Grim reports that nearly 800 dead babies were discovered in the septic tank of a home run by nuns has set off a round of soul-searching in Ireland and sparked calls for accountability from government and Catholic Church officials.
Fresh research suggests that some 796 children were secretly buried in the sewage tank of the home in Tuam, County Galway, where unmarried pregnant women were sent to give birth in an attempt to preserve the country’s devout Catholic image.
Officials said they were “horrified” at the discovery and said it revealed “a darker past in Ireland,” a country often haunted by its history of abuse within powerful church institutions.
The home was run by nuns from the Bon Secours Sisters congregation between 1925 and 1961. It was one of the “mother and baby” homes across Ireland, similar to the Sean Ross Abbey, in Tipperary, where Philomena Lee gave her child up for adoption in a story that was this year made into the eponymous Oscar-nominated film “Philomena.”
People who lived near the home said they have known about the unmarked mass grave for decades, but a fresh investigation was sparked this week after research by local historian Catherine Corless purportedly showed that of the hundreds of children who died at the home, only one was buried at a cemetery.
Speaking to the Irish Mail, which first reported her research, she also said that health board records from the 1940s said conditions at the home were dire, with children suffering malnutrition and neglect and dying at a rate four times higher than in the rest of Ireland.
Charlie Flanagan, minister for children and youth affairs, said Wednesday night that there was a “cross-departmental initiative underway” to determine how to react to allegations.
“Many of the revelations are deeply disturbing and a shocking reminder of a darker past in Ireland when our children were not cherished as they should have been,” Flanagan said.
Ireland’s Roman Catholic Church told the order of nuns who ran the former home that it must co-operate with any inquiry into the discovery, according to the Reuters news agency.
Tuam’s Archbishop Michael Neary said Wednesday that the diocese had no part in running the home but urged the Bon Secours Sisters to “act upon their responsibilities in the interests of the common good.”
“I am horrified and saddened to hear of the large number of deceased children involved and this points to a time of great suffering and pain for the little ones and their mothers,” he said.
The Bon Secours congregation did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment.