Tuam babies: Church must address 'shameful chapter'

Image source, RTÉ
Image caption,
The burial site at Tuam mother-and-baby home in County Galway

The Catholic Church should make reparations for what happened at mother and baby homes in the Republic of Ireland, a minister has said.

The comment was made by Katherine Zappone to Pope Francis during his two-day visit to Ireland.

Nearly 800 children died at a former mother and baby home in Tuam, County Galway, between 1925 and 1961.

Image source, PA
Image caption,
Women held up placards to remember those buried at Tuam during the Pope's visit to Ireland

"I hope the Church will make reparation for its part in this shameful chapter," the Irish Children's Minister told the Pope.

The home was run by the Bon Secours order of nuns.

The Catholic Bishop of Derry, meanwhile, has called for the site in Tuam to be excavated.

At the weekend, Ms Zappone met Pope Francis at President Michael D Higgins's official residence, Áras an Uachtaráin.

Ms Zappone and the Pope were overheard speaking in Italian about what happened at state-funded, Church-run mother and baby homes, including the one at Tuam.

She told RTÉ's Today with Miriam what she said to him.

"Pope Francis, I am responsible for the Tuam mother and baby home," she said. "Children's remains were found in a sewage system there.

"It is important and I will write to you in detail."

Image source, Reuters

Ms Zappone said that the Pope responded to her in English and said: "Thank you for saying that."

The minister said she felt Pope Francis heard her and understood her. She also said that when she mentioned the words "Tuam mother and baby home", a clear sense of recognition crossed his face.

The minister has since written to the pontiff asking that the Church make a financial contribution to whatever option the government decides on for the Tuam site.

She added: "It is my strong conviction that given the role of the church in this shameful chapter of recent Irish history, it must play a practical role in addressing the hurt and damage."

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Catherine Corless collated hundreds of death certificates for the infants who died in the home

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster's Evening Extra programme on Monday, amateur historian Catherine Corless, whose personal research helped uncover the mass grave at Tuam, said the Pope had been previously made aware of the scandal.

She said that the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, had visited the Pope in Rome in March 2017, adding: "He had told me that the Pope asked him: 'How are things in Ireland?'

"Diarmuid said: 'I have to bring you very sad news'. How could the Pope forget a story like that?"

Ms Corless is calling for the Church to pay €5m (£4.5m) towards further investigations, saying "this is not a huge figure in comparison €25m to have the pope visit here".

'Shattered dreams'

Meanwhile, the Bishop of Derry, Dr Donal McKeown, said excavating the site would help uncover the truth.

He told BBC Radio Foyle: "I think there has to be an excavation at the site to see actually what we are talking about.

"All we have at present is some sort of ultrasounds, things that have been identified from a distance. It is important that we do actually get to the facts.

"As well as the facts it is then dealing with individuals and broken hearts and shattered dreams and terrible memories."

The Tuam home was one of 10 institutions in which about 35,000 unmarried pregnant women are thought to have been sent.

A child died there, on average, almost every two weeks between the mid-1920s and 1960s.

In October 2016, the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation began test excavations at the site in Tuam following allegations of the deaths of children in Tuam, and the manner in which they were buried.

Tests confirmed the bodies ranged from premature babies to three year olds. The commission is expected to deliver its findings next year.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
The land at Tuam was excavated as part of a state-appointed inquiry

Pope Francis said he had been moved by what Ms Zappone had said to him.

He told reporters on his flight home that what she had to say had touched his heart.

Pope Francis's visit provoked a strong response from many in light of decades of clerical sex abuse and the exploitation of women in mother-and-baby homes.

On Sunday, as the papal Mass was under way in Dublin, at least 1,000 people gathered in Tuam to remember victims of Church scandals.

The Galway event culminated in a silent vigil to remember the Tuam babies.