Monday 16 September 2019

Sarah Mac Donald: 'Wall of silence must fall so the lost children can be found'


Lost children: Funeral boxes, each representing a child buried in Tuam, at a remembrance service last year. Photo: Reuters
Lost children: Funeral boxes, each representing a child buried in Tuam, at a remembrance service last year. Photo: Reuters

Sarah Mac Donald

It was the American statesman Adlai Stevenson who said: "The cruellest lies are often told in silence."

His observation came to mind on Wednesday with the publication of the fifth interim report of the Commission of Investigation of the Mother and Baby Homes. That the burial places of hundreds of children who died in the State's mother and baby homes, run by religious orders, remain unknown is challenging enough.

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But the idea some people may still hold important information and have withheld it from the commission is deeply disquieting. In Children's Minister Katherine Zappone's opinion, there must be people in Tuam who know more about the burial arrangements.

"There is still more information out there" and the commission "would like to know", she underlined.

There was no reference in the small number of documents provided by the Sisters of Bon Secours, who ran Tuam, to any burials.

However, the Commission said it was "surprised by the lack of knowledge about the burials on the part of Galway County Council and the Sisters of the Bon Secours. Galway County Council members and staff must have known something about the manner of burial when the home was in operation."

The commission also found it "likely the burials were conducted on the instructions of the Sisters".

Of course it is not just Tuam that is afflicted by this amnesia. The final resting place of the "vast majority" of hundreds of children that died at Bessborough Mother and Baby Home is also unknown.

The commission said more than 900 children died in Bessborough over more than 70 years. According to the commission, the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary has indicated it does not know where the children are buried.

Yesterday, at one of the liturgical high points of the Catholic year, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin made a challenging observation: "I find it hard to believe that evidence has simply vanished and that no one can remember."

The archbishop won't have done himself any favours in certain Church circles and amongst those in wider society who just want this whole unsavoury episode to blow over. But the archbishop, like Catherine Corless, has no intention of drawing a veil over this. This latest report has raised questions for religious orders and the State over the treatment of the remains of those children who died in their care and how their deaths were recorded.

If the children in Tuam were buried in a structure which was patently not a purpose-built burial chamber, but connected to either sewage or waterworks, the question arises as to why the Bon Secours Sisters, in Christian charity, did not provide for a more dignified interment.

As Archbishop Martin asked: "What went wrong to give rise to a situation in which children within the Church of Jesus Christ were not cared for with scrupulous dignity, whether in life or in death?"

Surely this is a matter which should provoke a much more vocal response from the pro-life movement? Can people be so fatigued by the revelations about Church institutions they no longer care?

One of the most heart- rending images to emerge from the forensic excavations is that of a little blue shoe.

More than any bones, that little item of footwear brings home the reality of the lost promise of hundreds of children who never got an opportunity in life and were given no dignity in death.

While we are all cognisant of the impact of the passage of time on diminishing and ageing personnel in religious orders and retired council workers, it surely behoves them to put the resources into recovering more of the truth about these burials - for the sake of the children.

In his homily, Dr Martin recalled the words of Pope Francis who was so deeply shocked when he learned about the regimes operated in Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes.

Speaking to the Irish bishops, Francis warned them: "Do not repeat the attitudes of aloofness and clericalism that at times in your history have given the real image of an authoritarian, harsh and autocratic Church."

Maintaining silence in the face of a crisis such as this gives just such a sense of a harsh and autocratic Church.

As one historian commented to me: "Some of the religious orders seem to think that silence - a rather haughty silence and a silence that seems to be peaked and injured - is the way to go. Silence serves them well."

Irish Independent

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