Exactly what, and exactly when, did the Pope know about institutional abuse in Ireland?

By Donal O’Keeffe.

I wouldn’t usually spend lunchtime waiting on a call from the Archbishop of Dublin, but that’s what happened last Tuesday.

I had interviewed Catherine Corless for the Irish Examiner, and we discussed precisely what Pope Francis had known about the 796 children in a mass grave in a disused sewerage system in Tuam, and precisely when he had known it.

In addressing this, Catherine had made an assertion about Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, and I felt that fairness dictated I should give him a right to reply. I phoned the Archbishop’s office several times, and mailed the diocesan communications office, and hadn’t got a response.

On the point of giving up, I was about to send my interview to the Examiner when the phone rang.

I had interviewed Catherine Corless in Tuam, after a commemoration ceremony in the playground at the centre of the Dublin Road housing estate, built on the site of the former mother and baby home. The gathering coincided with the one-year anniversary of the 2018 visit to Ireland by Pope Francis.

We stood in the little square of ground which had made front page news all around the world, and Catherine pointed out 18 rectangular shapes taped off for the commemoration. They took a little time to do, she told me, but it was important.

“We wanted to show people: This is where the babies are. You’re standing on them.”

A year earlier, I stood beside Catherine in the Dublin Road playground in Tuam when RTÉ’s Eileen Magnier told her the Pope had expressed his surprise and horror at the idea of Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes.

I remember Catherine’s response was quiet but firm. She said this simply couldn’t be true. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin had told Catherine that he had briefed the Pope about Tuam a year earlier and Archbishop Martin had said Pope Francis was horrified.

Now, a year on, Catherine repeated to me what she had told RTÉ.

She and her husband Aidan, met Archbishop Diarmuid Martin in July 2018, a month before the Pope’s visit.

“Archbishop Martin told me that he was in Rome in 2017 on the day the Commission of Investigation announced that the Tuam Babies had been found in that sewerage area.

“He stated quite categorically that he met the Pope that day, and the Pope asked if there was any news from Ireland. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin stated to us: ‘I told him the news is sad. I told him about Tuam and what had happened.’

“He said the Pope was speechless. He said the Pope was just standing there when he left him, thinking deeply. Now, I don’t know what to make of that. One of them isn’t telling the truth.”

A year ago, Pope Francis met survivors of clerical sex abuse, and survivors of mother and baby homes and industrial schools. Bernadette Fahy, who spent much of her childhood in the Goldenbridge orphanage, said the Pope seemed to “know nothing” of the industrial schools and Magdalene Laundries.

“He hadn’t ever heard of the concept before, and that was quite shocking to me.”

Paul Redmond and Clodagh Malone, who were both born in mother and baby homes, spoke at length with the Pope.

Mr Redmond told RTÉ Radio 1: “Clodagh explained to him that the nuns in Ireland who ran the mother and baby homes had put a lot of pressure on women never to look for their children after they lost them, and told them all sorts of lies, that it was a mortal sin, that they’d burn in hell, it was illegal … He was quite taken aback by that, shocked.”

(Campaigner and abuse survivor Marie Collins, who attended that meeting, says the Pope merely sought clarity on the difference between Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes, and said he was familiar with mother and baby homes from his native Argentina. She acknowledges that others disagree with her interpretation of the events of the meeting.)

The next day, at his Mass in the Phoenix Park, Pope Francis said: “We ask for forgiveness for all those single mothers who were told that to seek their children that had been separated from them … that this was a mortal sin. This is not a mortal sin.”

On the Pope’s plane back to Rome, Francis gave the impression of not knowing previously of Tuam. RTÉ’s Tony Connelly asked the Pope about his meeting with Minister for Children Katherine Zappone.

“You talked about how moved you were by what she told you about the mother and baby homes. What exactly did she tell you? Were you shocked because it was the first time you had heard of these homes?”

The Pope gave a rambling reply, praising Zappone’s politeness, respect and dignity, but he didn’t answer Connelly’s second question.

“The minister first told me something that didn’t have too much to do with the mother and children. She told me, and she was brief: ‘Holy Father, we found mass graves of children, buried children, and we’re investigating … and the Church has something to do with this.’

“But she told me, ‘I’ll send you a memo’. She sent me a memo and I haven’t been able to read it. I saw it was a memo, that she sent me a memo. She was very balanced in telling me, ‘There’s an issue, the investigation has not yet finished.’ But she made me understand that the Church has something to do with this.”

Pope Francis, who met Sean Ross Abbey survivor Philomena Lee in 2014, then said:

“I had never heard of these mothers, they call it the laundromat of women where an unwed woman is pregnant and she goes into these hospitals, I don’t know what they call them, schools, run by the nuns and then they gave children to the people in adoption.”

The Pope is the head of a global conglomerate, and he is the spiritual leader of an estimated 1.2 billion Catholics. How could he come to Ireland and meet survivors of institutional and sexual abuse without knowing about Magdalene Laundries? Is nobody briefing him? Did nobody say “Do you remember that nice lady you met with Alan Partridge that time?”

How could he come to Ireland and not know about Tuam? The Tuam Babies story made global headlines in 2014, from Al Jazeera to the Washington Post. Does he not read the papers? Is it remotely credible that the supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church wasn’t told?

Anna Corrigan wrote to the Pope in 2014, begging his help in finding the truth about what happened to her brothers, John Desmond Dolan and William Joseph Dolan in the Tuam Mother and Baby Home. He never replied.

Seriously, is Pope Francis doddery, or is he just a complete spoofer?

Is he disengaged, or does he just not care?

Last Tuesday, I got a call from Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s office.

The Archbishop confirms Catherine Corless’ recollection. He says he was indeed in Rome that day in 2017, and he did tell the Pope about Tuam.

Maybe that’s why Pope Francis didn’t answer Tony Connelly’s question on the plane last year.