In Irish children's deaths, clarity doesn't thrive in a septic tank

The accounts of cruelty, neglect and other abuse of children under Catholic Church care in Ireland cannot and must not be ignored. But in their tales about babies buried in septic tanks and such, news media need to be scrupulous with facts and clarity.

A case in point: two articles on St. Mary's Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway, both from The New York Times.

In his June 4 article, writer Douglas Dalby mentioned "allegations that a Roman Catholic religious order secretly buried up to 796 babies and toddlers born to unmarried mothers in a septic tank over several decades."

By this past Monday, he backpedaled a bit. He said his main source, historian Catherine Corless, based part of her allegation on a 48-year-old man who said he'd seen a hole filled with 15-20 small skeletons -- back when he was 10:

Where and how the bodies of the children were actually disposed of remains a mystery — and a scandal in tiny Tuam, population 8,200, that has for the moment revealed more about the ways local lore and small-town sleuthing can be distorted in the news media juggernaut than about what actually went on decades ago at the state-funded home for unmarried pregnant women run by the Bon Secours Sisters, a Roman Catholic order.

"News media juggernaut" is not too strong a term for what happened in the mainstream press. Our friend and ally Rod Dreher found a clutch of mainstream media outlets -- from The Guardian to the Washington Post to Al-Jazeera -- alleging that a full 800 children's corpses were dumped in a scandalous mass grave.

You can see quite a lot of that on YouTube as well, with titles like "Bodies of 800 Babies Found in Septic Tank in Ireland" and, of course, "Another Atrocity from the Catholic Church."

Who says these media reports are wrong, simplistic or radically blown out of proportion? For one, Corless herself:

"I never used that word ‘dumped’,” Catherine Corless, a local historian in Co Galway, tells The Irish Times. “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.”

What did she say, then? That perhaps 796 children affiliated with the children's home in Tuam died between 1925 and 1961 -- mainly of tragically childhood (especially in an era of crushing poverty in Ireland) diseases such as measles, whooping cough, bronchitis, influenza and tuberculosis -- and that they weren't buried in local cemeteries. She concluded that many of them were in an "unofficial graveyard at the rear of the former home," the Irish Times reports. How many? We do not know. One thing is clear, however, death certificates were filed for these children, so we are not talking about secret deaths.

At least Dalby of the New York Times avoided blaming the Roman Catholic Church en Mass, as it were. The Associated Press wasn’t so scrupulous, as uber-GetReligionista tmatt said a week ago.

"In keeping with Catholic teaching," AP said, "such out-of-wedlock children were denied baptism and, if they died at such facilities, Christian burial." AP, however, didn't try to trace such abusive attitudes to any particular church document, nor did it cite any church leader.

Why the j'accuse masking as coverage? I could guess at a few influences. There's the natural antagonism of mainstream media toward institutional religion. There's the influence of the 2013 movie Philomena, telling of the Catholic Church throwing a pregnant teen in a convent, then wresting her child away.

And there's been a string of reports and studies on actual scandals in the Irish church. Dreher mentions the so-called Ryan Report, which details "chronic beatings, rape and humiliation" in Catholic-run industrial schools and orphanages. As Dalby reports, no less a church figure than Archbishop Diamuid Martin of Dublin has called for an investigation in Tuam, even for digging up likely sites of children's remains.

That and more must be done to protect Irish children, prevent further abuses, and purge abusers from Catholic ranks. Other things should be done less: sensationalism, speculation and guilt by association. As abuses in Ireland are unearthed, shoddy, inaccurate and simplistic reporting should be buried.

To read a rather vicious takedown on the mainstream coverage -- yet one that includes some crucial facts and corrections -- check out this Sp!ked essay from the other side of the pond. Hold on:

The media got a whiff of Corless’s findings and turned them into the stuff of nightmares. ‘Bodies of 800 babies, long-dead, found in septic tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers’, declared the Washington Post. ‘800 skeletons of babies found inside tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers’, said the New York Daily News. ‘Galway historian finds 800 babies in septic tank grave’, said the Boston Globe. ‘The bodies of 800 babies were found in the septic tank of a former home for unwed mothers in Ireland’, cried Buzzfeed. Commentators angrily demanded answers from the Catholic Church. ‘Tell us the truth about the children dumped in Galway’s mass graves’, said a writer for the Guardian, telling no-doubt outraged readers that ‘the bodies of 796 children… have been found in a disused sewage tank in Tuam, County Galway’. The blogosphere and Twitter hordes went even further than the mainstream media, with whispers about the 800 babies having been murdered by the nuns and demands for the UN to investigate ‘crimes against humanity’ in Tuam.

On almost every level, the news reports in respectable media outlets around the world were plain wrong. Most importantly, the constantly repeated line about the bodies of 800 babies having been found was pure mythmaking. The bodies of 800 babies had not been found, in the septic tank or anywhere else. Rather, Corless had speculated in her research that the 796 children who died at the home had been buried in unmarked plots (common practice for illegitimate children in Ireland in the early to mid-twentieth century) and that some might have been put in the tank in which two boys in 1975 saw human remains. The septic tank or the grounds of the former home have not been excavated. No babies have been ‘found in a septic tank’, as the Washington Post, Guardian and others claimed. The claim that the babies were ‘dumped’ into some kind of sewage system is wrong, too. Corless says the nuns ‘made a crypt out of the old septic tank’. She now says her research has been ‘widely misrepresented’ and that she ‘never used the word “dumped”’ to describe the possible placing of some dead children into a makeshift crypt (‘possible’ being the operative word).

More to the point, it’s actually not possible that all 800 dead babies are in this tank-cum-crypt, as pretty much every media outlet has claimed. Mainly because, as the Irish Times reports, the septic tank was still in use up to 1937, 12 years after the home opened, during which time 204 of the 796 deaths occurred - and ‘it seems impossible’, the paper says, ‘that more than 200 bodies could have been put in a working sewage tank’.

Strong opinions here, yes. But this is what you would expect from a hit piece that is critiquing hit pieces.

(VIDEO: One of many sensationalistic clips on YouTube about the children alleged to be buried in Tuam, Ireland.)

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