The Tuam Babies story made global headlines, and Pope Francis met Philomena Lee in 2014. For the Pope to claim now is the first time he heard about Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes is simply not credible.
In Tuam on Sunday, on the former site of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home, it was sometimes hard to hear the memorial ceremony for the Tuam Babies over the joyful sound of children laughing and playing in the adjacent playground. And that was utterly appropriate.
At the edge of the crowd, I strained to hear as people held up small cards and spoke aloud the names of the Tuam Babies. I had arrived late, driving up from Cork, and I had missed the start of the event. It had begun in Market Square in Tuam and the crowd had wended its way to the site of the former Mother and Baby Home. Along the route, dozens of children’s toys were fastened to gateways and fences and there was a wonderful spirit of love and kindness in the air. There were surely a thousand people or more there.
There was singing, and applause, and I recognised in the crowd indomitable Tuam Home survivors Peter Mulryan, Carmel Larkin and Pat Duffy. I spotted too my friend Annette McKay, whose six-month-old sister Mary Margaret O’Connor, is one of the Tuam Babies.
Behind me, as I strained to hear what was being said, all I could hear was the noise of small children laughing and playing in the playground and for a tiny, traitorous second I wished they’d shut up. I was humbled immediately to realise that if any site on this good Earth needs to be sanctified by the sound of children laughing, it’s the place where as many as 796 little bodies were disposed of without ceremony in a disused sewage system.
It was a beautiful event, and once again the people of Tuam showed the world their kindness and dignity.
The gathering in Tuam was organised to coincide with Pope Francis’ Papal Mass in the Phoenix Park. Over in Dublin, Colm O’Gorman had arranged a similar event at the Garden of Remembrance. That was attended by over 10,000 people. In Tuam, too, we remembered, even as the Catholic Church wishes desperately we would forget.
I was standing beside Catherine Corless 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. Catherine responded that this just simply couldn’t be true. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin had told Catherine that he had briefed the Pope about Tuam ages ago and Archbishop Martin had said Pope Francis was horrified.
Earlier, from the crowd, someone had asked Catherine if any representative of the Catholic Church had bothered to come to the Tuam vigil. Catherine answered quietly, and with her usual decency, that she didn’t think so.
On the Pope’s plane back to Italy on Sunday evening, 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 answer, praising Zappone’s politeness, respect and dignity, and he didn’t address 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.”
The day before, Pope Francis had met with survivors of clerical sex abuse, and people who had spent time in industrial schools and mother and baby homes. 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.”
The next day, at his Mass in the Phoenix Park, the Pope 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 plane back to Rome, the Pope told reporters: “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.
“It was for me painful, but with the awareness that I have could help clear these things up.”
The Pope hit the headlines last weekend by calling the Vatican’s cover-up of clerical abuse “caca”. His official translator said this Spanish word meant “filth you would see in the toilet”.
As I post this article, Alison O’Reilly, the journalist who broke the Tuam Babies story, sends me a copy of the letter Anna Corrigan sent 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.
Pope Francis met Philomena Lee in 2014. How is it even possible that the issue of Magdalene Laundries, and Mother and Baby Homes, didn’t come up in that conversation? The Tuam Babies story made global headlines, from Al Jazeera to the Washington Post. It is not remotely credible that the supreme pontiff of the Catholic Church missed that story.
Pope Francis either knew exactly what went on in Holy Catholic Ireland, or else he has wilfully buried his head in the sand, just as many of the faithful in Ireland do to this day.
You knew, Your Holiness. Cut the caca.