The Papal Nuncio says the Vatican supports giving the Tuam Babies a Christian burial. Fair play. Will Pope Francis be getting out his chequebook?

Two weeks ago, the New York Times reported: “The Vatican has indicated its support for a campaign to provide a proper Christian burial for hundreds of babies and toddlers by first exhuming their bodies from the grounds of a Catholic-run Irish home for unwed mothers.”

The story reported an exchange of letters between Catherine Corless, the Tuam historian whose tireless work assembled the death certificates for the 796 babies and children who died in the Tuam mother and baby home, and Archbishop Jude Thaddeus Okola, the Vatican’s ambassador to Ireland.

Test excavations of the site of the Tuam home in 2017 established that “significant quantities of human remains” were buried in a 20-chamber underground Victorian sewerage system. DNA analysis confirmed the ages of the dead children ranged from 35 weeks gestation to three years.

On 13 July, Catherine Corless asked, “My query to you is, as Papal Nuncio, do you think it proper in the name of Jesus to allow these little souls (they are all baptized) to be left in a sewage tank, or do you agree that they be exhumed and given a Christian burial?”

Archbishop Okola replied, two days later, saying that he shares Archbishop of Tuam Michael Neary’s view that there should be a “dignified re-interment” of the remains in consecrated ground.

Two years ago, Pope Francis met Irish survivors of clerical sex abuse, and survivors of mother and baby homes and industrial schools. Some survivors said later that the Pope appeared never to have heard of Magdalene laundries or mother and baby homes.

(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, but acknowledges that others disagree with her interpretation.)

On the plane back to Rome, Francis gave the impression of not knowing previously of Tuam, telling reporters that the then-Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone had informed him: “‘Holy Father, we found mass graves of children, buried children, and we’re investigating … and the Church has something to do with this’.”

Francis, who met Sean Ross 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.”

Catherine Corless said last year that she and her husband 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.”

(Archbishop Martin reiterated last year that he had told the Pope in 2017 of then-breaking news confirming a mass grave of children in Ireland.)

When Katherine Zappone met the Pope in August 2018, she handed him a letter saying that the Tuam Babies were owed the “dignity and respect” denied them in death, noting the option of exhuming them and performing DNA tests. Zappone urged the Church to “contribute substantially” to whatever decision is taken by the government.

Francis told Irish Jesuits later that day that he wanted the Irish Church to “put an end to this… I don’t mean simply turn the page, but seek out a cure, reparation, all that is necessary to heal the wounds and give life back to so many people”.

The Government estimates the cost of exhuming the site would cost between €6m and €13m; the Bon Secours Sisters (who ran the Tuam home) have offered to pay €2.5m.

Fintan O’Toole wrote recently in the Irish Times a perhaps-timely reminder of new Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s moral character back in 1999, when he was 36-years-old, the first-time, youngest minister in Bertie Ahern’s first cabinet.

Martin was Minister for Education when Ireland was rocked by what O’Toole calls “the most consequential journalistic investigation in contemporary Ireland, Mary Raftery’s brilliant and terrible three-part (RTÉ) documentary on the physical, sexual and psychological abuse of children in the industrial school system, States of Fear”.

O’Toole writes: “Martin could easily have kept his head down and hidden behind the usual procedural waffle. He didn’t. He rose to the occasion with considerable political courage. On May 13th, 1999, he made a fierce speech in the Dáil about the way survivors of the system had been ‘ignored by a public Ireland which would prefer to ignore the uncomfortable rather than face up to it.’

“He gave a crucial official endorsement to Raftery’s work, at a time when she was under relentless assault from apologists for the system: ‘I acknowledge the incredible work of Mary Raftery and her production team for the States of Fear series. They have performed a major public service and have shown us all the compelling power of top-quality documentary work.’

“He went on to do something that I doubt had ever been done before. Ministers do not voluntarily reveal information discreditable to their own departments and to the senior civil service. It is not just that Martin broke this code of omertà – he dug up the information himself. A historian by training, he read the files in his own department.”

Micheál Martin had the courage and decency at a pivotal moment to stand by children so brutally abused by Church and State. The following January, then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern replaced Martin with the deeply religious Michael Woods.

In 2002, in the teeth of a general election, with attention focused elsewhere, Woods signed – without cabinet approval – an agreement with 18 religious orders up to their necks in abuse allegations, capping those orders’ compensation liability at €128 million. At the time, the Department of Finance believed compensation claims might exceed 5,000, costing the State between €250m and €500m. In the end, 15,579 people claimed redress, each receiving on average €62,250, costing a projected €1.35 billion.

Woods later told the Sunday Independent that his religious faith made him the most suitable person to deal with the orders’ hard-as-crucifixion-nails negotiators, denying that he was a member of the Knights of St Columbanus, and strenuously rejecting accusations made by survivors that he was a member of Opus Dei.

Woods defended excluding the then-Attorney General, Michael McDowell, and his officials, from two meetings, saying “The legal people simply couldn’t have attended – it was a no-go area for them – they had fallen out with the religious.”

A subsequent deal in the wake of the 2009 Ryan Report saw 16 of the 18 religious orders commit to paying a further €352.6m to survivors, bringing the total amount promised to €480.6m.

According to figures published by Patsy McGarry in the Irish Times, as of September 2019, of that €480.6m, only €226.79m – including €123.79m from the 2002 agreement and €103m from the 2009 deal – had been transferred to the State, less than half of what was agreed.

Perhaps the new Taoiseach might find again the moral courage he showed 21 years ago, when he stood by the victims of abuse, and now go after the religious orders for the €253,810,000 in reparations they owe us.

In the meantime, if the Vatican is serious about honouring the Tuam Babies, the Pope needs to get out his chequebook and pay in full for their exhumation.

The Stay With Me art show, remembering the victims and survivors of the Tuam mother and baby home, and all of Ireland’s other institutional abuses, will stream live at 7.30pm on Wednesday, 29 July on the Remembering the Tuam Babies Facebook page, @stay_with_me_art on Instagram, and YouTube channel Stay With Me Art. Stay With Me is curated by Alison O’Reilly, the journalist who broke nationally and internationally the Tuam Babies story.