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According to a report in today’s Financial Times, Chris Patten has been appointed by Pope Francis to take on the new role of improving the Church’s Vatican media  relations.

As former Chairman of the BBC Trust Lord Patten should have a lot of experience in terms of advising the Vatican how to overhaul their communications department and in particular their media outlets, which let’s be honest, need bringing up to date. Much of the heavy lifting in terms of communicating both the Gospel message and using the media as a form of Catechesis has already been done by enterprising American apostolates. The Vatican has, for some years now been lagging behind, the Church’s own media agency is never the first port of call when it comes to catching up on Papal news and events, or what’s going on in the Catholic world,  unless you are a well-connected Vaticanista or official reporter looking for confirmation of facts. The Vatican still needs to get its act together when it comes to stopping a lie from travelling half way around the world, while their press operation is still switching on their fax machine.

Of course the very last thing that Pope Francis needs right now is the services of a spin doctor, which I suspect he’d eschew, but if Lord Patten is going to use his expertise to help the Vatican in terms overhauling their digital output (which has markedly improved over the past few  years), or getting Vatican radio, TV and newspapers more up to date and able to better maximise the opportunities presented by the rolling news cycle, it will be no bad thing. Patten is a canny operator, in possession of a sharp intellect with a passion for public service and by all accounts a very personable and charming individual. Whatever one may think of the BBC’s editorial policies, their output is of a consistently high quality.

That said his tenure at the BBC wasn’t free of controversy, there was the disastrous coverage of Queen’s diamond jubilee river pageant which Patten admitted was ‘not the corporation’s finest hour’. Also was the affair of the over-generous pay-offs to executives which revealed a chaotic management with no-one willing to take responsibility, and there’s also the issue of the shiny new refurbishment at Broadcasting House (a project which came into being prior to Patten’s tenure) which came in millions over budget. Anyone whose visited there can’t help but to admire the place, I was struck between the transformation between October last year and just last month, the building seemed more high-tech and glossy than ever-before, all the lifts have been replaced and modernised, the recording studios are more spacious and comfortable, but nothing had previously seemed to be screaming out for improvement. I was nonetheless amused to learn that despite the billions spent on the place, apparently bits of the set on the news studio have a tendency to fall off. Perhaps it’s a deliberate retro-70s effect? BBC News meets Crossroads.

One doubts whether or not the Vatican, which is currently engaged in a Curial streamlining and efficiency exercise will have the inclination or surplus cash to play about with in the same way as the BBC – they simply don’t have large amounts of liquidity at hand, nor can I see senior Cardinals and prelates or lay officials getting together for a blue-sky media brainstorming mind-map session followed up by spot of team-building – although the sight of archbishops blind quad-bike racing or rock climbing in St Peter’s Square might be rather fun!

And of course, the big elephant in the room when it comes to the BBC is the Savile affair, although taking heed of the lessons learned in the Catholic Church Lord Patten stated that the BBC must tell the truth and face up to the truth about itself, no matter how terrible. He is no stranger to an institution rocked to its foundations by an abuse scandal and the need for confidence to be restored. At the beginning of this week BBC broadcaster Nicky Campbell launched a scathing attack on Lord Patten’s ‘ignorance’ in apparently ignoring talented female broadcasters and presenters, so it might be that this appointment is further grist to the feminists’ mill.

Lord Patten oversaw arrangements for the phenomenally successful Papal visit of 2010, and in September of 2010, The Tablet named him as one the UK’s most influential Catholics, such an accolade being something of a double-edged sword. Perhaps that’s why Damian Thompson appears to have little time for him, describing him in one tweet as being as Tory, as Tony Blair is Catholic. Ouch! It’s a theme reiterated by Damian in several posts, along with the fact that Lord Patten is a trustee of the Tablet, a Chancellor of Oxford University and  seemingly much trusted by the Bishops Conference in England and Wales, as a safe pair of hands.

Still, who are we to judge? He’s an experienced media operator, businessman and politician. For those understandably cautious about his orthodoxy, (he isn’t going to be responsible for formulating or promulgating the message, only the medium by which it is transmitted), let’s pray and wish him and the Vatican media operation, well.

Update:

It looks as though Lord Patten will be leading an extremely senior and experienced international team, according to the Vatican Press Release, which includes the very highly regarded Monsigner Paul Tighe, Secretary for the Pontifical Council for Social Relations and Gregory Earlandson, president and publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, so the Media Committee set up to consider reforms is not a mere quango and neither is Patten’s appointment some sort of English Catholic establishment political coup d’etat as might be claimed. Chris Patten is not acting as a Mandelson-style personal advisor or spin doctor, as reported in the Mail and his role is a voluntary, unpaid one.

The dry nature and visual format of the press release and the fact that the FT has so far been the only outlet to pick up the news, neatly proves the point about the need for reform.

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Taken from this weekend’s Gay Pride event in London. Genetic pre-disposition or social conditioning/choice?

Julie Bindel, bete noir of the LGBT activists scene is back, having written an interesting book Straight Expectations, one chapter of which examines the question of the ‘gay gene’ and whether or not homosexuality is a choice.

I never got an opportunity to debate Bindel  in any of the same-sex marriage media debates much to my regret. I’d like to meet Julie, though no doubt she would vehemently disagree with me. She’s highly intelligent, feisty and ferocious and in my opinion one of the most challenging writers on the entire subject. Her writing is all the more compelling for the conservative Christian when one considers that she does not share or endorse our creed, particularly in the area of sexual ethics.

Out of every single opponent I was put up against, including Peter Tatchell, whose main response was to screech ‘bigot’ by way of retort, none of them seemed to match the intellect of Bindel, nor did their  arguments go beyond the whole ‘equality equals sameness’ schtick. Intermingled amongst the disappointment of not debating Julie, was a sense of relief in that her arguments offered a genuine critique of the institution of marriage as a whole – which is a deft re-frame.

No doubt she would consider Catholic ideology as batshit extreme and outrageous as I consider some of her radical feminism, however what both positions have in common is that they are, if nothing else, entirely reasoned and logical. One of my colleagues appeared on a few programmes with her, and said that though her overall position was outre, he also conceded that she was very good and did actually make some sound points.

My husband, who has no idea who’s who in the media and chattering classes sent me a text the other day, saying that he had listened to Start the Week on Radio 4 on his way into work and heard this woman, whose name he couldn’t recall, whose overall position he didn’t espouse, having some disastrous ideas, but who was, in his opinion, nonetheless interesting. He urged me to download the programme or listen on Iplayer as he thought it was absolutely fascinating. Having checked out the synopsis, it was indeed Bindel discussing her new book and he was right, she did make some excellent and compelling points. If nothing else, Bindel is always interesting.

The Independent has published an interview between the respected establishment gay male voice Patrick Strudwick and Bindel, in which Bindel steadfastly and robustly defends her point of view that being gay is a choice. The dislike, frustration and contempt emanating from Strudwick is palpable. He deliberately chooses loaded comparisons, referring to her as an “Old Testament Maven from Tennesse” thereby planting and reinforcing the Levitical laws cliche, neatly aligning Bindel’s views with the Deep South redneck caricature.

Strudwick attempts to dismiss the issue of why some people have a different sexual orientation as being irrelevant and a preoccupation of bigots, forgetting that human diversity will always hold fascination for scientists and athropologists alike. It’s not bigoted wondering if there is a biological or evolutionary reason for various difference and by and large it is those very same bigots who would fight vociferously for the rights of gay people to be born should a test ever be developed which could identify the gay gene or sexual orientation in utero.

Bindel’s definition of choice is complex – it certainly isn’t of the “I think I’ll be gay to be fashionable”, or picking a sexual identity off the shelf, if one were to apply the word in a consumer context.

“Because I think the opposite of having an innate, biological explanation [for homosexuality] – there’s no evidence for that – has to be some kind of choice, as well as some deep-rooted, embedded responses that developed through different experiences in our childhood.”

That would appear to make sense, twin studies, appear to demonstrate that there is some kind of biological root, while there may be some kind of genetic disposition, gay men share some genetic signatures on the X chromosome, this is not the whole story. Biological factors could perhaps be mediated by childhood experiences, according to one clinical psychologist. Another theory is that environmental factors outside our control could affect gene receptors, meaning that they are either triggered or switched off in certain people, which always goes some way to explain why some people can smoke and drink inordinate amounts and yet still live to a ripe old age, free of related cancers.

The interesting thing is that these biological factors only seem to have been prevalent in men; Bindel may well have a point when she talks about lesbianism being chosen, and she’s also correct not to want to lump those who do not subscribe to hetrosexual norms, (including asexual people) into one homogenous mass. which if nothing else, is a form of de-humanisation. Actress Cynthia Nixon made a similar point about her lesbianism being freely chosen a few years ago, but was forced and  shamed by the liberal media into making a later retraction.

The quest for knowledge is not in itself bigoted and neither is there evidence to suggest that the scientists who Bindel believes to be ‘obsessed’ with the question are necessarily pursuing an agenda, whether that’s to definitively confirm the presence of a gay gene, or to use the idea of choice as a stick with which to beat gay people.

Strudwick puts his finger on the nub of why Bindel arouses such horror amongst some of the gay community because he believes that he stance will give ‘bigots comfort and fuel their agenda’.

They will say that even a prominent gay-rights campaigner agrees that it’s a choice, I counter.

“But I don’t agree with them! They wouldn’t use an argument from me in a million years!”

Strudwick is right, up to a point, there are those, including myself who believes that the personal testimony of a lesbian woman bears weight and there does seem to be an innate biological difference between lesbian women and gay men. Anecdote is not the plural of data, but I can think of several lesbian women of my acquaintance who have embarked on relationships with women after long-term relationships with men and sadly in some cases, of women who have decided that they were lesbian or preferred women following traumatic childhood cases of sexual abuse by men.

I’d also be inclined to agree with Strudwick in his identification of biological differences, gender is not merely a social fluid construct as Bindel would contend. Gender theory relies solely on ideology not an any established scientific fact. Julie’s position is a political one.

Given the numerous accusations of ‘bigotry’ leveled at those who did not wish to see the law changed and have a new definition of marriage imposed upon us, my support of Bindel will reinforce Strudwick’s conviction and unease about Bindel’s opinions.

Strudwick would do well remember that the endorsement of those with ‘undesirable views’ of a certain position, doesn’t alter the facts at hand and shouldn’t be allowed to poison or close down the discussion. Society and the media must allow for the free exchange of ideas and ignore the fact that haters on both sides of the sexual conservatism/libertinism debate or culture wars will grasp whatever is available to fuel their prejudice. The issue of whether or not being gay is freely chosen or an involuntary one, down to biological factors alone will continue to intrigue people until its satisfactory resolution, which would appear to be some way off.

The mainstream debate about same-sex marriage did not in any way centre around the causes of homosexuality, it was rightly irrelevant. What was under discussion was the institution of marriage, not the behaviour of non-heterosexuals.

Even in Catholicism that most ‘bigoted’ of religions the issue  does not ever figure, the Catechism observes that it is is not known why people have a different sexual orientation, and in event everyone ought to be treated with the dignity and respect that they are due. Straight or gay everyone is urged to act with appropriate sexual restraint. Being straight does not mean that one has no other choice other than to have sex with those to whom you find yourself attracted. Having consensual sexual intercourse or indulging in sexual acts will, always be a choice.

What is missing however, is that personal choices of this nature are rarely straightforward and almost never made in a vaccum. It doesn’t really matter whether or not homosexuality is chosen, what should be recognised is that even if this is the case for some people, even if a tiny minority do make a conscious choice to be of a certain orientation, this is completely irrelevant. We don’t stigmatise and demonise post-abortive women on account of their choices, the same principles must be applied to the gay community.

For those wondering why a Catholic is writing about or endorsing a LGBT writer, the answer is pretty simple. You can’t reject a point of view with any credence unless you can engage with it critically. Julie Bindel offers a radical critique of LGBT culture from a unique perspective.

Imagine for a moment, that I were to start writing and campaigning about obesity and its effects upon children.

The usual trolls would descend, claiming this to be somehow religiously motivated, would take some obscure Levitical verse as being my motivation and bang on that I believe in the ludicrously outdated notion of sin, in this particular case, gluttony. No doubt I’d also be accused of lacking compassion for the overweight and made to take responsibility for any fat person who felt ashamed, was driven to diet or who suffered from any bullying or mental health difficulties.

There may be no religious conviction underpinning the current crusade against obesity and sugar in particular, which is rapidly replacing tobacco as the next thing which must be banned or regulated, but certain health professionals are pursuing the cause of weight and obesity with a zeal which would put Torquemada to shame.

So, hot off the back of the mooted ‘sugar tax’, the normally sensible Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, Chairman of the select Health committe, appeared on Good Morning Britain to state that all primary school children ought to be weighed in school, a call which was promptly reinforced by Britain’s loudest self-proclaimed voice of reason, Katie Hopkins.

No-one is denying that obesity or sugar is bad for us, or that being overweight can have a negative impact upon health. According to the World Health Organisation, even being slightly overweight can increase the risk of health problems. And by and large we know that being overweight is a preventable condition, we all need to take more care over what we eat and increase the amount of exercise we take. Fewer saturated fats, less sugar and thirty minutes of regular moderate activity every day. Simples!

Except it isn’t. We know that people have a complex often psychologically unhealthy relationship with food, and that something which sounds so straightforward often isn’t. We also know that metabolisms differ and that in some of cases people really are unable to shed weight easily, for a variety of medical reasons and conditions. To attribute a weight problem to ignorance,  laziness or some kind of psychiatric disorder is a glib attitude of the smug.

The idea of weighing children in school is a horrifying one, which will set them up for a lifetime of negative body image issues, overt paranoia about weight and creates fertile ground for a culture of bullying, which as most parents will know, teenagers do not need any encouragement with. I have bitter experience of this, though never technically overweight, I came in at the top end of the scale, and the regular weigh-ins were a form of torture, along with the inevitable playground comparisons and competition. The process was equally traumatic for those at the lower end of the spectrum. It’s no surprise that almost all of my school friends  struggled with eating disorders and food issues at some point in their lives.

This is no longer the feminist issue perhaps it would have been a generation ago, although people of a certain age will remember Roland from Grange Hill, demonstrating that overweight children is not a new phenomenon. A quarter of people affected by an eating disorder at a school age are boys.

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Clamping down on homophobic bullying in schools, telling children it’s okay for them to be exactly how they are, lacks sincerity and is undermined by measures which tell children precisely the opposite. You may not be able to help being gay, but to be fat or overweight is completely unacceptable and must be stamped out.

In many ways this current crusade about weight is linked to the culture of death. We are sending the message that your life is of more value and of a better quality if you are thin, whereas actually the stereotype of the fat happy person might actually have some truth to it, according to research, the obesity gene is linked to happiness.

If the state were to charge for contraception and abortions, there would be an outcry about how they were attempting to interfere with people’s personal lives, getting in the bedroom along with the usual ridiculous, hysterical and factually inaccurate rhetoric of poking about in women’s wombs. Acres of column inches would be devoted to how the state has no place as a moral guardian, attempting to dictate and impose moral values about how we should conduct our sex lives, the fact that they already do this in terms of nudging young women towards Long Acting Reversible Contraceptives, and men towards condoms, having escaped the attention of most.

Why is no-one questioning the ethics as to whether or not the state ought to be complicit in  moulding and encouraging its citizens into a homogenous size and shape? Is there really so much difference between this and the proscribed haircuts and clothes of the North Koreans, or is state intervention in our eating habits and sex lives a necessary and desirable trade-off  and inevitable consequence of the existence of the NHS? If we were all responsible for bearing the costs of our own health-care would the nation’s size still be seen as an urgent and pressing public health concern, which the government must instantly tackle?

One can’t help but wonder whether or not by advocating and supporting state intervention into eating habits, including the involvement of schools we are conceding yet more control of our lives and feeding a cycle of co-dependence. This is where Catholic Social Teaching, with its emphasis upon the family as first and primary educators, with ultimate responsibilities to their children and non-delegable duties, comes in.

An interesting comparison can be made when we look at the drive to get more children into Early Years and nursery education. A few weeks ago I attended an induction session prior to my daughter’s entry into primary school in September. The school had helpfully provided a list of expectations, things which children ought to be capable of achieving independently before they start. Incredibly, the list included whether or not they could recognise their own name. Not in written format, but did they actually know what their own name was. Would they know that the teacher was actually calling to, speaking to or referring to them if their name was used in a classroom situation. Another was were they able to use the toilet independently – were they potty trained?

It beggared belief that children may be starting school without these basic skills, but seemingly there is an increasing tranche of parents who believe that this is the state’s responsibility. No wonder the government is wanting to get as many children as possible into nursery care, in order to be confident that children have reached a minimum standard before starting school. As the state takes more and more responsibility for our diet, our children, our sex lives, the more dependent we become and instead of taking responsibility for ourselves, or encouraging other people to, the more we expect someone else with spurious qualifications (like a City & Guilds in bottom-wiping) to take control and sort it out.

Arguably state intervention in terms of prescribing our diet and lifestyle is far more intimate and invasive than moves to discourage abortion and promiscuous sex, yet the latter remains taboo, the former desirable in the minds and consciousness of the public.

What the current moral panic about sugar and obesity demonstrates is that religion does not possess the monopoly upon attempting to proscribe certain norms of behaviour and employing morality and shaming tactics to those who do not conform. The new pariahs are no longer single mothers, divorced women, prostitutes or sex workers, but those who are overweight. It isn’t hard to draw a parallel between children who were removed from their mothers on account of their marital status and those who are forcibly removed from their parents on account of their size or parents’ couch-potato lifestyle. Their crime,  in essence, being that of loving their children too much, or not being able to exercise tough love. Removing the child from their parents may conversely cause more long-term problems that it solves.

Stuffing down an entire tub of ice-cream or packet of tortillas in one sitting has become more shameful and sinful than a raunchy sex orgy with a group of random strangers picked up on the internet. When it comes to sex, ‘who are we to judge’: when it comes to food, you must be identified as being at risk, ridiculed, shamed and punished by higher food prices for wanting to do that which is wrong, bad for you and which fecklessness could cost other people money.

There’s an irony in that moderation is constantly touted as the key in terms of diet, but dare to apply that to the sexual appetite and you’ll be shouted down as a judgemental bigot.

Forget sex, that’s sorted. The new Puritans no longer care about who you choose to sleep with or how many abortions you have, how many families you break up by your freely chosen behaviour, how many embryos you freeze or how much strain you put on your body and your or the state’s finances by your choice to use IVF, it doesn’t matter how many children are affected by negative consequences of IVF, how many women you pay to bear children for you or how many kids you deprive of loving mum and dad or of a stable family.

You can do all of these things and should not expect to receive any negative judgement on any aspect of self-destructive behaviour. Unless of course, you are fat.

A sluggish evening

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From the “Beer in the Evening” website

My parents came to stay last night on their way back from a few days holiday in Devon. After supper, made all the more succulent by the fact that I didn’t have to cook it, we decided it would be a fine wheeze to take advantage of the beautiful summer’s evening and go for a stroll along the seafront.

The toddler is currently keeping unsociable hours, her sleep patterns are totally out of whack due to a combination of teething, the heat and that despite my best efforts she will insist upon falling into a comatose state around about 5pm and refusing to wake until early evening, whereupon she’s ready to party for the rest of the night.

‘Why don’t we put her in the pushchair and take her with us’ suggested my mother, wondering whether a blast of evening sea-air might make her drop off. So once the other children were settled down, off we trotted; me with the lolloping labrador in tow and my parents dutifully wheeling the buggy – the novelty and enjoyment of pushing a child in the pram has yet to diminish 8 grandchildren down the line, my mum will glad-hand it away from me at every possible opportunity.

Like Pooh-bear my mother is always in the mood ‘for a little something’, except the honey is replaced by coffee or if she is feeling particularly adventurous, a Kir Royale and so she thought it would be rather civilised if we were to find a convivial establishment in which to sit outside and indulge her favourite hobby.

Sadly there isn’t anywhere open on the Hove/Shoreham stretch of the promenade on a summer’s evening, so once we’d walked a fair way along the seafront we went back into central Hove on our way home. Walking past the Slug and Lettuce in George Street, my mum spied empty coffee cups on an outside table, surmised they served coffee and went inside to be served, whilst my dad picked a table. We had a fair bit of choice, every single outside table was empty and indeed the bar inside probably only had about 1 customer, something which suited us quite well. The toddler had fallen asleep and the puppy is yet to outgrow his over-friendly and boisterous tendencies.

My mother approached the barman and asked for 3 large coffees and was met with a curt “I’m not serving you, you’ve got a child”. Not wishing to argue the toss or have an embarrassing scene, she promptly left, surmising that the chap just couldn’t be bothered.

As we trundled disappointedly back towards home, I wondered aloud whether or not it was a licensing issue, which didn’t really make any sense seeing as we were sat outside and hardly likely to cause a problem, especially with the baby asleep. My dad thought that the person clearing the tables had heard me deliberating whether or not to order a G&T and was being over-zealous or a nannying fuss-bucket, and was taking a “I’m not serving you alcohol when you’ve got a child to look after” attitude.

We were completely baffled and rather humiliated to boot. We were told that our custom was neither wanted or welcome, on account of having a small sleeping child in a pushchair, with no explanation given as to why her presence posed such a problem.

Reflecting on it later, the encounter proved rather useful, in that it was a timely insight into how Michael Black and John Morgan might have felt when turned down for a double room at Peter and Rosemary Bull’s guesthouse. They felt that they had done nothing wrong and yet were made to feel like irresponsible pariahs, thanks to the religious views of the proprietors, to which they did not subscribe.

It’s very much how I felt, perhaps like the Bulls, the Slug and Lettuce do have a very good reason for refusing to serve customers with babies, a friend from these parts who is a vicar’s wife recounted a similar experience of being denied a hot drink due to having a baby when returning from an evening service at the church which is almost next door, but whatever their reason is, the surly barman didn’t bother to communicate it properly and made my mum and myself (being the person who has responsibility for said small person) feel about 6 inches tall.

It’s not the first time I’ve been turned away from an establishment, in my decadent hey-day as a trolly dolly, cabin crew, certain gay clubs would have the effrontery not to admit women, which similarly was often rather embarrassing if you were on a night out down-route with your colleagues (being stranded in the middle of Amsterdam, Cologne or Bangkok is no joke), but I always took it in my stride. Their gaffe, their rules and if having a small group of women was going to cause a problem or upset their clientele, then fair enough, trying to gain entrance in the first place required some brass neck.

But just like LGBT clients who encounter retailers who won’t provide them with various services such as cakes, flowers, photography or cars for their weddings, I felt ‘judged’ and found wanting in the balance. Obviously there is something very wrong about wanting to sit outside a bar on a pedestrianised street in the middle of Hove with a sleeping baby in a buggy. I should instead have gone home and glugged my way through one of Waitrose’s finest wine-boxes free from the eagle-stares and disapproval of the imaginary other customers in the outside seating area.

Of course if I had a thicker skin, I would have not given two hoots. What does the opinion of a misanthropic barman and the management of the Slug and Lettuce matter? It was admittedly humiliating and mildly inconveniencing, we’d been looking forward to a drink after our walk, but lives were not lost. All they did was to tap into an innate insecurity and neurosis about what other people might think of me, for slightly unusually being out and about with a young child at a late hour. Which is I suspect closely related to the type of insecurity experienced by gay couples in terms of not liking it when their choices are not affirmed. I’m charitably assuming that the bar does have a good reason for not serving customers with children, even if they are lacking the skills to communicate their policy. At the end of the day, no matter how uncomfortable I felt, it’s still their prerogative.

Next time my parents come, we’ll know better and head off to one of the more friendly local establishments or hang the adventure, go to one of the Cafe Neros which stays open til late.

Readers won’t be surprised to learn that when I got home, I did what all self-respecting people with an axe to grind about customer service in this day and age do, namely moan about the service on Twitter as a result of which the Slug and Lettuce have invited me to fill-out an online form with my complaint and promised to investigate. People can make up their own minds whether or not to give the bar their custom.

It all seems a lot easier than taking someone to court, suing them for compensation, attempting to put people out of business and getting the law changed to ensure my feelings are never hurt in this fashion again.

Alternatively, a move to the Italian riviera seems the best solution all round.

So it seems that the narrative about the bodies of 800 babies ‘dumped in a a septic tank’ in the grounds of the former children’s home in Tuam has finally unravelled as I predicted last week.

The post met with an overwhelming response – it was never my intention to garner or generate controversy, let alone defend the indefensible, but to cast a critical eye over what seemed to be some very implausible headlines.

It seemed beyond belief that nuns who were purported to be in the grip of religious fervour, would ignore its basic tenets, rites and rituals and simply tip the corpses into the sewage pit. Nothing is impossible, but an examination of the logisitics and historical evidence to the contrary (such as the tender for coffins) showed that the story was the result of febrile imaginations and a confirmation bias. A gruesome motif symbolising the brutal, vicious Catholic monsters of popular imagination.

The story was not so much of a hoax, there was no deliberate intent to mislead, but innate prejudices combined with a journalist’s desire to create a splash and prove his mettle as a top investigative reporter, meant that the only thing being consigned to a septic tank were basic principles of fact-checking.

I was lambasted for suggesting “it was the builder’s wot done it” but in most situations, Occam’s Razor ought to be the default position. The nuns would have had to have gone to an awful lot of trouble and inconvenience to be opening up a septic tank on a regular basis; it would have required a degree of determined and willful cruelty from all involved. It’s inconceivable to think that such an abomination would have been able to have been kept secret for over 53 years. Other people such as the lay staff at the home would surely have known.

In any event two further possibilities emerged this week.

Firstly, the Irish Times published an important letter from Dr Finbar McCormick from the school of Geography, Archeology and Palaeoecology at Queen’s University, Belfast.

Sir, – The media should be very wary of using the term “septic tank” to describe the structure containing the child burials at St Mary’s mother-and-child home at Tuam. It is offensive and hurtful to all those involved. The structure as described is much more likely to be a shaft burial vault, a common method of burial used in the recent past and still used today in many part of Europe.

In the 19th century, deep brick-lined shafts were constructed and covered with a large slab which often doubled as a flatly laid headstone. These were common in 19th-century urban cemeteries. The stone could be temporarily removed to allow the addition of additional coffined burials to the vault. Such tombs are still used extensively in Mediterranean countries. I recently saw such structures being constructed in a churchyard in Croatia. The shaft was made of concrete blocks, plastered internally and roofed with large concrete slabs.

Many maternity hospitals in Ireland had a communal burial place for stillborn children or those who died soon after birth. These were sometimes in a nearby graveyard but more often in a special area within the grounds of the hospital. It was not a tradition until very recently to return such deceased infants to parents for taking back to family burial places.

Until proved otherwise, the burial structure at Tuam should be described as a communal burial vault. – Yours, etc,

The RTE journalist Philip Boucher-Hayes bears a lot of responsibility for the misrepresentations of the story. He strenuously denies ever stating that there were bodies in the tank, but he certainly strongly implied it, with reports posing the question “what lies beneath”, along with posts and maps demonstrating that the spot where the boys discovered bodies was in the area of a former septic tank, and linking to photographs and highlighting awareness of a protest for ‘the babies in the bog’.

The misrepresented headlines did not appear mainly in foreign publications, as Philip claimed, they were published in UK media such as on ITV, the Belfast Telegraph, the Times and were reported as fact on BBC radio and TV and Sky news bulletins throughout the day.

Philip may not have claimed that there were bodies in a septic tank, but he did go some way to stoke the hysteria.

That said, his blogpost of yesterday appears to have shed more light on exactly what happened to the bodies of the children who died and seems to be the most likely explanation, although of course we still do not know precisely whom the bodies in the tank or shaft, discovered by the boys 40 years ago, belong to.

A woman has come forward who has related to me a credible first hand account of falling into a burial plot at the rear of the home in in the mid 70’s where she discovered a large amount of infant remains wrapped in swaddling.

Her interview suggests that one of the two spots where baby and child remains were placed could not have been a septic tank.

The Mail on Sunday has identified two sites side by side each other in its radar survey. Frannie Hopkins and Barry Sweeney discovered one as boys in 1975. The Mail called it Plot B.

Plot A is the square shaped one Mary Moriarty says she fell into in the 1970’s when the ground subsided. A child was found playing with a baby’s skull and when Mary and neighbours investigated she discovered a large underground space with shelves from floor to ceiling stacked with infant bodies. She says she saw in excess of 100 tiny figures swaddled and guessed from the size they were newborn or stillborn.

Subsequently she talked to a woman called Julia Devaney who had been a resident of the home and later an employee. By then in her late seventies she told Mary how she had assisted the nuns carrying dead babies along a tunnel running from the back of the home to this vault.

Now obviously it will take excavation to confirm any of this but her description of the space and the possible existence of a tunnel used to access this burial plot would suggest that plot A (whatever of Plot B) at least was not a septic tank.

Boucher-Hayes goes on to say that unanswered questions remain such as why were the babies buried there instead of the municipal graveyard over the road where there was an ‘angels’ plot’ for unbaptised babies. I suspect the answer is cost, we know that the rate-payers were already unhappy at having to fork out for ‘illegitimate’ children along with convenience. We do not know whether or this vault was consecrated at any point or whether or not it only contained babies.

It’s been exasperating and amusing in equal measure to watch how media organisations including the BBC refer to how the babies and children were ‘routinely denied baptism’. Firstly, why should the BBC even care about whether water was splashed over a child’s head and received a religious sacrament which will probably be nothing more than superstition to an impartial secular state broadcaster.

Secondly, there is no evidence to suggest that such a thing did routinely happen, if anything the childrens’ circumstances of birth would have made their baptism seem doubly important to those religious running the homes and there are plenty of accounts of children attending Mass and receiving First Holy Communion, a sacrament it is impossible for the unbaptised to receive. As yet there is nothing to suggest that baptised children were not buried in consecrated ground, but as ever it’s a subtle way of reinforcing contempt for these sisters and placing the finger of blame upon their religion, by portraying adherents as uncaring hypocrites who tried to exclude children from the faith. The evidence to support this just isn’t there.

This is why campaigners have been so keen to attempt to repeatedly hammer home other unpalatable facts, in particular the high mortality rate experienced at Tuam’s children home which was in common with the mortality rates for infants and children born out of wedlock and in institutions across Ireland. This, they believe, is evidence of deliberate cruelty and maltreatment, in which the home at Tuam, being run by a Catholic order, would have undoubtedly participated.

Mortality rates and Vaccine trials

Lurid claims that the children in some homes were subject to horrifying trials of vaccinations without consent, along with other claims of abhorrent practices are precisely why an inquiry needs to be held, in order that, as the Archbishop of Dublin has said, the truth may come out. The vaccine trials element seems to be especially concerning, in that this would have involved the complicity and silence of the manufacturers and medical profession, who to some extent must have been driving this initiative. Did no-one in the medical profession, including those who received the results of such research think to ask questions about the appropriateness of testing them upon children or the ethics of using or recommending a vaccine that had been developed in such a fashion? What is the involvement and complicity of big Pharma along with the state’s medical officers who supervised and administered the trials. Why are they not being pressed about this issue in the same way? Do pharma companies still use institutionalised children and prisoners as has been suggested? It seems that there is still an issue in terms of obtaining informed consent from patients for drugs trials in poorer countries, but without the addition of monstrous demon nuns, the interest is limited.

It is not good enough to blame atrocities upon the age or the time, those who ran Christian institutions ought to have known better – Christianity is uncompromising about sexual ethics, but it is equally demanding on the principles of forgiveness, reconciliation and treating one another with love. Strictures about due care of widows and orphans appear to have been wholly disregarded.

However, justice is not best served by trashing the reputation of a particular order of deceased nuns on the basis of scant evidence, supposition and confirmation bias. All parties deserve better than for Tuam’s children to be treated as a convenient totem. As yet there is nothing to suggest the deliberate or willful cruelty at this one institution.

So if the story about the septic tank is wrong then what else is wrong? If you’re going to fashion a stick with which to beat the Catholic church, it would be better not to use papier-mache as your raw material.

This leaflet produced by the Committee for the Children’s Home memorial in Tuam, describes not only how children were receiving Firstly Holy Communion but also how one of the problems facing the children were that they were boarded out to unsuitable homes, where foster parents were happy to take the money from the government to look after the children, but treated them like slaves, in many cases not giving them enough to eat or even clothing them properly.

How responsible were the sisters for vetting the homes into which the children were sent? The Mother Superior complained that the home was not suitable or designed for large numbers of children and that there were not sufficient numbers of staff to look after and raise them all. Whose responsibility was it for ensuring the wellbeing of the children once they left the home?

I am not saying that the nuns were not in any way at fault, but what has emerged is a picture of a home which never left the hands of the state who were struggling with rising costs, a delapidated building, a council reluctant to put its hands in its pockets and an elderly doctor on the point of retirement. According to this report, the medical officer in the Tuam Home was probably “Ireland’s oldest doctor”.

Some of the many causes of death were listed as follows: whooping cough, anaemia, influenza, kidney inflammation, laryngitis, congenital heart disease, enteritis, epilepsy, spinal bifida, chicken pox, general odeama (dropsy), coeliac disease, birth injury, sudden circulatory failure and fits. As anyone living in any sort of close proximity to another knows, it only takes one member of a family to come down with a lurgy and within 24 hours the whole household is struck down, with whatever nasty is doing the rounds. Conditions like gastroenteritis could quickly prove fatal in the absence of decent medical care, hygiene and medication. I’ve had to take two of babies to hospital for dehydration.

There are many issues arising from child mortality rates, Irish blogger Cathyby has compiled some useful charts which put these into sombre perspective and ought to be considered as part of the inquiry.

Speaking on RTE’s morning show, historian Ann Matthews who has written a book on the mother and baby homes made some interesting points. She reminded listeners that under discussion were isolated high mortality rates in the ‘20s. In 1933-34 the mortality rates of children in one home spiked to 40% due to a measles epidemic,  but by 1934-1935, due to help from the local government and the sweepstake, 4 homes had dedicated maternity hospitals built and they started to slowly get on top of keeping the spread of infection down, stopping the spread of measles and trying to feed young women.

What is overlooked is that there were clusters of young girls aged 14-18 coming into the homes completely malnourished, barely capable of carrying a successful pregnancy to term and unable to breastfeed the baby so that it would have little chance of thriving. Some reports blame nuns for forcing women to breastfeed, which is commonly accepted as best for the baby, others berate them for encouraging bottle feeding which would have put the babies at increased risk of deadly gastroenteritis.

The effect of maternal health upon the unborn child is a something that there is increased awareness of today – we know that conditions such as hypertension and diabetes need to be carefully monitored as they may affect mother and child. Teen pregnancies are more problematic from a health point of view, they at are increased risk of complications and premature birth. When you factor in the age and social strata of many of the girls presenting at the homes, it may go some way to explain the high mortality rates, along with other factors such as lack of  nutritious diet, antibiotics and adequate infection control.

According to Ann Matthews, meticulous records were kept at all the homes she studied, which are now in the hands of Ireland’s HSE.  All the information is there to enable the story to be studied and told in a non-judgemental and informative way. She claims that the religious orders were more than happy to assist her in obtaining the information and answering enquiries in the course of research for her book.

I do have some sympathy for the nuns especially the current sisters who have come under severe criticism for their decision to employ a PR firm. The fact that they have allowed this to be known, shows how ill-equipped they are to handle the media. The sisters have neither confirmed or denied reports of a mass grave because they are unable to. The home shut down 53 years ago and the records were handed over the authorities at the time. Their particular vocation is about caring for the sick and suffering particularly in hospitals, care homes and private homes, not running a slick PR operation. They have neither the time, manpower, nor expertise and this must detract from their vital and necessary daily work  of tending to the sick.

Any inquiry must examine, not only the religious institutions and how they were interconnected, but also the state organisations such as the state-run County Homes where up to 70% of unmarried mothers and their children ended up which is what historian Sean Lucey claimed in this week’s Irish Times. The scandal of the unmarked graves in the Protestant-run Bethany institution which was revealed in the same week as Tuam, received no global media.

It isn’t just the deaths of the children which are problematic, it’s the maltreatment, the vaccination programme, forced adoptions and boarding out. The inquiry should be far-reaching and ask why these homes were set up and include both the privately and publicly funded ones. It should also examine the young women and how they came to be there, including how they became pregnant, was it rape, family members or employers? It should also examine all of the individuals’ records.

One unfortunate consequence of the story is that it has proved enormously distressing to the survivors of these homes who have been left wondering whether or not their relatives were dumped in a septic tank or similar. It has also concerned those who do not wish for their personal histories and stories to become public knowledge as a result of the press coverage or any resulting criminal investigation. Much of the resulting coverage has been very insensitive and caused enormous hurt to the already vulnerable victims and survivors.

“You pro-lifers you don’t care about dead babies, only unborn ones – you have no compassion”

Some of the personal criticism I have received as a result of writing about this has included accusations of a lack of compassion and trying to defend wrongdoing. Let me be clear about this, as a mother of 4 children, the issue of how unmarried mothers and children were treated has appalled me and not just in Ireland.

Thinking about the physical conditions and shame that these women had to endure, along with how most of them were forced to give their babies up, produces a hard knot of nausea and panic in my stomach. It constitutes a form of torture for mother and child alike. My visceral response is one of violence, the type of violence that anyone would receive if they tried to remove one of my babies or children from me.

When it comes to the children themselves, it’s the small details that choke me, for the last week every time I brush my children’s teeth I can’t stop thinking about the children in the home, who was there to help them with basic tasks of self-care, who helped them to cut up their food, or hold a drink without spilling it, wiped their bottoms and so on. It isn’t just the harsh conditions, but the lack of a loving family and individual emotional nurture that is so heartbreaking, especially when you then consider how they were further stigmatised by the wider communities as untouchables.

Keep your nose out of Ireland’s business

lucky charms

The other criticism or implication coming from folk like Colm O’Gorman who was happy to welcome Nadine Dorries’ negative comments about the Irish Catholic church (on the grounds of her Liverpudlian family connections) is that as an ignorant Sasanach I really ought to refrain from commenting on this affair which is purely Ireland’s business and resulting from a particular brand of Irish Catholicism.

Whatever the particular causes, be it a Jansenist version of Catholicism which was practiced in Ireland, or that people were genuinely terrified as to the consequences of illegitimacy and poverty having experienced several famines, or that the newly established Free State was trying build a Utopia and using Catholicism as a moral arbiter, (though no Christian could condone what happened here), leaving aside the ubiquitous Irish family card (my husband’s family), or the fact that I write for a publication with a significant Irish readership, this story is of interest to anyone concerned with the rights and welfare of women and mothers.

As a pro-lifer I have a direct interest in attempting to understand attitudes which led women to be abandoned in institutes and caused suffering to them and their babies – these are the same attitudes which lead to abortion today. In the absence of serious indications to the contrary, mothers and babies always fare better when a mother is allowed to raise her own child. Adoption is a wonderful gift but it should only ever be a last resort.

As a Catholic there is also an interest in getting to the bottom of what happened. What people fail to understand is that the Church is the body of Christ, comprised of every single believer on the planet. When one part hurts, we all feel the pain as a collective. Therefore where abuses have been committed in her name, it is the responsibility of all of us. This is not just Irish history, but part of Catholic history. Communities are formed in part by memories and histories and so we have a duty not only to the victims, but also to future generations to ensure an accurate version of history is preserved.

But to write this off as purely an Irish tragedy or an Irish Catholic tragedy is short-sighted. The UK had more than its fair share of institutions which were little more than dumping grounds for unwanted mothers and babies. The website motherandbabyhomes provides a harrowing insight into life and conditions in such UK institutions. Jennifer Worth, author of the Call the Midwife series of books, relates how unmarried mothers were pressurised into giving up their babies for adoptions, in many cases being threatened with incarceration in a mental hospital if they refused and of false diagnoses of mental illnesses justifying the child’s removal.

David Quinn writing in the Irish Independent has highlighted how that liberal paradise Sweden forced unmarried mothers to have abortions and sterilised them along with other women thought to be at risk of producing illegitimate children. Even the good old USA, land of the free and home of the brave has something of a chequered history when it comes to forced programmes of eugenics and sterilisation of poor women.

We are deluding ourselves if we think these attitudes do not exist today – a recent UK example being the numbers of Downs Syndrome children aborted, whose existence was  forgotten, deemed unimportant enough for the abortion clinics to even record properly.

Equally the drive by successive UK governments to get unmarried and single mothers back into work as swiftly as possible instead of the all important job of raising and nurturing their children, echoes a similar desire for ‘penance’ and a Protestant work ethic.

The enquiry is both a blessing and a curse for Enda Kenny, on the one hand he can indulge his habit of berating the Irish Catholic society of 50 years ago thereby distracting from the pressing issues of Ireland’s healthcare system and the economy; on the other hand Ireland is currently skint, and one could legitimately ask whether or not an inquiry is the best use of resources.

In a scandal which has shades of Tuam, one child dies every fortnight in Ireland’s HSE care system, according to this report in November 2013. Old people are stigmatised and institutionalised in homes on account of their fragility and similarly complained about in terms of their cost.

To isolate Mother and Baby homes as being a symptom of twentieth-century Ireland combined with Catholicism is self-satisfying, sanctimonious, short-sighted and glib. The answer lies not in demonising Ireland or Catholicism, but returning to Christian teachings which identify flawed human nature and propose a definitive strategy in terms of how we should all be treating each other.

baby_2229536b

It’s that time of year again  – the UK abortion stats have been released for 2013, which will be carefully crafted into a positive press release by agencies with a commercial interest and so we can expect to see cheerful headlines about the increase in early abortion and the declining abortion rate in women aged 15-44.

The real story is rather more complicated. The rate of women aged 15-44 having an abortion has declined to 15.9 per 1,000 and is indeed at its lowest for 16 years. But the overall total of abortions performed in the UK in 2013 has slightly increased from last years figure and is 2.3% higher than 10 years ago. The amount of women choosing to have an abortion might be in decline, but all is not lost for the private clinics – those who do have an abortion are likely to be repeat customers. In any event we shouldn’t forget that despite being at its lowest level for some time, in 2013 the rate of women having an abortion was double that of 1970.

The pro-choice, pro lots of lovely sex ed and contraception lobby find themselves in something of a bind. There is the very welcome news that abortion rate for the under-16s and the under 18s shows a steady decline, in common with teen pregnancies. “See, hooray look, lots of education and access to contraception in schools is the answer” they will cry, with collective pats on the back, affirming blogposts and accompanying PR about ‘evidence-based’ choice. Indeed the rate of abortions performed on those under the age of 22 is declining. Fewer young people going through the agony of abortion is something that folk on all sides of the debate will applaud.

But here’s the rub: the numbers of those aged 22 and above having an abortion remains static from 2012. Which means that either people are suddenly forgetting what teacher told them about the banana and the condom and the handy over-the-counter pill back in 4B, or that they are taking more risks, or as is most likely to be the case, that this is the age where regular sexual activity is the norm. A 22 year old is far more likely to be cohabiting or having sex on a more frequent basis than a 16 year old whose sex life will probably consist of sporadic chaotic fumbles. By the time you’ve got to 22, most young women will have imbibed the mantras of Cosmpolitan and the like and be aiming for some sort of quality and consistency in their intimate life.

And why shouldn’t they, will be the riposte of the feminists. What’s the point of equality if you can’t have multiple orgasms and demand that a partner gives you 100% satisfaction, and obey your whims 100% of the time, just for the privilege of being with you?!

I digress, but what this cultural demand and expectation that women really ought to be demanding marvellous sex lives means (and I’m all for the latter, trust me, I just don’t believe that the vision women are being sold leads to anything other than narcissist, paranoid and ultimately frustrating intimate encounters) is that it makes women entirely reliant on contraception. If you know that pregnancy would spell a disaster then it’s the ‘responsible’ thing to use contraception because you know, swinging from the chandeliers and achieving orgasms in double figures is your birthright as a woman. If you’re not having lots of juicy sex ,then let’s face it you’re probably a freak, there’s something wrong with you and nobody would want to be with you anyway!

So all these emancipated young women are totally dependent on their contraception, which is a bit of a problem considering that no method is 100% effective! Which is where the kindly ‘abortions for only £700 a time charged directly to your local NHS trust’, BPAS come in, with their reassuring campaigns that you are not alone, 1 in 3 women will need an abortion in their lifetime and that around 66% of their clients have managed to conceive while using contraception. Still, once you’ve had an abortion the clinics will kindly advise you on future contraception to guarantee repeat custom, under the guise of altruism, selling the expectation that you won’t once again end up in that 66% bracket.

If you think I’m being just an itsy bitsy bit cynical, then it’s worth remembering that the 2013 abortion figures demonstrate that the number of abortions performed in private clinics which are paid for by the NHS are at an all-time high of 64%, up on 62% of the previous year.

The repeat abortion figures are in fact, astonishingly high, 44% of all women aged 25-29  ending their pregnancies in 2013 underwent a repeat abortion, a figure which rose to 47% in the 30-34 age bracket and then dipped to 45% in the over 35’s. It seems that once you have had one abortion, you are more than likely to have another.

With repeat abortions at 37% amongst all women in 2013, compared to 32% in 2012, it’s no wonder that the clinics describe it as a ‘need’. Almost 50,000 women who had an abortion last year, had already had one. Black or Black British women and those of mixed race were more likely to have had an abortion than white women and other groups. Interestingly Asian and Chinese women have the lowest preponderance of repeat abortions, despite the fact that Asian women are likely to be more affected by the issue of gendercide – perhaps this is indicative the rise of the professional Asian class in the UK.

At a time Catholics are being blamed for their attitudes towards sex and stigmatising of single mothers in twentieth century Ireland, not much has changed. Around 81% of abortions were performed in 2013 upon single women, a number which has risen slowly from 76%, ten years ago in 2003.

Another statistic to be vaunted will be the number of abortions carried out under 13 weeks,  comprising 91% of the total, same as last year, but that abortions under 10 weeks had risen to 79% compared with 77% in 2012 and 59% in 2003.

The subtext here is that the earlier an abortion the better, both for mother and child alike (although a dead baby is a dead baby at whatever stage it’s at) but the complication rates seem to have risen in that 11% of women having an abortion under 10 weeks needed a stay of at least 1 night in hospital. The rate of complications obviously rises the further progressed you are in pregnancy, 25% of abortions of 13-19 weeks required a hospital stay, rising to 57% of those more than 20 weeks or more. We shouldn’t forget that complications experienced once you have left the clinic premises are not recorded.

The rise in early abortions, and medical abortions indicate that women are making their decision earlier than ever before. This once again raises the contentious issue of counselling – if 64% of all abortions are being carried out in private clinics on behalf of the NHS, then it’s imperative that women are not rushed into making a decision due to the time limits of one particular method.

The high number of abortions being carried out by private providers using NHS funds highlights the need for accountability to the public by abortion clinics along with the organisations which they fund to go into schools. This week we’ve seen that well over half of the abortions carried out on the grounds that the baby had Downs Syndrome were not properly recorded, with most information being lost. Add in the fact that doctors caught pre-signing abortion forms without seeing a patient were neither prosecuted nor did they have to face a fitness to practice hearing, despite being in breach of the law, then one has to wonder at the wisdom of yet further liberalising the practice of abortion law.

The clinics have not yet shown that they can be trusted. It will be interesting to see if there is any variation in these figures now the government have clarified that the practice of gender selective abortion is illegal.

One final stat here. So often we hear that late stage abortions are a necessary option for those who discover that their baby has a terrible anomaly.

Leaving aside the arguments about whether or not we ought to impose our vision of what constitutes quality of life to justify depriving another of life, ‘feticide’ was the word which jumped out at me while looking at the table which outlined the methods used to abort the baby, admitting that direct action to end the life of the baby was performed prior to their forced evacuation from the womb.

Of those who aborted their babies between the ages of 20-24 weeks, 904 were on the grounds of fetal anomaly, which means 1,659 babies were aborted at a time when the mother was over-half way through her pregnancy, the baby was fully formed, waving, kicking, smiling and the mother would have felt the movements, simply because they were no longer wanted.

To put that figure in some kind of context, that’s more than the 1,491 live births to women aged 38-39 from 7,500 cycles of IVF. Or how about comparing the 8,500 abortions performed in 2013 on women in the over-40 age bracket with the 6,355 cycles of IVF resulting in 822 births in women in the age 40-42 cohort. What kind of a pickle have we got ourselves into?

When is society going to wake up to the screwy schizophrenia surrounding female fertility instead of patting ourselves on how well we are doing at educating people into a pattern of repeat abortions.

It’s not about regulating others’ sex lives or controlling their bodies but recognising that not only does this take the life of an unborn child but it also causes irreparable pain and suffering to so many women. I don’t which is more depressing. That nothing has changed, the lives lost to abortion in 2013 or that this time next year I’ll be saying exactly the same thing.

 

In a revealing article in the Irish Times published online 45 minutes ago, Catherine Corless, the amateur historian who uncovered the records of the 796 children who died at the Tuam children’s home, run by the Bon Secours sisters has expressed her dissatisfaction by the way the story has been covered by the media, in particular the claims that 800 bodies were ‘dumped’. ‘I never said that word’ – she states.

What has upset, confused and dismayed her in recent days is the speculative nature of much of the reporting around the story, particularly about what happened to the children after they died. “I never used that word ‘dumped’,” she says again, with distress. “I just wanted those children to be remembered and for their names to go up on a plaque. That was why I did this project, and now it has taken [on] a life of its own.”

Her motivation was entirely about commemorating those who died there and her original article describes how she believes that the children were buried in an unofficial graveyard at the rear of the home. Perhaps this is why the locals have been so shocked on the discovery of the news, because many of them had tended to what was believed to be ‘the angels plot’ putting up a makeshift garden and Marian shrine.

In the light of Corless’ research which was first reported last year, a graveyard committee was established, a copy of her article was distributed and donations asked for a plaque following a Mass at Tuam Cathedral last year. Barry Sweeney, one of the boys who had originally discovered the graves, got in touch with Catherine to confirm that he had found bones, but as the Irish Times reports:

. “But there was no way there were 800 skeletons down that hole. Nothing like that number. I don’t know where the papers got that.” How many skeletons does he believe there were? “About 20.”

He goes on to state that the size of the slab broken into was 120cm by 60cm, roughly the size of his coffee table. This makes sense and what I was suggesting in my previous post which received such condemnation from certain quarters. There is no way that you would squeeze 800 bodies into a septic tank.

The article notes the archive material about the sewage scheme which was brought to the home in 1937. The tank had been in use between 1926 and 1937 during which period 204 children died. Catherine Corless admits that it is impossible that the tank would fit 204 bodies and that they would have been thrown into a working sewage tank.

My theory has always been that during these works, which would have required digging, bodies of famine victims were unearthed and it was these who were put unceremoniously into the hollowed out tank, perhaps to save space.

Catherine Corless has said that no-one from the government has asked to review her work, neither has anyone corroborated it, but that she would be happy to share it.

It is likely that the babies are buried on the site somewhere, there are many children’s burial grounds in County Galway and throughout Ireland, but the story that 800 babies were ‘dumped in a septic tank’ is undoubtedly false.

Michael Cook from Mercatornet produced this map of all the childrens’ burial grounds in Country Galway.

Childrens Burial Grounds Galway

Here is an archeological explanation of the work that has so far been carried out on the site of the former home. These specialists posit  that the children may have been buried at a site less than a mile away.

We would hypothesise that not only did the Bons Secours nuns in Tuam have to face the difficulties in burying dead infants but so too did many/most Irish families at a time when infant mortality rates were very high. It is no coincidence that Children’s Burial Grounds abound throughout Ireland and also that one is found in Ballymoat townland less than a mile northeast of the Workhouse. If the nuns did bury the infant dead within the Home grounds then where did the neighbouring families bury their infant dead? Some in the children’s burial ground and some in consecrated ground?

None of this detracts from the unacceptably high death rates in Mother and Baby homes and it is important that more research into these institutions is carried out, which is why the Archbishop of Dublin asked his diocesan archivist to collate all the records pertaining to the Mother and Baby homes and make them available to the government, just a few months ago.

This letter in the Irish Times, along with many of the comments on my previous post, throws some light onto conditions faced in the home.

Cohorting infants in institutions puts small infants at risk from cross-infection, particularly gastroenteritis. Early infection to the gastrointestinal tract can cause severe bowel damage. Without the availability of recent technology, many such infants would die from malabsorption resulting in marasmus [severe malnutrition]. The risks would have been much increased if the infants were not breast fed.

In foundling homes in the US in the early 20th century, mortality was sometimes reported as greater than 90 per cent among infants cared for in such institutions. Lack of understanding of nutrition, cross-infection associated with overcrowding by today’s standards, and the dangers of unpasteurised human milk substitutes were the main factors.

Of course many of the babies are reported to have been breast-fed as their mothers were there, but gastroenteritis is certainly an important consideration. Even if the babies were breast-fed, they would have been at increased risk once weaning began. There is always the possibility that they were mixed fed but in any event milk substitute only one factor in gastroenteritis which is very dangerous. My daughter was very ill with campylobacter as a baby, despite good hygiene and being breast-fed.

Irish Blogger Shane, (Lux Occulta) has carried out research indicating that the mortality rate in the home at Tuam was actually LOWER than much of the rest of the country, except in Dublin, where it was the same.

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%). (Source: Irish Press, 12th April, 1935; below).

Also the historian Liam Hogan (@limerick1914) who has done so much work in digging up the archives and sharing them, has discovered that the home never once left the hands of the County Council. In 1951, 10 years before it shut, the sisters were begging the board for a grant, saying that they were too ashamed to show councils part of the building which desperately needed renovations, the children were sleeping in attics in terrible conditions and the building were considered a fire risk. In a meeting in 1949, Senator Martin Quinn were told that the children were suffering as result of the condition of the building, to which he replied “I do not like these statements which receive such publicity”.

It seems that the home shut after money wrangles, the County Council were simply not prepared to spend the money to upgrade the building which they owned, especially if it was later to be handed into the hands of the nuns. It was pointed out however, that the nuns could not be expected to take over and maintain a property which was in such bad condition.

Other interesting facts to have emerged are that the Mother Superior was a member of the NSPCC and that the ratepayers repeatedly talked about the unacceptable cost of the ‘misfortunates’. ‘I want the public to know what the illegitimate children are costing the ratepayers of Galway’ said one report in 1938.

This is not meant in any way to deflect or divert blame from any individuals within the Catholic Church, we know that various religious fell well short of the standards expected of them.

“800 bodies dumped and she wants to talk about the logistics” scoffed one tweep. But to most critical thinkers, the story never made sense.

No matter what may have gone on, there is no way that nuns would have been refusing to baptise children as suggested or simply tossing their bodies into a septic tank. That people were so willing to believe this and jump on the outrage bandwagon should be a cause for concern and shows that much work still needs to be done to atone by the Church and others for a terrible time in Ireland’s history.

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