And more importantly he puts that kind of press in context, that of a secular society and its media that sometimes seems to take any opportunity to malign the Church.
1. It is highly unlikely, if not physically impossible, that 796 bodies would have been placed into one septic tank – despite the New York Times ... One of the boys who discovered the bones in 1975 says that there was probably only about 20 in there....
2. The death rate was appallingly high at Tuam – but it was appallingly high across the entire country. The problem at Tuam was that rates of disease infection were increased by having so many vulnerable people housed close together. Yet one blogger has compared the death rate at the Secours home with the rest of the country and argues that it may have been among the lowest: “Between 1925 and 1937, 204 children died at the Home — an average of 17 per year. 17 deaths out of 200 children equals a mortality rate of 8.5%. It is interesting to compare that with the rest of the country at the time. In 1933, the infant mortality rate in Dublin was 83 per thousand (ie. a mortality rate of 8.3%), in Cork it was 89 per thousand (8.9%), in Waterford it was 102 per thousand (10.2%) and in Limerick it was 132 per thousand (13.2%).”*
3. There is a wide variation in reports of how well the home operated. Undeniably, it was dilapidated and often took the appearance of a nightmare. Yet a Board of Heath report in 1935 described it as “one of the best managed institutions in the country” and in 1949, a local newspaper said that an inspection had found, “everything in very good order and congratulated the sisters on the excellent conditions.” The sisters immunized the children and lobbied for money to improve the facilities.
4. The home never left the hands of the County Council. This point is important because it contradicts any impression that what went on at Tuam was a reflection of the unique callousness of the Catholic authorities: in fact, it was an institution that relied on state money. In 1951, the sisters begged the Council for more cash. In 1949, they met with Senator Martin Quinn and told him that children were suffering as a result of a lack of funds, to which he replied, “I do not like these statements which receive such publicity”. And, ashamedly, the locals actually complained about the cost to the ratepayers of financing the home.
Put all this evidence together and you have a far more nuanced picture than the one presented in parts of the media. Tuam was a miserable institution, blighted by underfunding and the snobbery of the locals. But it may sometimes have been run better than at other times, and it’s possible to see some of the nuns as people who were prepared to do something that the rest of the community would not – care, no matter how poorly, for unwanted children.
In other words, the tragedy of Tuam has to be put into the context of the wider culture of its time. It was not a Catholic tragedy so much as an Irish or even European one. Unfortunately, it’s hard not to infer from the reportage that the Tuam story is being used as part of a wider attempt to suggest that Catholic dogma is responsible for much of the misery of the past. Time and again, we’ve been presented with headlines that indict the Church for crimes against humanity – only for the facts to somewhat blunt the force of the accusation. We were told that the Magdalene laundries were a place of unremitting brutality and horror Yet the Irish government’s own report into past crimes discovered that witnesses, “had never experienced or seen physical punishment in a Magdalene Laundry.” We were also told that the Dutch Catholic Church castrated a man who complained to the police that he was sexually abused. Yet the only evidence for this claim was anecdotal, reports overlooked the fact that it was the state that was responsible for the procedure and it was strangely forgotten that the men who abused the victim were charged and prosecuted. What is it about stories involving the Catholic Church that means some ordinarily rigorous journalists suddenly disregard fact checking? There is an odd double-standard at work here. Whenever a Muslim does something cruel or barbaric (such as female genital mutilation), politicians and the media are quick (rightly) to assert that this is a cultural practice rather than a religious one. But whenever a Catholic is guilty of a crime, it is either stated or implied that it is a direct consequence of dogma. The reality is that in both cases you have a humane and logical faith being practiced wrongly by bad people. The conditions at Tuam directly contradict the Catholic belief in the dignity of the individual or Christ’s identification with the poor and marginalised. Social ostracism is unCatholic as honour killings are unIslamic – and until we are smart enough to recognise that there is a distinction between theological principle and human practice, we will continue to misunderstand and misrepresent faith in public discourse.