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Tuam babies cry not for justice but for vengeance

Seventy years ago, on the orders of a maniac, little children and babies were herded into barren camps in Germany and occupied Poland by men in black uniforms. They were starved to death in those camps; sometimes they had hideous medical experiments carried out upon them while alive, so hideous the silence of death was probably merciful. And when they died, their little bodies were thrown into huge pits. Because they were scum: Jewish scum.

And since then we have called what was done in those camps the greatest collective evil ever carried out by humankind.

Twenty years ago, the opposing tribes who comprised the population of a country called Rwanda festered in such hatred for each other that one tribe took to the ritual slaughter of the other in an attempt to wipe its existence from the face of the earth. And often the mass of slaughtered bodies, including those of little children, and comprising 20 per cent of the country's population, was so great that they were flung unceremoniously into great pits. Because they were scum: tribally inferior scum.

A year later, a town was wiped off the face of the earth in a place called Srebrenica in what had until recently been Yugoslavia, the flower of its youth, the young men and boys, marched into woodland where they were ritually slaughtered, and their bodies thrown into huge pits. Because they were scum: Muslim scum.

And the men who gave the orders and supervised the slaughter went on the run. But the world pursued them, and charged them with crimes against humanity.

And in Ireland, where there is still a widespread smugness about our decency and our devotion to the Faith of our Fathers, the Virgin Mother of God, and the efficacy of the Holy Rosary, a pit has been found filled with the skeletons of tiny babies and small children, 800 of them, dumped in the pit which some prefer to call a "mass grave" but is actually a septic tank.

While nobody is suggesting they were summarily executed as in other atrocities, those little bodies were dumped into that great, shameful pit because in this Ireland of ours they were scum; scum conceived in sin, and born of harlots guilty of the greatest sin of all: sex outside Holy Roman Catholic marriage.

It is the latest chapter in a long catalogue of horror. But in Ireland we have never pursued the people responsible for such horrors; we have accepted their pleas of corporate poverty and have not pursued them for moral and emotional justice.

Even our Taoiseach, brave enough and compassionate enough to break down on the floor of Dail Eireann as he apologised to the women incarcerated in the Magdalene Laundries as slave labour, said in his initial comment on the Tuam horror that he wants to know the "scale" of such hideous violations of decency.

Just one baby torn dead from the womb of a lonely, frightened girl; just one three-year-old toddler shrivelling to nothingness from malnutrition; just one eight-year-old already worn and bent from physical labour and dying of untreated tuberculosis: just one of any of them howls to the moon for more than justice. It howls for vengeance.

We now know that the State "knew" of the stinking hole in Tuam as far back as 1972. If it knew, so did the perpetrators who dug that hole and consigned pale, cold, tiny corpses to it. They are the Good Shepherd Sisters, who said after the emergence of the nightmare that they "welcome" the fact that the State will investigate.

People who are now only middle-aged were teenagers in 1972; will they rise up and say "enough is enough"? Will they howl down those who say it was "a different era"? Will they refuse to accept that the people who carried out such ghastly violations of decency were "doing their best"?

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Will they accept the justification that "harsh discipline was the culture of the time"? Above all, will we all howl our rage when we are told that the people who violated all sense of humanity were doing a "charitable act in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ" because others refused to do so?

Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley, an academic at NUI Galway, has carried out research into such horror nationwide. She says that the mortality rate of babies and children in "mother and baby" homes around the country was known officially over the years to be 50 to 60 per cent. Even at a time when tuberculosis and other killer diseases were rife, and when even measles was a danger to life, that was three times more likely in the religiously run, "charitably motivated" homes for unmarried mothers and their children than in the general population. But in the phrase coined by a great journalist of the Sixties from the neighbouring county in relation to another scandal: nobody shouted stop.

Dr Michael Neary, the Catholic Archbishop of Tuam, has reacted: "The archdiocese did not have any involvement in the running of the home, and had no records in its archives."

Outrage has been expressed in Dail Eireann: in measured terms rather than in outrage. Only one person, Independent TD Catherine Murphy, has pointed out that if this grim and ghastly discovery had been made anywhere other than in ground relating to a Catholic institution, it would now be fenced off as a crime scene.

But nobody has pointed out that during the years (1925 to 1961) when the Good Shepherd Sisters ran the Tuam Home for Unmarried Mothers and their Children, a woman found guilty of having thrown her dead child into a pit, or even of secretly disposing of the sad little corpse with frightened love and anguish, would have been dragged before the courts and harshly sentenced.

The Good Shepherd Sisters, as all Roman Catholic orders of nuns, as well as the corporate Roman Catholic Hierarchy, are fond of defending the sanctity of human life, particularly when it is merely a clump of cells smaller than a thumbnail. But apparently a life that has begun in the arms of a forlorn and frightened mother, but has ended in misery, can be consigned to a cesspit.

Ireland signed the UN Con- vention on the Rights of the Child in 1992.

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