The Catholic Church in Ireland is facing fresh accusations of child neglect after a researcher found records for 796 youngsters believed to be buried in a mass grave beside a former orphanage for the children of unwed mothers in Tuam, Co Galway.
Catherine Corless says her discovery of child death records at the Catholic nun-run home in Tuam, County Galway, suggests that a former septic tank filled with bones is the final resting place for most, if not all, of the children.
Church leaders in Galway, western Ireland, said they had no idea so many children who died at the orphanage had been buried there and they would support local efforts to mark the spot with a plaque listing all 796 children.
County Galway death records showed that the children, mostly babies and toddlers, died often of sickness or disease in the orphanage during the 35 years it operated from 1926 to 1961. The building, which had previously been a workhouse for homeless adults, was torn down decades ago to make way for new houses.
A 1944 government inspection recorded evidence of malnutrition among some of the 271 children then living in the Tuam orphanage alongside 61 unwed mothers.
The death records cite sicknesses, diseases, deformities and premature births as causes. This would reflect an Ireland that, in the first half of the 20th century, had one of the worst infant mortality rates in Europe, with tuberculosis rife.
Elderly people recalled that the children attended a local school - but were segregated from other pupils - until they were adopted or placed, at around seven or eight, into church-run industrial schools that featured unpaid labour and abuse. In keeping with Catholic teaching, such out-of-wedlock children were denied baptism and, if they died at such facilities, Christian burial.
It is well documented that throughout Ireland in the first half of the 20th century, church-run orphanages and workhouses often buried their dead in unmarked graves and unconsecrated ground, reflecting how unmarried mothers - derided as "fallen women" in the culture of the day - were typically ostracised by society, even their own families.
Records indicate that the former Tuam workhouse's septic tank was converted specifically to serve as the body disposal site for the orphanage.
Tuam locals discovered the bone repository in 1975 as cement covering the buried tank was broken away.
The Republic's junior minister for education and skills, Ciaran Cannon, spoke of the "horrific details" emerging of the discovery.
Mr Cannon said an inquiry was needed to determine the facts surrounding the unmarked burial site.
He warned that any investigation would have to be conducted sensitively, as people who are still alive may have disturbing memories of their own or their family's connections with the institution which was run by the Bon Secours Sisters.
It emerged that the head of the Bon Secours Sisters in Ireland had sought a meeting with the Archbishop of Tuam, Dr Michael Neary, to discuss how best to respond to the efforts to honour all those who died.
The site was previously known to be a graveyard, locally suspected to be one for unbaptised babies or Famine victims, but it was thought that a small number of children were interred there.
The home was closed in the 1960s but in 1975 two boys were playing close to the site when they discovered partially broken concrete slabs covering a hollow – a disused septic tank, which had been in use prior to the 1920s when the building was a workhouse.
The boys broke the concrete and discovered a hole "filled to the brim with bones".
The site is located at what was a mother and baby home, run by the Bon Secours, from the 1920s until the 1960s.
Respectful of the unmarked grave in their midst, residents have long kept the grass trimmed and built a small grotto with a statue of the Virgin Mary.
Archbishop of Tuam Michael Neary said he would meet leaders of the religious order that ran the orphanage, the Bon Secours Sisters, to organise fund-raising for a plaque listing the 796 names and to hold a memorial service there.
Ms Corless and other Tuam activists have organised a Children's Home Graveyard Committee that wants not just a lasting monument to the dead, but a state-funded investigation and excavation of the site.
The Irish government has declined to comment. The Republic of Ireland has already published four major investigations into child abuse and its cover-up in Catholic parishes and a network of children's industrial schools, the last of which closed in the 1990s.
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