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January 25, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) —  On October 30th the Irish government released a major report into the much-criticized ‘Mother and Baby Homes’ run by Catholic religious sisters. These looked after women who had children out of wedlock who, in the first half of the 20thcentury, faced severe social sanctions in Irish society. When their families did not want to support them, these religious sisters did: and worked to find homes for the children, if the mothers wished to have them adopted, and set the women back on their feet in terms of employment.

Except that isn’t the narrative the mainstream media, including in Ireland itself, have been setting out. According to them, these institutions were little short of torture chambers for abuse and oppression. The Irish Government and the Archbishop of Dublin have offered public apologies. So, what is the truth?

The horror story narrative is not, in fact, supported by the facts. The material deprivation of the homes was real, but hardly the fault of the sisters or the Catholic Church. Ireland at the time was a poor country, and these were not the most fashionable objects of private charity or state support. The report declared: “there is no evidence of the sort of gross abuse that occurred in industrial schools. There are a small number of complaints of physical abuse.”

The report found no complaints made of sexual abuse of children. The claim that mothers were forced by the sisters or “the Church” to give up their children is simply a lie: “The Commission found very little evidence that children were forcibly taken from their mothers; it accepts that the mothers did not have much choice but that is not the same as ‘forced’ adoption. Mothers did have time after initial placement for adoption to reassess situation.”

The children sometimes had a rough time, but, according to the report, their troubles came “as much if not more, from local residents and other school going children as from the institution itself. The major abuse suffered by former Tuam [children’s home] child residents came when boarded out.”

In the context of the lack of resources and negative social attitudes, how did the sisters do compared with secular institutions? The report found that: “mother and baby homes were greatly superior to the county homes, [which were] successors to the pre-independence workhouses, owned and controlled by local authorities.”

I have no wish to whitewash a complex situation, and to pre-judge thousands of incidents over a long period of time. I have no doubt that the mother and baby homes and the sisters staffing them were far from perfect. But it is clear, nonetheless, that the hysteria which has enveloped the issue of these homes over recent decades is not based on the character of the sisters. It is based on two other things.

One is an understandable revulsion at clerical abuse. It is inevitable that the innocent should end up being treated with suspicion as well as the guilty, but it is important to keep the focus on the guilty, and on the precise historical context which facilitated their crimes. The abuse of adolescent boys by priests in the 1970s, say, does not imply the abuse of unmarried mothers by sisters in the 1940s.

Another factor is even more powerful, however. This is the rejection, by those writing the media reports about how wicked the sisters were, of the teaching of the Church. Since the Church taught and continues to teach that sex should be reserved for marriage, it is intolerable for many to admit that she was at the same time the only refuge for many of those who had fallen into this sin with such serious practical consequences: pregnancy. Hatred of the Church for opposing the permissive lifestyle demands that the Church be portrayed as hateful. That the Church holds up a higher moral standard, must, for them, imply that the Church is filled with hostility towards those who fall below it. 

It is difficult to avoid the impression, in some of these reports, and also the many films and books which have taken up the issue, that progressives in Ireland and elsewhere desperately need the Church of the past to be wicked in order to reassure themselves that the Church is wrong. A more self-confidently hedonistic society would surely accept that the religious sisters of the past who voluntarily accepted a life of poverty and service for the unfortunate might actually have been sincere in doing so. 

The mainstream media also seem to need it to be true that the Church is uniquely wicked, and that problems can be avoided by putting today’s equivalent institutions into the hands of paid, professionally qualified, and state-employed social workers.

Now that we hear that those supposedly hygienic and progressive modern institutions are cesspits of abuse and sexual exploitation, it would be nice to think that they will reconsider. 

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Dr Joseph Shaw has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University, where he also gained a first degree in Politics and Philosophy and a graduate Diploma in Theology. He has published on Ethics and Philosophy of Religion and is the editor of The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Position Papers on the Extraordinary Form (Angelico Press). He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and Secretary of Una Voce International. He teaches Philosophy in Oxford University and lives nearby with his wife and nine children.