The Irish government just released a report detailing a century of horrific abuse of single mothers and their babies. Shocking infant mortality and abuse of women sprang from Roman Catholic teachings of sexual shame and scapegoating. The Irish people have largely abandoned the Catholic Church over its theologies, including its sexual shaming and condemnation of LGBTQ people. But in parts of the world where the Church remains powerful, it still flexes the same political muscles that led to the atrocities in Ireland. The time for fundamental change is now.
A judicial commission in Ireland just released shocking details of almost a century of cruelty that condemned thousands of unmarried mothers and their babies to extreme abuse in institutions run by the Catholic Church and funded in part by the Irish state.
The commission confirmed previous reports that the institutions, staffed by nuns of the Bon Secours Sisters and other orders, treated unwed mothers with deliberate cruelty as punishment for conceiving “illegitimate” children.
The nuns neglected newborns so badly that many of them died. Infant mortality in the institutions overall was twice that of the national rate, and in places soared far higher, sometimes exceeding 70% of live births. Most of the babies died from a combination of starvation (the report says malnutrition, but let’s not mince words), lack of necessary medical care, overcrowding, and lack of sanitation.
Shocking mass grave in Tuam
The judicial commission was formed in 2014, largely at the prompting of survivors, after the bodies of almost 800 unburied babies were discovered in a Bon Secours institution septic tank in the town of Tuam, County Galway.
Roughly 9,000 infants died throughout Ireland.
Over 2,000 surviving children were sent to the United States or Australia between 1950 and 1980 to be adopted without their mothers’ knowledge or consent, in return for money that benefitted the religious orders — despite that such adoptions violated Irish law after 1954.
Mothers were often forcibly separated from their children and transferred to Catholic-run work homes where they were kept under lock and key as unpaid slaves in prison-like conditions. Several such mothers have testified to the commission or to journalists about escaping such institutions to try to find their children — and about being hunted down and sent back.
Survivors demand apologies and financial compensation
Historian Catherine Corless, who uncovered the mass grave in Tuam, has said she is very disappointed the commission did not single out specific institutions and people for criticism. She calls the report a “whitewash” that does not go far enough in judging individual culpability or recommending victim compensation.
Irish politicians have taken the Irish government to task for allowing Bon Secours to run private hospitals to this day, saying that while the nuns refuse to apologize or offer compensation to living victims, they continue to “make lucrative profits” and are a “very wealthy organization.”
(Breaking development: moments ago, after six years of relentless pressure, the Bon Secours Sisters finally announced to Irish news sources that they apologize for having “failed to protect the inherent dignity” of women and children. They also indicated they intend to fund a redress scheme for survivors.)
Taoiseach accepts responsibility and calls out perverse religious morality
“The regime described in the report wasn’t imposed on us by any foreign power,” Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Micheál Martin told a news conference yesterday. “We did this to ourselves as a society. We treated women exceptionally badly, we treated children exceptionally badly.”
He added that “Ireland had a completely warped attitude to sexuality and intimacy. Young mothers and their sons and daughters were forced to pay a terrible price for that dysfunction. As a society we embraced judgmental, moral certainty, a perverse religious morality and control which was so damaging.”
He has announced his intention to pass legislation to provide monetary compensation to survivors.
The Irish people are aware that by “perverse religious morality” Martin refers to Roman Catholic theology.
Sexual shaming and theology
Individual stories of Catholic nuns emotionally abusing and shaming unwed mothers are a big part of this Irish tale. Survivors have given journalists and commissioners heart-rending accounts of cruelty imposed with deliberate punitive intent based on Catholic theology that brands sex outside of marriage as “sinful.”
Activists who pushed for the commission’s formation note that such shaming was part of Irish culture, originating in Catholic teachings and reinforced by Catholic teachings. They say the Church bears most, but not all, of the blame for harm done to unwed mothers and their babies.
The Irish have rejected Catholic sexual shaming and Catholicism
Catholic church attendance in Ireland over the past two decades has plummeted, and most Irish people (including almost all Irish youth) no longer identify as Roman Catholic. They cite the Church’s child sexual abuse crisis, its hostility toward LGBTQ people, Church abuse of unwed mothers, and the Church’s continued political work to stop women from accessing contraception and abortion.
Fintan O’Toole wrote in the Irish Times on the eve of Pope Francis’s 2018 visit that the Irish people have definitively and permanently rejected the Church and its teachings. “There is only one sermon that can be truthfully preached in the ruined Irish church: absolute power corrupts absolutely… [Pope Francis] can’t repair the ruins of a corrupt, abusive institution.”
Will the Church ever change?
As a gay man from a large Irish-American Catholic clan, I’ve personally experienced the toxicity and hatred springing from Catholic teachings of sexual shame. My nieces and nephews learn in Catholic school that LGBTQ people like me are “intrinsically disordered.” Nuns teach them that men and women like me commit “acts of grave depravity” when we form loving sexual unions.
The Catholic Church in the United States spends millions of dollars every year to shame LGBTQ people and to fight against our civil equality. They’ve mostly lost their morally outrageous quest to stop women from accessing contraception, but not from lack of trying. They still fight to stop women from accessing abortion.
In parts of Latin America and Africa, among other places where the Church retains strong political power, leaders have effectively campaigned for laws that make gay men criminals and kept same-sex marriage illegal.
In parts of Africa ravaged by HIV, Church officials continue to fight to hinder access to condoms, which prevent infection with HIV. Public health authorities complain that Church leaders spread condom disinformation that hinders efforts to lower virus transmission rates.
Let the Irish crisis be an object lesson in religious sexual shaming
Institutions staffed by Catholic nuns who abused single mothers and neglected their babies resulted from theologies of sexual shaming that the Church refuses to change.
Thousands of women, many still alive today, testify directly to the horrors of Catholic teachings that branded them as sexual scapegoats.
LGBTQ people all over the world today add their voices to a chorus demanding that religious leaders end their sexual moralizing. The result is too predictable and too horrifying.
Religion is supposed to be about spirituality and love, not oppression and shame. Let Ireland be an object lesson in the consequences of such shame.
Let 800 dead babies in a septic tank testify to the need for immediate, fundamental change.
James Finn is a former Air Force intelligence analyst, long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to email@example.com.