The recent discovery in Ireland of the remains of 796 babies in a so-called mass grave near a former home for unwed mothers run by Catholic nuns has raised a storm of horror in Europe but so far has escaped much notice in the USA. Nevertheless, initial reports in Irish newspapers were picked up by the Associated Press (AP) and subsequently went viral on the Internet.
An Irish researcher, Catherine Corless, had studied records in Tuam, County Galway, and found that from the founding of the home in the 1920s to its close in 1961, almost 800 infants had been buried in a site near the home. Her report was quickly picked up by London tabloids and the story blew out of all proportion.
It was claimed that most, if not all, of the babies had been discarded in an unused septic tank and that most had died of malnutrition. As one commentator noted, a “Twitter mob” mentality compared the deaths to Nazi era genocide.
The story also was used as a cudgel to hammer the Irish Catholic church and the doctrines of the Catholic Church in general. It was claimed that the nuns refused to baptize these infants because they were the children of unwed mothers.
Subsequent investigation has shown that researcher Corless had been mis-quoted and that her findings had been blown out of all proportion. In its subsequent correction the AP reported:
When Corless published her findings on a Facebook campaign page, and Irish media voiced, she speculated to reporters that the resting place of most, if not all, could be inside a disused septic tank on the site. By the time Irish and British tabloids went to print in early June, the speculation had become a certainty, the word 'disused' had disappeared, and U.S. newspapers picked up the report, inserting more errors, including one that claimed the researcher had found all 796 remains in the septic tank.
She had not been digging up bones but compiled her list by searching through local records. No children’s bones have been found in the septic tank.
On further investigation, the AP found the claim of massive malnutrition to be baseless.
The most common causes were flu, measles, pneumonia, tuberculosis and whooping cough. Contrary to the allegations of widespread starvation highlighted in some reports, only 18 children were recorded as suffering from severe malnutrition.
County Galway is in the poorest part of Ireland. The period between the two World Wars, when most of the deaths occurred, were years of great poverty and sickness all over the world. There were no modern antibiotics available to keep children alive after they had contacted one of these deadly and contagious diseases. In the twenties and thirties even married women with families in the relatively prosperous USA lost a high percentage of their newborns to disease.
Finally, the original AP story had this to say about Baptism. “In keeping with Catholic teaching, such out-of-wedlock children were denied baptism and, if they died at such facilities, Christian burial.” Later in their correction to the story the AP admitted its mistake.
Baptismal records have been found for many of the deceased infants. It was not the teaching or the practice of the Catholic Church to deny Baptism to the children of unwed mothers. It was and still is the practice of the Church only to baptize an infant if their parents requested it and promised to raise the children in the Church.
Ironically, the Church has often been accused of forcing non-Catholic children to be baptized. Critics of the Church during the Holocaust have made that claim. While it is true that priests and others, acting under the orders of the Pope, printed and distributed thousands of baptismal certificates to Jewish children, they never insisted that the children be actually baptized. The certificates were designed to spare the children from almost certain death.
As noted above the AP issued a correction to its original story. Here is a part.
The Associated Press was among the media organizations that covered Corless and her findings, repeating incorrect Irish news reports that suggested the babies who died had never been baptized and that Catholic Church teaching guided priests not to baptize the babies of unwed mothers or give to them Christian burial.
The reports of denial of baptism later were contradicted by the Tuam Archdiocese, which found a registry showing that the home had baptized more than 2000 babies. the AP issued a corrective story on Friday after discovering its errors.
Unfortunately, the damage has already been done. As so often happens, the initial allegations go all over the world but the corrections hardly get noticed.