Friday 18 October 2019

Gene Kerrigan: They knew about the babies for 90 years

This is not about cruel nuns, it's about collusion between institutions that has corrupted this country, writes Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

The evidence is there, beyond any doubt: they knew from August 1927 that the babies were dying at a terrible rate. And they were cool with that.

Not just the nuns - it would be so much easier if Tuam and all the rest of it was merely a tale of cruel nuns. It was wider than that.

It wasn't in the 1960s or the 1990s they had their eyes opened. They knew from 1927.

Decades later we'd come to call them Official Ireland - the handy, concise, and accurate term is Eamon Dunphy's.

These were the senior ranks of Church and State, of business and the professions, who ran this great little nation then, as they run it today.

Whoever won an election did not govern alone - they governed in an undeclared coalition with Official Ireland, a collusion of shared values. As it was then, so it is now.

From the beginning, the Local Government (Temporary Provisions) Act 1922 singled out "unmarried mothers" as a special problem for Official Ireland. They were classed as "offenders". Official documents spoke of "shamed" and "fallen" women and of the "illegitimate" babies to which they gave birth.

The latter term isn't accidental, it is precise use of language. And all that followed stemmed from that corrupted view of human life.

These were not considered legitimate humans, they were shameful mistakes, factory rejects to be melted down and recycled in the great circle of life.

Read more: Archbishop calls for Tuam probe to be widened

In 1924, the State set up a "Commission on Relief of the Sick and Destitute Poor, including the Insane Poor". It reported in August 1927.

Conditions were relatively primitive in those days, medicine was developing slowly and living conditions were atrocious for many. One in 14 children died in their first year.

And the Report of the Commission on Relief of the Sick and Destitute Poor found that one in three "illegitimate children born alive in 1924 died within a year of its birth".

And the Commission gave an explanation. Families "shamed" by an "illegitimate" birth, "make arrangements with someone to take the child, either paying a lump sum down or undertaking to pay something from time to time".

And here, literally, is the killer: "If a lump sum is paid or if the periodical payment lapses, the child becomes an encumbrance on the foster mother, who has no [financial] interest in keeping it alive."

Children died of deliberate neglect.

Not paid sufficient medical attention, not fed properly, receiving not so much as a hug - deprived of all the stuff that nurtures us - the kids withered and died at a fierce rate.

Official Ireland knew it was happening, it was there on page 73 of the Report. All those with responsibilities in these matters would have read it.

And those following the "Grace" scandal today might look to what the Report said on page 74: "there is not sufficient power to prevent people who are not fit to look after a child being given the care of it".

They knew that as early as 1927.

So, the kids sickened and died in foster care; and they sickened and died in the institutions where the young "fallen" women were made to leave their children.

The "illegitimate" children, of course, were believed to have souls, and the nuns instilled in them the discipline that might help those souls stay pure while enduring their often brief visit to this vale of tears. Not legitimate enough for this world, the nuns prepared them for Heaven.

Meanwhile, they could be exploited as cheap labour or trafficked for profit, and when they died there was no need for great ceremony - they were truly gone to a better place.

Jump ahead to 1986.

Read more: What if 'Grace' had been left in the care of the Church?

It was seven years after the Papal visit of John Paul II. That 1979 visit gave the Catholic hierarchy a massive boost. And in 1983 that boost enabled an aggressive, triumphalist Catholicism to force politicians to insert an anti-abortion clause in the Constitution.

In 1986, the Church defeated the first attempt to gain the right to divorce, winning by almost 2-to-1 in a referendum.

That same year, Kevin McNamara, Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, talked to lawyers about sex abuse. The following year he got in touch with Church & General Insurance.

The company was originally founded by the Catholic Hierarchy in 1902, as the "Irish Catholic Property Insurance Company Ltd". By the 1960s it had become a successful mainstream insurance firm.

Long before the rest of us knew there was a problem, Archbishop McNamara bought insurance against the Church being sued for child sex abuse. Premiums cost between £515 and £750 a year.

They knew it was going on, they protected the rapists, and between 1987 and 1990 all but one diocese quietly took out insurance.

It was that premeditated and self-protecting.

They spoke proudly of love and morality and condemned those who followed their natural passions. And when clerical abusers were caught they were moved on to prosper in fresh fields of molestation - for fear exposure would damage the good name of the Church.

In 2002, the State apologised to those damaged in clerical institutions. The Church coldly informed the State that it could wait for the victims to sue, that the Church would fight hard and figured it could win about 2,000 of the 2,500 cases it foresaw being taken.

The State was pushed into accepting a redress system that made it pay the bulk of the cost.

At every stage, down through the decades, Official Ireland has stuck together.

Last week in the Dail, the Taoiseach spoke from a script using carefully crafted, highly emotional phrases. He spoke in a voice that contrived to sound like he was barely holding his anger in check.

For a moment, it was impressive.

Read more: Time to call off the lynch mob: the nuns were victims too

Then, without a script, in answer to a request from Brid Smith TD that he call on the Bon Secours order to disband, he fell back on the usual mealy-mouth lines that suggested the religious orders have done the State some service.

Yes, in health and education, where the State failed in its duty the religious did the job. That is the history.

And, Jesus Christ, they extracted one hell of a payment.

They took the bodies of our children into their untender mercies, neglected them, exploited them, trafficked them, treated the children's mothers with contempt. When the kids died they were treated with the respect due a discarded tissue.

In the schools and institutions they controlled, the religious facilitated the sexual and physical abuse of children and when they thought we might find out they didn't go after the abusers, they contacted an insurance company.

And yes, among the religious there were decent people whose urge to contribute was exploited.

This is not about vengeance on a handful of nuns, or upon the Church. It's about being aware that institutions - whether they be under the control of clerics, police or bankers - put their institutional interests before those of the people.

Which is why the State's oversight and regulatory role is crucial. And why its failure in that role has been so catastrophic.

It failed because of its links within Official Ireland - shared professions, shared education, shared levels of income, shared clubs and shared values.

The Church has lost so much credibility its status in Official Ireland is insecure. But it hangs on. In the Taoiseach's mealy-mouth words last week, we heard Official Ireland still sticking together. Still colluding after all these years.

Sunday Independent

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