Bill Donohue, the president of the conservative-leaning Catholic League, yesterday called the Tuam mother and babies home reports that have gripped Ireland and the world’s media a “hoax” and “mass hysteria.”
Donohue does not dispute that 800 children and infants did in fact die at the Tuam home because their death records are already a matter of public record. He is simply contradicting some reports that their graves have been found.
Critics counter that the question isn’t where the children are buried – no one, including Donohue knows the answer to that yet – the question is how many more Catholic run homes had similar disproportionately high mortality rates?
After a clarification issued by the Associated Press at the weekend over earlier claims made in the case, Donohue insisted his skepticism had been vindicated.
“There is no mass grave,” he told IrishCentral in an interview on Monday. “If there is then someone needs to tell me where it is. Catherine Corless (the local historian who traced each child’s death record) doesn’t say that there is one at this point.”
Continued Donohue: “It comes on the heels of the other malarkey about the Magdalene Laundries (Donohue doesn’t believe that Irish women confined in them suffered or were abused there, working without pay, often for life).
“The McAleese report pretty much discounted that and Martin Sixsmith (the English journalist who wrote the book about Philomena Lee on which the recent film was based) whose contempt for Catholicism is indisputable, and the lies that he told about Philomena Lee."
But the startling number of deaths at the home – an estimated 796 infants and children – is not disputed by Donohue.
“No, the average of 22 a year is about right,” he says. (In fact in one year alone 57 children died in the home.)
Continued Donohue: “Given the conditions the kids were in when the nuns acquired them, and given the fact that people in these homes died prematurely with these so-called fallen women in these homes and orphanages, I’m not doubting that at all.
“I’m sure the conditions by the standards of 2014 were horrible. I think there’s an awful lot of exaggeration going on. I’m not doubting that the conditions were harsh and some kids were probably mistreated.
“But this kind of hysteria that I’ve seen in Ireland, England and the United States fits like a glove with the Magdalene Laundries and Philomena Lee. It’s very disturbing to me that there’s such an appetite to believe the very worst about these nuns.
IrishCentral: But we know these children died by the hundred and we know their graves are all unmarked. Isn’t that shameful in itself?
Donohue: “I suppose if the worst were true it would be disturbing. But it wouldn’t reach the level of this inflammatory rhetoric I hear from people comparing it to the Holocaust.”
People were perhaps trying to convey that these children belong to an underclass, that their fate didn’t matter; their lives weren’t even recorded in the end.
Well now the AP is walking it back. They’re saying that in fact these kids were baptized.
Their births may have been marked but their deaths weren’t.
If that is true –
We know that’s true. The graves are unmarked so we can’t find the graves yet, no one can. I’m concerned to hear anyone call it a hoax when we already have their death records, we know these children died, we just don't know where they are. That’s the issue, is it not?
The hoax of course is what Niall O’Dowd (IrishCentral’s publisher) has been doing. He’s been promoting the idea that these lousy, cruel, wicked nuns are behind this mistreating of children… You’re dealing with society's rubble that no one tried to reach out and do anything about except for the nuns. As I point out, the only alternative is the street. Now how good was that?
Well the nuns were paid to do it, weren’t they? They were paid by the Irish government.
Yes, but they were also trained nurses.*
It’s not true to say that the State wasn’t doing anything about it because they were actually paying the nuns to do it.
Well they helped to pay for the homes, but they didn’t operate any of the facilities themselves. Who else was going to take them?
It’s not really a case of wicked nuns as much as stigmatized women. They had a diminished status, their children were made to wear wooden clogs, there is a social context to say they were less than ideal candidates of the New Ireland.
I would agree with you on that and I would say it existed in other countries independent of the Catholic Church.
But did the church not contribute to their diminished status?
There’s no question if you had children out of wedlock you were stigmatized. Stigma has a way of acting as a deterrent on certain kinds of unwanted behavior. Now we have relieved the stigma and we have more unwanted children than ever before.
You mentioned in passing the Magdalene laundries, which you take issue with when it comes the treatment of the so-called inmates. We have heard stories of women being forced to cut grass with scissors, or of being forced to work whilst pregnant, or of being isolated or having their letters censored or being silenced. You dispute all that? You don’t believe any of that happened?
No, what I’m saying is, I’m looking at the most incendiary remarks and then I looked at the McAleese Report. It debunks that kind of mythology. Now for me to say there weren’t some nuns who were bitches would be preposterous. God knows I met a few of them myself in my time. I’m trying to punch a hole in the worst-case scenario, which has been floated in England, Ireland and the United States.
But to call the Tuam case a hoax is very all encompassing. It suggests that there’s nothing to see here, and frankly there is. Do you dispute that? There are 800 dead children.
Well, I have no doubt that people will be able to find anecdotes of ill treatment here and there. I’m trying to wrestle with the stories that came out over the last month. That’s what drew me into this. I said, my God if even half of this stuff is true than we really have something here to deal with. The more I scratched around the more I realized my God, where are we going with this?
But half of it is true. In fairness, we do have the records of their deaths. We know they all died – hundreds and hundreds of them died – from often quite preventable conditions.
We can argue that point, I’m not disagreeing with you on that.
So that part of the story of the story is not a hoax, am I right?
About the 800 children who died. You’re not disputing that?
Oh I say that very clearly in my piece.
There’s no doubt that incendiary claims and headlines were made and ran when this story first started appearing. But no one knows where these children are buried yet. No one. It is possible – given the numbers who died - that we will find unmarked mass graves.
Again, I don’t dispute that. I sure as hell don’t know. But when my friend Andrew Sullivan said these were death camps and asked the Vatican to shut down the nuns, this kind of irresponsibility from a man of his stature is stunning to me.
Do you think – as the Irish government clearly does – that there will be other Catholic run mother and baby homes around the country with equally high death counts?
Well if I’m looking at the data in Ireland and the industrialized world where you see these homes for, for lack of a better term, abandoned women and children, quite frankly I wouldn’t expect the conditions to be that of the Waldorf Astoria. The fact that we would find some mistreatment and the like should almost be expected.
But four to five times the national infant mortality rate?
Well when you have overcrowding and TB, which was incurable… I think the people who have been making a living off this, the Sixsmith and the Philomena Lee’s and now this should be held accountable for whats going on here. I think it’s a disgrace what the nuns have had to endure.
Were you shocked to read of the almost 800 children who died in just one home?
Yeah, I was… And then I began to see…some of the things going on and some of the reports trying to walk it back I said wait a minute. Why is it that there’s such a rush to mass judgment of the most condemnatory sort on the Catholic Church?
I think it was the 800 dead children figure that was the most galvanizing thing. That would make anyone pay attention.
The septic tanks. When I see that kind of inflammatory commentary I ask what is going on. Is Andrew Sullivan going to apologize to these nuns now? I doubt it. It fed into his worst appetite of anti-Catholicism.
But he’s Catholic himself isn’t he?
Yes he is.
And a fairly observant one, I thought.
That I don’t know.
*(In fact, Bessborough House, one notorious mother and baby home, was temporarily closed after Dr. James Deeny, a former chief medical officer for the Department of Health, was startled by the high mortality rates of babies.)