Justice for the 800 Tuam babies

You may have seen in the news recently that about 800 babies—children of the Catholic Church’s historic “homes” for unwed mothers (or “laundries”)—are unaccounted for and presumed to be buried in unmarked graves.

In a note I received from an Irish student on June 5, I was told,

The conservative Christian press over here has refused to investigate the facts of this horrible story until last night our national TV station news mentioned it (nearly two weeks since the documents were made public) and even then they failed to mention that they were run by the church. Our prime minister is yet to even acknowledge this matter…

…We have set up a Facebook page ‘justice for the 800 Tuam babies,’ but American pressure would really help to drive an investigation…We desperately need foreign pressure to prevent a coverup and to finally get the facts of what happened in this and the dozens of other institutions around the country.

He additionally sent me citations to share out, including an article in The Guardian, and a blog article by Ophelia Benson talking at more length about the issue.

He followed up with another note,

The Irish Times has now revealed that the church was literally selling hundreds of babies a year to catholic families in the US. American men could just arrive in a Catholic nursing home in Ireland and a newborn baby would be registered in the American parents name and not the mother’s. They suspect that many fell prey to paedophiles this way.

I had already seen much of the information online, but please do feel free to share it around. The more people who know about this, apparently, the better. I don’t know how much it will help, but it certainly can’t hurt. However, try to be responsible in your reporting, as a few of the facts have been called into question–mainly manner of death (most appear to have died from disease conditions) and location of the bodies (which is undetermined at this time).

ADDENDUM: I had put that the children’s bodies were found in a septic tank–but someone on a thread noted this was not confirmed, so I have adjusted the article above (although the manner of disposal is sort of peanuts compared to the overall problem–but if an error in detail is going to distract to the point of pulling away from the core issue here, better fixed than not.)


  1. mingy says

    The misdirection on this story has already started. There is some question as to how many bodies there were, how the bodies were disposed of, etc., and there have been a number of articles disputing those details.

    The real problem is this: death rates at these “homes” were 30 to 50% – 4 to 7x the Irish average infant mortality rate for that time.

    In other words, the nuns were running death camps for babies and children.

  2. adamah says

    Well, thank GOD none of those infants were actually aborted, right? After all, God HATES abortions!

  3. says

    I actually had to share the comment on the thread that prompted my addendum, because it’s people like this who are infuriating. Lynn posted to a thread:

    > The original researcher involved in the investigation of this home in Ireland never stated that the 800 bodies were found in a septic tank. They weren’t. The babies were in unmarked graves, yes, but she found some bodies and speculated that perhaps more would be found in the old tank. Upon investigation, none were found there. Nor would it work to place 800 bodies – even those of babies – into such a small space.

    >You do know that these places were notoriously unhealthy environs for mothers and babies. Diseases would spread through rapidly and carry them off – typhus, diphtheria, measles, whooping cough, etc. Yes, there were violations of the rights of children and unwed mothers, and abuse, but to claim that the babies were simply thrown into the septic system – that goes too far.

    So, saying that the bodies were disposed of in unmarked graves = OK. Saying they were disposed of in the septic system = me going “too far.”

    And yet, the Catholic Church putting and keeping these children in pestilence and letting them languish and die…totally takes a back seat to me getting the disposal location of the dead bodies incorrect. THIS is what this person pulled away from the article. It’s just shameful misdirection, and a great example of what this Irish student was describing: People trying to make excuses for the church, down play the deaths, and find any excuse to pull the dialog away from these horrific venues that the church fully supported. Pay no attention to the church behind the curtain!

  4. says

    Hi Spooky:

    The link you provided gives a tally of at least 705 (if the two that died at birth are not counted, which seems fair). It also notes:

    >Ireland last week announced it would open a judge-led investigation into the care of children in Tuam and nine other defunct facilities, and the handling of their remains. Whether the fact-finding effort will include excavations at any of the former homes or DNA analysis of remains has yet to be decided.

    And ends with:

    >In an editorial, the Irish Times said Ireland was suffering “self-induced amnesia” given that historians already had documented “staggeringly high mortality rates in some mother and child homes.” It noted that Tuam’s mortality rate appeared lower than others, and predicted the upcoming inquiry into the entire system would be painful.

    >”Learning from the past can be a disturbing process,” it said. “It involves an examination of failures and the acceptance of hurtful conclusions. It means making amends for past societal wrongs. It should establish why certain things happened, rather than heap blame on those who implemented policy. An examination of current discriminatory practices would also help. As a society, we have an uncomfortable road to travel.”

    I think the point the student was making is that the church relies on these detail disputes to try and discredit detractors–and the population, sympathetic to the church, follows suit. I am sure there are going to be detail disputes–since it’s not really the sort of thing that is generally well documented. This is, per the link you shared, not even an extraordinary claim–in fact, it’s *less* of a death rate than other homes, if this article is correct.

    Again, this is what happens when people want to protect an institution (not saying that you are doing this–but noting that these “disputed” facts seem quite minor compared to overcrowding and the abusive conditions of homes like this one, that have been described by the women who were sent to them.) I’m fine acknowledging the details can be disputed. But I don’t want that to take away from yet *another* home for unwed mothers being exposed here. Stories like this one–from women who actually were–basically imprisoned–in these places–end up shoved to the background, and the stories get white washed by a religious-sympathetic press.



  5. says

    Again, I don’t want to defend hyperbolic reporting–I get that it’s best to be as honest as you can. And I’m happy to address and correct errors. But at some point, when the story becomes nothing but an exercise in correcting the details, so that we don’t unfairly malign the institution responsible for this–it becomes a bit like a Christian telling me I deserve to burn in hell forever, and then complaining that *I’m* being out of order or offensive when I say that I don’t believe hell exists. Or the Christian response to the claim that the Bible instructs stoning rape victims, when they assert that if the woman calls out and his heard, then she won’t be stoned, so it wasn’t a rape otherwise–totally redirecting the dialog and ignoring the reality they’ve just said that they are willing to defend stoning people to death for *consensual* sex.

    It almost seems as if some would paint these places as truly well-meaning institutions intent on helping these poor young women in their plights, and trying to do best by these infants. But the first-hand accounts that came out of these, as well as other research into the laundries paints a very different scene. I posted this article, because it’s pretty much (mundanely) like other reports of similar institutions. And the church (and its supporters–and don’t dismiss their influence in Ireland) simply downplays the claims–as they do any misstep they are accused of (see their mad dash to protect themselves throughout the child molestation cases globally).

  6. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    American men could just arrive in a Catholic nursing home in Ireland and a newborn baby would be registered in the American parents name and not the mother’s. They suspect that many fell prey to paedophiles this way.

    Just wow.

  7. says

    Here is another piece that is sympathetic to the need for correction of the facts–titled “That Story About Irish Babies Buried in a Septic Tank Was Shocking. It Also Wasn’t Entirely True.”

    While it declares “The high infant mortality rate, at the Tuam home and others, speaks volumes about the Ireland of early twentieth century, but it speaks of poverty and a lack of economic development,” it also indicates that “The truth is not entirely clear, but we know this: 796 babies are buried somewhere on the site of the old Bon Secours sisters’ home, which operated between 1925 and 1961. The records clearly show that. It’s also true that these institutions, into which unmarried women were placed by their families, has a higher infant mortality rate than the general population. In the 1920s, children born to unmarried mothers, mostly living in institutions, were six times more likely to die than children living at home with married parents.”

    It isn’t surprising that as the dates get later, the death rate improves. But the reality that the death toll was so much higher than the general population speaks to something not going as well within the homes as without. And yet, this article goes on to call these homes a “social service”:

    “And as horrific as those death rates were, how many more mass graves would there be if the Catholic church hadn’t bothered providing social services?”

    This is what I’m talking about. The Times calls this “social service” a “national shame”:


    “The laundries — a beneficent-sounding word that helped hide the mistreatment that took place inside their walls — were operated by four orders of Catholic nuns in Ireland from 1922 to 1996. Over 10,000 young women, considered a burden by family, school and the state, spent an average of six months to a year locked up in these workhouses doing unpaid, manual work. Some were kept there against their will for years.”

    I guess one person’s trash is another person’s treasure?

  8. adamah says

    Heicart said-

    Or the Christian response to the claim that the Bible instructs stoning rape victims, when they assert that if the woman calls out and his heard, then she won’t be stoned, so it wasn’t a rape otherwise–totally redirecting the dialog and ignoring the reality they’ve just said that they are willing to defend stoning people to death for *consensual* sex.

    Or how about the evangelical Xian I was talking to the other day who tried to defend Elisha’s curse against 42 children for mockery (where God complied, sending two she bears) saying they weren’t actually child, but men? My response was that I don’t care if they’re 80 yr olds: has not God and his prophets ever heard of the saying, ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’?

    I asked him if he thought such a law made sense in America (let’s just set aside the first amendment), and he was perfectly OK with making mockery of pastors a crime, punishable by death.

    He was a bit more honest than most Xians I talk to, in that he admitted he was in it to save his own skin (most try to say they’re saving YOU as an act of LUV, as if we don’t know many are told they must recruit others in order to save their own necks).


  9. adamah says

    Ooops, my post for away before I finished tying it all together.

    Bottom line is, prepare for an avalanche of “distinctions without a difference”, a common tactic used in situations where anyone with a shred of decency and common sense can see a problem.

  10. says

    Yeah, I understand that when you have a group facility, things like disease are going to have greater impact. But if nobody gave a percentage, and I said “the toll was twice as high as the general population”–that would sound very high to most people. Several times higher than a general population, should at least raise an eyebrow and merit some inquiry. But people are dismissing it with “well, it was group living” or “well, maybe they were underfunded.” A good way to determine if that is what accounts for a death rate several times that of the general population would be to have an inquiry, I would imagine?

  11. mond says

    The one positive thing that comes of this type of story is that it shows how far the moral zeitgeist has moved in a relatively short period of time. Even the idea that these places existed is an affront our 21st centuay sensibilities.

    Its just a pity that their are still apologists out there trying to mitigate immoral heinous acts of their prefered religious institution.

  12. Gregor says

    As the student quoted in this piece, and as an admin for the above group seeking justice for those affected, I’m extremely grateful to the admins of the Atheist Experience for posting this article.
    I wrote to the author because I was outraged by the maltreatment forced upon the most vulnerable in our society by those in control of the Tuam and other ‘mother and baby homes’.
    There seems to be a muddying of the issue here. It’s true that the details are not entirely clear around what exactly happened and this is precisely why an investigation was required.
    We do know certain details though:
    1.) It is well documented and known that this particular home, like many others around the country, was run by the nuns and priests of the Catholic church.
    2.) It is documented in inspections carried by the state over the years and by their own records that there was a disproportionately high death rate amongst those in the ‘care’ there, many of whom died of malnourishment (go to the Facebook page to find many many links to actual reports, newspaper articles from the time and first-hand accounts from survivors: https://m.facebook.com/profile.php?id=578489822271515
    3.) We have hundreds of accounts of women being forced to give up their newly born babies against their will. Most never saw their children again but instead were forced to work as slaves in the institutions’ laundries.

    These facts are undeniable and will be confirmed by the investigation. The specific details of the degree of proximity of the mass unmarked grave to a septic tank and whether or not it even was a septic tank for me seem pedantic and anyone who claims the story was ‘exaggerated’ I refer to the above 3 points before asking whether or not an investigation is justifiable. There are hundreds of people, from this institution alone, who should still be alive today and countless women and children who suffered needlessly. The people of Ireland, the world, and most importantly, the victims of this abuse deserve to know exactly what happened, why, who’s accountable and how those accountable can begin to atone for those lives they destroyed.

  13. says

    It really does not stop. I’m posting a video link sent to me by someone who thinks they’re informing me about something. I had trouble getting the video to play, but lucky for me, a transcript is beneath. Here is the video in the interest of fair representation:


    In the transcript, they AGAIN, acknowledge that 796 children died in this home. From earlier links we have it that this was, in the 1920s, about 6 times that of the normal population, also suffering from the same poverty and illnesses. The video also brings up the “septic” thing again–and AGAIN, 796 dead infants are 796 dead infants, no matter WHERE they are disposed of.

    If a home that is tasked with caring for children is said, by its defenders, to have a death rate several times higher than the normal population, and someone says “maybe we need to have an inquiry”–why is that even controversial?

  14. erinanne says

    Hello – I’m also a co-admin for the referenced group, and I thank you as well for bringing attention to this. I’m American (and an atheist), and have struggled with rallying people here. In fact, most I have talked to, even those who claim to be “pro-life” human rights supporters, enthusiastically defend the Church.

    While the media headlines referring to the septic tank were a bit sensationalized, the details of the religious slavery in which these women and children were held, has not been. The burials, which are still yet to be determined, is a minor detail compared to the withholding of medical treatment as penance for sin, invasive physical experimentation on the children without consent (the Nuns were paid to hand them over), abduction and trafficking of the children (again, the Church gained monetary profit from this), and holding the women as servants to clergy – many for their entire lives. This was not 100+ years ago. The last of these homes in Ireland closed in *1996*. As Gregor said, we’ve heard many horrific first hand accounts from survivors, and their stories illustrate how some people are unable to distinguish obedience from morality, when those listening merely shrug, and offer some form of justification.

    Please do pass along this information, and share our FB page liberally. The inquiry will soon begin, and international pressure is critical in giving those survivors at least some chance at justice. Ireland will also be going in front of the UN Human Rights Committee next month, and this situation will be under their review as well. MAYBE, just maybe, this investigation will push the Church closer to having to own up, and pay for *their* sins, and crimes against humanity.

    One last thing – we’re avoiding the burial discussion since it’s not fully known as of yet, but the Irish media did screw the pooch a few times, trying to put words into Catherine Corless’ mouth (she is the historian who collected the 796 death certificates from the Tuam home). Below is a link to her daughter’s blog, in which she clarifies a few points.


  15. says

    This is a very interesting article:


    It concerned me because the infant mortality rates quoted are weirdly close to normal, and even in some cases BETTER than the general population–which really made no sense at all, as with “group” homes, you would expect *some* higher percentage of infant deaths. So, it seemed a little “too good to be true.”

    Then in a comment in the thread, Micheál Fadden provided some further information on infant mortality rates and a break down of how they should be calculated. In essence Micheál disputes the rates given in the article and lists them as strikingly higher. And he provides an archive citation of his figures, explaining:

    >But the one thing that this story can place attention on is the vast difference in the infant mortality rates that existed between so-called ‘legitimate’ children and ‘illegitimate’ children in the Irish state during the time period. A simple search through the “Annual Report of the Registrar-General of Marriages, Births and Deaths in Ireland” for the year 1933 shows that the infant (under-1) death rate was 60 per 1000 live births for ‘legitimate’ children compared to 209 for ‘illegitimate’ children with the majority of those deaths occuring to infants living in institutions (349 of the 418 deaths in the year 1933).

    A later poster, named “domy” then disputes Micheál, and again provides a “too good to be true” estimate of better than the general population. I will be the first person to congratulate the home if they truly were able to have better infant mortality rates than the rest of the population, while avoiding the problem (described in this very article) of “cross infection” exacerbated by high density group living.

    In the end, it just seems a bit of a shame that there was any misreporting on this. The “septic tank” thing seems to be taking the lead role of it. The good news is that according to this piece, there is an inquiry planned:

    “In response to Corless’s story, Minister for Children Charlie Flanagan confirmed this week that there will be a Government inquiry into all mother-and-baby homes.”

    Honestly, this just seems reasonable. We have 800 missing dead infants. And articles *defending* the home claiming 6x the death toll of the normal population, well within the normal population, and even amazingly (and hard to understand) BETTER than the normal population.

    I am now interested in this inquiry just to see if we can find out what is actually the truth of anything here? Because nobody seems to be telling the same story. Every article–supporters or detractors–seems to have their own proprietary story to tell. So, now I’m really curious.

  16. says

    That is good news about the inquiry. To me, 800 missing dead infants should have at least that. Regardless of what the outcome is, the benefit will be in just knowing what happened. As you say–anyone who lived in the home, personally, could potentially shed some light on the conditions, and how the infant deaths were handled, if they were averaging a couple per month? It sounds like, with an inquiry coming, you all are headed toward your goal of finding out what happened there. Good.

  17. erinanne says

    There is all kinds of media spin going on, and that’s no surprise given the ties between church and state in Ireland – the bias is very strong – but fortunately there’s a nice paper trail that historians have managed to collect, along with well informed members of the Dáil (Ireland’s house of representatives) who support the inquiry and have the statistical information in hand.

    In Tuam, the unusually high mortality rate was noted in the local news as early as the 1920s, not long after it opened. The original Bon Secours home had been moved to Tuam because of the ridiculously high death rate at its previous location. Believe it or not, Tuam had a *lower* mortality rate as compared to other homes around the country. 60% of all children born in a home in Bessborough, Cork had died there, until a physician’s visit in the 1950s.

    Dr. James Deeny, visited, and wrote in 1951:

    “Shortly afterwards, when in Cork, I went to Bessborough. It was a beautiful institution, built on to a lovely old house just before the war, and seemed to be well-run and spotlessly clean. I marched up and down and around about and could not make out what was wrong; at last I took a notion and stripped all the babies and, unusually for a Chief Medical Adviser, examined them.

    “Every baby had some purulent infection of the skin and all had green diarrhea, carefully covered up. There was obviously a staphylococcus infection about.

    “Without any legal authority I closed the place down and sacked the matron, a nun, and also got rid of the medical officer.

    “The deaths had been going on for years. They had done nothing.”

    One year later the mortality rate in that home dropped from 60% to 1%.

    Historian Liam Hogan has done an amazing job hunting down decades worth of information that the media hasn’t much caught on to.

  18. Daragh says

    That article is from a hardcore Catholic Website, they are greatly misrepresenting the facts.

    To say the historian has backtracked is a gross misrepresentation. This article is far more representative of her views

    In any case, there is far too much of a focus on the homes at Tuam, it is undisputed in many other homes there was horrific mistreatment and wilful neglect leading too far too high mortality rates. Catholic Apologists try to discredit facts surrounding Tuam while trying to deflect from all of the other allegations


  19. says

    It sounds like Hollywood is doing the investigation, which means that there will probably be another lame movie that makes the X-tian faith look good. Talk about propaganda.

  20. adamah says

    Sir Real said- Maybe God enjoys hearing them cry just before they die, which can’t be done until they’re outside the womb.

    You may be on to something here.

    I think the proper Biblical example would be King David’s son, who died as punishment of the sins of his parents, since he was born out of wedlock as a result of the adulterous affair David and Bathsheba were carrying on (after David arranged for the hubby to die, assigning him to the front lines). So the sickly child was said to teach the parents a lesson.

    One cannot fill one’s mind with such twisted amoral thinking arising (eg sins being punished by the death of the offspring, lit paying for the sins of their parents) without having it result in a widespread organizational attitude that allows situations such as Tuam to occur. They no doubt even excuse their participation in their own minds, thinking they will be rewarded by God for playing a role in doling out His punishment.


  21. mingy says

    I would be interested in knowing, for example, what the death rate in Irish private schools were (what with group living and all) I strongly suspect it would have been much lower than the general population because the kids would have been carefully looked after rather than starved and abused.

    My understanding is that the high death rate was known to the authorities but they didn’t do anything because Jesus.

    Yes an inquiry would be a good idea, especially if it focused on the treatment of the kids, rather than the disposal of their bodies.

  22. says

    That is why I believe that this god is a megalomaniac who enjoys seeing the innocent suffer at the hands of the guilty. It’s deplorable when people use religion as an excuse to justify their actions or in this case the responsibilities of the church. The bible is an evil book that is too prejudice for my tastes. In my opinion evil is anything that would constitute an injustice and punishing the innocent just to get back at the guilty is about as much of an injustice,(insane justice) as can be. Perhaps this also explains why Je$u$ perished as well because wasn’t he born out of wedlock?

  23. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    “To adopt a baby the American soldier and his wife would travel to Dublin, where the wife checked in to the nursing home as an expectant mother. An Irish woman would actually bear the child, but the birth would be registered in the name of the American.”

    Much the same was happening in Mexico … according to friends I had there. Woman checks in to a “clinica” and checks out with the baby.

  24. Pete G says

    Little wonder so many children die in these appalling religious institutions.

    The late, great Christopher Hitchens outed Mother Teresa for the wicked, sadistic monster she really was. Taking millions of dollars from the rich to build more death camps whilst keeping the sick and dying just the way they deserve (in her eyes), sick and dying.