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Irish church under fire over children’s mass grave

WASHINGTON — In a town in western Ireland, where castle ruins pepper green landscapes, there’s a 6-foot stone wall that once surrounded a place called The Home. Between 1925 and 1961, thousands of ‘‘fallen women’’ and their illegitimate children passed through The Home, run by the Bon Secours nuns in Tuam.

Many of the women, after paying a penance of indentured servitude for their out-of-wedlock pregnancy, left The Home for work and lives in other parts of Ireland and beyond. Some of their children were not so fortunate.

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More than five decades after The Home was closed and destroyed — where a housing development and children’s playground now stands — what happened to nearly 800 of those abandoned children had been a mystery. A batch of never-before-released documents now contends their bodies were piled into a massive septic tank in the back of the home and forgotten, with neither gravestones nor coffins.

‘‘The bones are still there,’’ local historian Catherine Corless, who uncovered the origins of the mass grave in the documents, told the Washington Post in a phone interview. ‘‘The children who died in The Home, this was them.’’

The grim findings, which are being investigated by police, provide a glimpse into a particularly dark time for unmarried pregnant women in Ireland, where societal and religious mores stigmatized them. Without means to support themselves, women by the hundreds wound up at The Home. ‘‘When daughters became pregnant, they were ostracized completely,’’ Corless said. ‘‘Families would be afraid of neighbors finding out, because to get pregnant out of marriage was the worst thing on Earth. It was the worst crime a woman could commit, even though a lot of the time it had been because of a rape.’’

According to documents Corless provided The Irish Mail on Sunday, malnutrition and neglect killed many of the children, while others died of measles, convulsions, TB, gastroenteritis, and pneumonia. Infant mortality at The Home was staggeringly high.

‘‘If you look at the records, babies were dying two a week, but I’m still trying to figure out how they could [put the bodies in a septic tank],’’ Corless said. ‘‘Couldn’t they have afforded baby coffins?’’

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.

Special kinds of neglect and abuse were reserved for Home Babies, as locals call them. Many in surrounding communities remember them. They remember how they were segregated to the fringes of classrooms, and how the local nuns accentuated the differences between them and the others.

Corless said she first started investigating The Home, which most locals wanted to forget, when she started working on a local annual historical journal. She heard there was a little graveyard near what had been The Home, and that piqued her curiosity. How many children were there?

So she requested the records through the local registration house. The attendant “said the number was staggering, just hundreds and hundreds, that it was nearly 800 dead children,’’ Corless said.

Corless said that in 1995, several boys had stumbled across the mass grave, which lay beneath cracked concrete. ‘‘The boys told me it had been filled to the brim with human skulls and bones. They said even to this day they still have nightmares of finding the bodies.’’

Locals suspect that the number of bodies in the grave, which will likely soon be excavated, may be higher than 800.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Correction: Because of incorrect information from the Associated Press, a story that ran on June 4 about children who died at a former Irish orphanage contained several errors. Many of the children were baptized; Catholic teaching did not preclude the baptism of children of unwed mothers; it is not clear how many sets of remains are contained in a septic tank; and the orphanage opened in 1925.

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