Media buries the truth

The stories were lurid almost beyond belief. Irish nuns charged with taking care of unwed mothers and their children had disposed of hundreds of children’s bodies in a septic tank. The New York Times reported it, as did newspapers around the world. It was a horrific nightmare for the Church, signaling yet again the hypocrisy and cruelty of this scandal-plagued institution.

The only problem is that the story is false.

There were mass graves, the result of high death rates from disease and malnutrition in Ireland for centuries. But the suggestion of women religious casually disposing of babies in a septic tank is something else entirely, born of rumor and sloppy historical surmise.

It all began in the town of Tuam, County Galway, where local historian Catherine Corless said she found that almost 800 children at a home for unwed mothers run by the Sisters of Bon Secours had died there from 1925 to 1961. When she did not find records of the children being buried in local graveyards, she guessed, based on local lore, that the bodies were somewhere on the grounds of the abandoned, long ago destroyed home.

Based on no bodies and slim evidence, the media was off to the races: “Galway Historian Finds 800 Babies in Septic Tank Grave” was the headline in the Boston Globe, repeated in one form or another for days. Cries for an investigation by the Irish government soon followed.

Lost in the clamor was any real historical research about conditions in Ireland at the time and the reality of such homes. But as cooler heads began to look at the evidence, or lack thereof, the story began to fall apart. The Associated Press, for example, apologized for a raft of errors in its reporting on the case: “In the June 3 story, the AP quoted a researcher who said she believed that most of the remains of children who died there were interred in a disused septic tank; the researcher has since clarified that without excavation and forensic analysis it is impossible to know how many sets of remains the tank contains, if any.” Others have expressed doubt that a septic tank was ever used.

It is likely, however, that far fewer people saw the multiple “corrections” and “clarifications” than saw the original stories. The indefatigable Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, has already published an analysis of the controversy titled “Ireland’s ‘Mass Grave’ Hysteria.”

What interests me, however, is how quickly so many people were willing to believe that Catholic nuns would callously dispose of babies in such a disgusting way. In fact, the story evokes a long anti-Catholic tradition best represented by the allegations of a woman in the book “The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk.” First published in 1836, it was a perennial best-seller in the 19th century.

Discredited almost as soon as it was published, “Maria Monk” claimed to be the story of a young nun initiated against her will into the horrible secrets of the Church. Hers was a fantastical tale of perverted priests and sexually abused nuns. When babies were born of such unions, “they were always baptized, and immediately strangled.” This sordid tale of perversion and murder both titillated and outraged the Protestant audience for which it was written, but such lies came to be deeply embedded in the national consciousness. Today there is a willingness, compounded by coverage of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, to believe that the Church is somehow uniquely capable of endorsing terrible horrors.

It is little wonder that the media would rush to believe such a tale. More disturbing is how many Catholics believed this story as well.

Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.