that has been promoted successfully in many quarters – that there is an obsession in Ireland with undermining the Catholic Church – that the “anti-Catholic brigade” are looking for “kicks” and little of the criticism in this area has to do with “facts”.
These assertions have little to do with reality, and fit with the overall tenor of the Article and other such assertions where they are made. Here we have an Article which states that there has been an “amazing amount” of false reporting in relation to wrongdoings of the Catholic Church which then gives 3 situations, two of which are flawed examples, one of which takes a very narrow view of the situation. However we have no reference here to the Ryan and Murphy Reports – the two most significant Governmental Inquiries which have been done in this area. To not refer to these reports in an Article of this nature is highly questionable. Indeed if one seeks to appear to show a supposed myth to be false, it is helpful to be selective with facts.
The Ryan Report was an inquiry into Child Abuse in schools and institutions run by religious orders and congregations. It found that “sexual abuse was endemic in boys’ institutions”, and even when the Religious Authorities knew of the problem, they did not take proper steps to deal with it, instituting policies which “resulted in protection of the perpetrator”.
The Murphy Report was an inquiry into the response of Church and State Authorities to complaints of child sexual abuse by priests in Dublin. The Report condemned the failure of the Church Authorities to deal with or report sexual abuse of children when it was brought to their knowledge. The Report stated that there was an “obsessive concern with secrecy” on the part of the Church which “protected the institution at the expense of children”. It noted that often offending clerics would just be moved to a different parish. In its conclusion the Report stated that there was “no doubt that clerical child sexual abuse was covered up by the Archdiocese of Dublin and other Church authorities”, and that throughout much of the period investigated, the Church’s main concerns were the preservation of its assets and protection of its reputation over the safety of children.
Defenders of the Church, in feeling that there is an anti-Catholic prejudice, lament that the Media rarely reports on the good works that the Church does. The reason for this is not bias, but the fact that there are many Aid Organisations in the world, but very few Organisations of the scale of the Catholic Church which took such a shockingly deficient approach to child sexual abuse, and which covered it up so extensively. Though Vatican spokespeople like to claim that this was just in the past, despite the Vatican increasing its efforts to “laicise” priests (remove them from the priesthood) where abuse is found, it is still extremely reluctant to share evidence it uncovers with the relevant policing authorities. This is unacceptable.
Defenders of the Church also seek to argue that criticisms are prejudiced as we should not criticise given the enormous societal services the Church has provided to Ireland. It is true that the Church has contributed greatly to Irish Society, but providing societal services does not excuse or justify engaging in systemic abuse of persons who avail of those services, or not dealing with such abuse when it is found.
To attempt to portray the upset of Irish people at the wrongdoings of the Catholic Church as prejudice is highly insensitive, and is an attempt to deny the enormity of the Church’s wrongdoings. This upset is not prejudice. It is human. The fact that the ramifications for the Church have not been far more severe is a sign of how strong a hold the Church still has on the mindset of Irish Society.
I do not write these things in an attempt to “bash” the Church, and I appreciate the significant contribution that the Church has made to Irish Society, but denying wrongdoings of the Church undermines our ability to deal with the consequences of abuses which occurred in the past, and causes victims further suffering.
Conservative Catholicism in Irish Society
In reality, Irish Society is far from full of the “Catholic Bashers” that O’Neill describes in his Article. That the flawed Spiked-online Article by O’Neill was so widely circulated shows the speed with which people are willing to forget wrongdoings where the Church is involved. Initial misreporting over Tuam should not be claimed to be representative of bias. Misreporting, and the spread of inaccurate stories, is common, and can be found in any area. In 2011 84% of Irish people identified themselves as Roman Catholic. While many of these may not adhere strongly to the teachings of the Catholic Church, it is still an overwhelmingly large statistic. Further, there are numerous examples of how Irish Society is burdened with unjust laws that stem from the pervasiveness of Catholic doctrine. Much of this is embedded in our Constitution, which cannot be changed without a referendum. Governments are reluctant to bring up such sensitive issues, and are wary of the fact that much of the electorate is still comprised of conservative individuals of Catholic faith.
In Ireland, reflecting the roots of our Constitution in strict adherence to Catholic doctrine, couples cannot obtain a divorce until they have been separated for four years, regardless of their religious beliefs or their feelings on the matter. This denies people closure, and forces them to remain tied to someone in a period when the most important thing to many is to move on with their lives. Until 1997, it was not even possible to obtain a divorce, and though the changes were framed in such narrow terms they still met significant opposition.
Another debate on marriage is occurring on the issue of equality for homosexual marriage (by which I mean legal union between persons of the same sex, to avoid pedantic arguments from those who seek to assert that the word “marriage” can only apply to the Catholic Sacrament of marriage). At the moment homosexual union is denied some of the entitlements of heterosexual marriage, reflecting the entrenchment in our Constitution of the Catholic position that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. The debate came to the fore recently when Panti Bliss, also known as Rory O’Neill, an Irish Gay Rights Activist who performs on stage and on television in drag, accused certain persons who campaign against equality for homosexual marriage of being homophobic while on the State Broadcaster, RTE.
RTE then paid damages to the individuals mentioned when threatened with legal action, and broadcast an apology for the comments. The term homophobia, in its common usage, means discrimination against homosexual people. To oppose equality for homosexual people is clearly to discriminate against homosexual people.
RTE then went even further and held a panel discussion on homophobia, framed in the terms of whether the word “homophobic” should not be permitted in the Irish debate on same-sex marriage. This is to attempt to deny to an oppressed minority the very term used to describe discrimination against them. As Panti later said in a speech which was published on the internet and widely viewed, it amounts to the “neat Orwellian trick” of wresting the word for gay oppression from the hands of gay people. It frames homophobes, those who discriminate against homosexual people, as victims.
This was a line that some of those accused by Panti attempted to take – that in opposing their views, Society was in effect oppressing them. While indeed they may find it upsetting when people say that their endorsement of discrimination is intolerant, it is far more upsetting for homosexual people to be discriminated against, as can be seen in the unfortunate fact that LGBT teenagers, faced with a Society that tells them they are “lesser”, are far more likely to attempt and commit suicide than heterosexual youths. That our State broadcaster acted in such an appalling way is a clear sign of the extent to which conservative Catholic Doctrine pervades our Society.
We are still persecuting those who do not conform to our unquestioning adherence to traditions. “Tradition” was the defence that some of those mentioned by Panti raised – that they were just trying to support “traditional” marriage, as if homosexual marriage will somehow undermine heterosexual marriage. The situation resembles the conflict in Irish Society surrounding the legalisation of contraceptives in 1985, and the doomsday scenarios that Church leaders said would occur if the Government took the step.
Even apart from the highly questionable assumption that we need to discriminate against a section of our Society in order that heterosexual marriage remain an important and common practice, “tradition” is not a defence to discriminating against someone. The fact that something is a traditional practice does not make it right, as can be seen with the Homes and our terrible persecution of women who became pregnant outside of marriage. Our traditions do not define us – we define them. Though they are an important part of our cultural identity, they must be subjected to moral scrutiny, as they are sometimes just reflections of ingrained prejudice. Around the world tradition and cultural practice has been used as a defence to a wide range of human rights violations including discrimination against illegitimate children, racism, sexism, and female genital mutilation.
If we realise that a traditional practise is wrong, and hurts people, we change it. And discriminating against homosexual people is wrong. This is not some prevailing liberal concept, some current fashion in thinking which may be overturned in the coming decades or centuries. It is an objective moral truth, just as the fact that sexism is wrong is an objective moral truth.
We arrive at objective truths about the core rights each human is entitled to from reasoned moral consideration. The decades since World War II have seen a flourishing in considered moral philosophy, and the recognition that humans everywhere, by virtue of the inherent value of their humanity, are entitled to certain rights. Equality for homosexual people is the only possible conclusion stemming from a reasoned consideration of what is due to homosexual people by virtue of the inherent value of their humanity, and their right to personal determination and personal autonomy.
Apart from an unquestioning reliance on tradition, and prejudice, there is no reason to discriminate against homosexual people. Some fundamentalist Catholics claim that they are just trying to follow what is explicitly set out in the Bible. But even if we consider the Bible to be a source from which we should draw the rules which govern Society, it cannot be relied upon as a reason for such discrimination.
It is true that it does mention homosexuality in a negative light in several places, but it endorses numerous clearly immoral positions. For example slavery and sexism are endorsed in numerous places in both the Old and New Testaments.
Some try to explain such things away by arguing that such statements/ endorsements were specific to the time, but even if one seeks to rely on such an argument, it should also be applied to negative portrayals of homosexuality (i.e throughout the period of both Testaments there were high mortality rates, and so Society would have wanted high birth rates, which would have explained fears that homosexual union would have become more commonplace).
My point is that people following the Bible rely on an external sense of morality when deciding which parts to follow, so it should not be used as a justification for such discrimination. Further, relying on the Bible to support discrimination does not sit well with the Bible’s numerous references to love and accepting your neighbour as central concepts.
Another area in which we have sacrificed a reasoned approach to our societal rules in favour of Catholic Doctrine and tradition is our abortion laws. Ireland’s abortion laws are the most restrictive in Europe, and are among the most restrictive in the Developed World. A woman can only have an abortion if pregnancy endangers her life. So a physically healthy woman can only have an abortion if it is shown that she may commit suicide as a result of the pregnancy, which can only proven through a rigorous screening by three medical consultants.
Whatever your feelings on when life begins, reasonable people have different opinions on this matter, so for Irish Society to force one narrow view on when life begins stemming from Catholic Doctrine on all women in its territory to the extent that we would force a woman who has been raped to carry her rapist’s foetus, regardless of what her personal views on abortion are, and regardless of how she feels on the matter, is brutal.
The Irish Government instituted the recent laws in response to the national outcry resulting from the death of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian women (before this the rules had been unclear). Despite the fact that a miscarriage had been diagnosed and that complications arose during the delivery, Ms Halappanavar was refused an abortion and died. When being refused an abortion, she was reportedly told “this is a Catholic Country”. This was a Hindu woman from India. There is a difference between Ireland being a country in which most people are Catholic, and it being a “Catholic Country” – a country in which we force Catholic Doctrine on people regardless of their beliefs, and regardless of how immoral it may be. Unfortunately for Savita, Ireland is the latter. Despite strong international criticism, the Government has ruled out having a referendum on changing our abortion laws. This is despite the horrific events which occurred recently where a young woman who was raped and suicidal, and who went on hunger strike due to being refused an abortion, was force-fed and coerced into continuing the pregnancy.
So there are numerous areas in which Irish Society has rejected laws based on sound notions of morality or how to order a Society in favour of conservative Catholic doctrine and reliance on tradition. To assert that there is an anti-Catholic prejudice is far from the truth, and it is strange to see conservative Catholics attempting to assert that they are a type of oppressed minority, as occurred in the “Pantigate” Affair.
Such attempts can again be seen in a recent Article by Breda O’Brien in the Irish Times. O’Brien considers the site Tumblr, and says one would experience “blistering hatred” if one posts as a conservative Catholic on the site, and that this leads to “a degree of intolerance that is hard to describe”. Even if such responses are sometimes given on the site, claiming victimisation in this way is strange. I would imagine that homosexual people, or women who have been raped and do not believe that their newly developed rapist’s foetus is a child and who are prohibited from having an abortion, would find it difficult to describe how someone who habitually writes columns endorsing a conservative Catholic view, a view which pervades our Society’s rules and which is intolerant of them, could write about how she is worried how people like her may be exposed to “intolerance”. It is a complete inversion of the truth. Being discriminated against by Society’s rules is significantly different and more difficult than having your views questioned by others.
An interesting question though is – is it illiberal to meet intolerance with intolerance? O’Brien asserts that in Tumblr she sees a parody of liberal values. Is it illiberal if someone posts views on a website which promote intolerance or discrimination towards others, and people react in a harsh fashion? As regards free speech, one of the central ideals is the “marketplace of ideas” – that all should be allowed to express their opinions, and if someone is promoting something which is wrong, it will be demonstrated to be wrong by the marketplace of ideas – the public discussion on the topic. A liberal conception of free speech does not say that people must react to intolerance in a measured fashion, just that intolerance should be allowed to be expressed. Reacting in a harsh manner to those who have intolerant views is not illiberal, just unpleasant, and this unpleasantness does not make the “marketplace” collapse. If someone writes a reasoned post on a website in support of those parts of their conservative religious views which promote immoral positions and they are responded to with “hatred”, this does not undermine their post. Facts and reason speak far louder than mindless animosity.
Excuses for the Mother and Baby Homes
So, claims of an anti-Catholic bias are unfounded. Apart from the reasons I have given above, the Mother and Baby Homes show how unwilling we are to deal with wrongdoing where the Catholic Church is involved. Sources showing that people were subjected to unacceptable treatment in these Homes have been publicly available for decades, but it took sensationalist international reporting to bring the Homes into the public mindset. And so many excuses are raised that seek to justify what happened or to diminish its scale.
Many seek to argue that this was a different time, that we should not seek to judge the past by the standards of today. But it was known full well by the religious orders that ran the Homes and Laundries that what was happening there was not acceptable. When Dr. Sutherland wanted to visit a Magdalene Laundry in Galway in 1955, he needed the permission of the Bishop of Galway, and he was only allowed to visit if he agreed to anything he wrote being censored. The Mother Superior of the Laundry made him remove certain incidents which he witnessed from his manuscript before publication, as well as references to escape attempts made by women there. Further, as the interdepartmental report shows, concerns were being raised as far back as the 1930s over why, even considering all the challenges facing Mother and Baby Homes, the infant mortality rate was so unacceptably high, and so much higher than that for “illegitimate” children born to impoverished families in slum areas. Also in the 1940s Councillor Sean Doyle of Meath County Council and Councillor James Flanagan of Westmeath County Council raised concerns that the harsh conditions in these homes amounted to slavery.
Others ask what is to be gained from a costly investigation into things that happened long ago. Many people seem to want to make themselves believe that this occurred in the mists of history. But there are large numbers of people in Irish Society who were in these Homes as Mothers and Children, and who have to deal with the emotional baggage of what they went through every day, and who were forcibly separated from their mother or from their child and who have been searching for reunification all their lives. These people have never had justice done to their situations. Not only do they have to struggle with their memories, they have had to struggle with the fact that Irish Society has ignored what they went through, and now they have to struggle with the fact that the Government may be preparing to only pay lip-service to a proper investigation.
With the Ryan and Murphy Investigations into child sexual abuse by Catholic Orders it seemed we were now ready to face our past. We held up some shocking events to the spotlight, and it seemed we were unafraid to face the enormity of what had happened. But following the extensive criminal activity that the investigations uncovered, there were few criminal prosecutions. Writing in 2013, the UN Committee Against Torture noted that though over 14,000 people had been awarded compensation due to physical and sexual abuse, only one case had been prosecuted. This led victims such as John Walsh of Irish Survivors of Child Abuse to say that they felt “cheated and deceived” and that they never would have shared their painful experiences if they had known what the result would be.
Victims were again severely let down by the deeply flawed McAleese Report into the Magdalene Laundries. And now it seems that, full in the face of the recommendations of International Human Rights Groups and its own Statutory Human Rights Commission, the Government is again preparing to “cheat and deceive” victims of our Society and of Catholic religious orders. In stark contrast to the promises that the Inquiry would be “comprehensive” the recent interdepartmental report has said that the Inquiry should only cover 9 Institutions, and all other institutions, including the Magdalene Laundries and County Homes, should only be dealt with by a toothless “social history project”. The Report also does not seem to consider a full investigation of the practices of illegal adoption to be an essential part of the Inquiry. And there is no mention of whether the Inquiry will be empowered to suggest that the Minister for Justice establish a criminal investigation where evidence of criminal wrongdoing is established.
For all the scandals which have rocked Irish Society and shown us the extent of what can happen when we rely on our traditions unquestionably, it seems little has changed. We are not prepared to properly deal with our past, and our present has many immoral laws based on tradition. If the Government’s Inquiry into the Mother and Baby Homes proceeds as the Report suggests, we will again have turned our backs on victims of the wrongdoings of our recent past.