The Archbishop of Tuam Michael Neary has told Bon Secours nuns that they have a moral obligation to engage with an examination of how 796 children died and were buried in a mass grave.
The remains of the youngsters were interred in a concrete septic tank in the grounds of a home in Tuam, run by the Sisters of the Bon Secours, between 1925 and 1961.
A "scoping exercise" to determine the facts behind the case will begin shortly, with a number of government departments involved.
Last night, the Archbishop acknowledged the horror suffered by women "in giving up their babies for adoption, or witnessing their death".
"The pain and brokenness they endured is beyond our capacity to understand," he said.
"Regardless of the time lapse involved, this is a matter of great public concern which ought to be acted upon urgently."
He added: "While the Archdiocese of Tuam will co-operate fully, nonetheless there exists a clear moral imperative on the Bon Secours Sisters in this case to act upon their responsibilities in the interest of the common good."
Documents discovered by local historian Catherine Corless show the children may have died of starvation and neglect. It states the children died from malnutrition, measles, convulsions, TB, gastroenteritis and pneumonia.
Hundreds of children aged between two days and nine years were believed to have died at the home over the course of almost 40 years. They were buried without any coffin or memorial and were simply wrapped in a plain shroud.
Archbishop Neary added that the diocese did not have involvement in running the home, and that the archive material which the Bon Secours sisters held was handed over to Galway County Council and health authorities in the 1960s.
While the newly announced review will initially focus on the Tuam home, it may be expanded to include other homes around the country where similar stories are emerging, according to Ciaran Cannon, the Republic's Minister of State at the Department of Education.
“There's been a lot of consultation on this among a number of departments. There is a willingness within government not to remain silent on this.
“The first thing that will be done may well be a scoping exercise to determine exactly what happened. We need to determine firstly the accuracy of the reports that are emerging.
“That is not to undermine the excellent work that has already been carried out by people but we must take it further,” he said.
Mr Cannon said he believed any official investigation could be carried out within a short timescale.
“We are well capable of having an effective and efficient investigation like we did with the Magdalene report (and) completed within 18 months. I can't see why we couldn't have the same thing here,” he said.
He also raised the possibility of a criminal investigation given that some of the deaths may have occurred in the early 1960s
The Republic's Children’s Minister Charlie Flanagan said that departments were working on how to address details emerging about ‘mother and baby' homes and the burial of children.
“There are a number of government departments involved in this process. The cross-departmental initiative under way will examine these matters and report to government on how they might be addressed.
“Relevant government departments have been tasked with working together in preparation for the Government’s early consideration and determination of the best course of action,” he said.
He described the revelations as “deeply disturbing”, calling them “a shocking reminder of a darker past in Ireland when our children were not cherished as they should have been”.
The Tuam grave first came to light in 1975 when it was discovered by two local boys playing at the site. Prayers were said and the tank was sealed with no one aware of the sheer scale of bodies involved. It was not until local historian Ms Corless requested records of children's deaths in the home that the extent of the tragedy was revealed.
Fianna Fail has called on the Taoiseach to apologise on behalf of the Irish State over the scandal.
The party’s mental health spokesman, Colm Keaveney, said: “Whatever the results of any investigation it’s now clear that, at the very least, these infants and their mothers were grossly mistreated at the Tuam home and were subsequently neglected by the State.”
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