Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Myth and Reality: Orphanages and Mass Graves in Ireland

In one of those examples of a story which could be easily packaged to provoke strong emotion getting instant world-wide circulation regardless of the merits, the world was swept last week by the story of a 800 children supposedly dumped in a septic tank in an Irish "mother and baby home" -- a sort of combination maternity home for unwed mothers and orphanage for their children.

The image of 800 little bodies left in a septic tank is unquestionably horrific, and soon outraged editorialists and bloggers were comparing the home, run by the Bon Secours order of nuns, with the crimes of Nazi death camps and the Rwandan genocide. Then more news stories began to come out suggesting that the outrage was to a certain extent the result of mis-reporting:
Is it true that the skeletons of nearly 800 babies and children have been discovered in a septic tank in Ireland?

No. Contrary to a great deal of reporting, including two stories published by The Washington Post, it doesn’t appear that there are 800 skeletons in a disused septic tank. Many of the early stories appear to have conflated two different sources of information. One comes from a local historian, Catherine Corless, who has discovered death certificates for nearly 800 babies and children at the home, which was run by the Bon Secours order of nuns from the 1920s to the 1960s. The other comes from two local men, who say that they found some kind of crypt beneath a concrete slab in the area containing a number of skeletons when they were playing as boys in the early 1970s. One of the men estimates that 20 skeletons were contained in the space. These two different sources have been conflated into the claim that a mass grave of babies and children was found in a septic tank. Corless, who appears to have been the crucial initial source of information, has since claimed: “I never said to anyone that 800 bodies were dumped in a septic tank. That did not come from me at any point. They are not my words.”

Sorting through the many news stories, the story that seems to gradually emerge is one with a sort of everyday darkness rather than the horror story initially suggested. The mother and child home was not run as a death camp, and there is not evidence that children were killed deliberately or that their deaths were covered up. Indeed, the reason why we know the exactly number of children who died at the home, 796, is that a local amateur historian went through the process of requesting death certificates from the government for all children who died at the home during its years of operation from 1925 to 1961. This average of 22 children per year died of infections and communicable diseases -- ailments that today could easily be treated but which in the third world conditions that prevailed in Ireland in the first half of the 20th century. Infant and childhood mortality was high in Ireland during the time the home was in operation and death rates among illegitimate children and orphans were 3-5 times higher than the general population.

The relationship of the Catholic Church to the harsh conditions and high death rates in these sort of institutions is a complex one.

In poor countries, people without the protection of family often suffer horribly. In poor countries such as India today, the fate of unmarried mothers and their children is distinctly harsh -- and clearly in that case this cannot be blamed upon repressive Christian morality. The mother and baby homes were state institutions funded by county taxes, but given the poverty of the country and the perception that "fallen women" were among the undeserving poor, the funding provided was very low. In 1954, funding for the home was apparently 26 Irish Pounds per resident (mother or child) per year. Translating such prices across nations and times is difficult, but if the historical currency converters I'm playing with are right that's something under $2,000/yr in current US dollars.

There's a sense in which the fact that these homes were all run by religious orders simply underlines the the Church's tradition of serving the poor and needy. Unmarried mothers and their children were otherwise in danger of living on the streets, if they lived at all, and it logically follows that if you set out to serve the poor and marginalized and an already poor country, you'll end up dealing with people who live in pretty bad conditions.

At the same time, in a country in which the Church is as dominant as it was in Ireland in 1925-1961, few people are going to question the behavior of religious, particularly when it comes to how they treat people who are poor and marginalized anyway. So there was little other than their own consciences to keep the nuns who ran the home from treating mothers or children badly, and plenty of social prejudice which might have made it seem that they "deserved" it.

It may well be that religious orders ran such homes more more humanely than one might have expected secular authorities in a similar environment with similar funding to do -- and yet the fact remains that it was Catholic orders who did the work. In a country which has seen incredibly rapid improvements in living conditions during the last sixty years, Catholic run institutions and the suffering that was at times associated with them seem like part of a receding nightmare, and it is far easier to indulge in broad anti-clericalism than it is to understand and reckon with the ways in which the experience of poverty led the whole society to behave in ways (and suffer lacks) which in modern affluence seem unimaginable.

1 comment:

Ioannes Georgius said...

Summa Theologica > Supplement
Question 68. Illegitimate children
Article 3. Whether an illegitimate son can be legitimized?

There are six ways of becoming legitimate ... namely when a man marries the woman of whom he has an unlawful child (if it were not a case of adultery) ...

How many of the children could have not been in an orphanage if priests had insisted that fathers marry unwed mothers?