Like many, I’ve been following the terrible case of the Tuam babies. A report in 1944 described emaciated pot-bellied children and mentally sick mothers. But there was nothing unusual in this – the girls were unwed mothers and therefore had to be punished. If the babies were not attractive enough to be sold to rich foreigners, their deaths would go unrecorded. Wrapped in a shroud, they would be tossed into a septic tank.
How could the nuns be so cruel? Really? They couldn’t all have started out as cold, judgemental, unfeeling Daleks. So why? Here’s my theory, based on years of being an unwilling Catholic and having to go to Sunday school and listen to sermons on what you must do if you find an unbaptised baby at the side of the road. (Answer – no – you don’t call an ambulance, you baptise the baby just in case.)
It was common in Ireland to have large families and also to gain some brownie points by ‘donating’ a child to the church, so who knows how many teenagers were bullied and harangued into entering a convent? The life of a nun sounds hard enough if you actually want to be there.
The training of nuns for hundreds of years involved stripping them of empathy and the ability to think as an individual. Former nun Elizabeth Murad describes the long, painful path here. The process of stripping away the old ‘you’ sounds uncomfortably like a cult. Where the old ‘you’ with your personality and ability to think and make decisions, is crushed underfoot, and a new pliable, passive you emerges. One who keeps her eyes down, her ears closed and does not allow anyone to touch her.
Nuns were denied the comfort of simple human friendship. Many nuns were ordered to go round in groups of three, to guard against a ‘special friendship’ developing, and presumably also women falling in love with each other. All their love was to be directed towards God – a particularly controlling and jealous lover, which probably left very little love or even empathy for their fellow humans.
Nuns were not to question, or to think for themselves. They took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and were expected to go where the Church told them, and take jobs or training that had nothing to do with personal likes or dislikes. They were not to question and not to think for themselves.
One of the main tenets of Catholicism was that the more painful and difficult your life on earth, the more you would be rewarded in Heaven. So after four to five years of training you have a nun, who is denied the pleasure of friendship, whose ability to empathise has been ruthlessly crushed, and has been indoctrinated to the idea that an unmarried mother is a great sinner, regardless of her circumstances.
The nuns are not entirely to blame. There are also the men and boys who got these girls pregnant and got off scot-free, the men, including priests, who raped some of these girls who were then packed away to hide their ‘shame’, the families who threw the girls out for the crime of being pregnant, (seriously, how indoctrinated do you have to be to turn away your terrified, pregnant child?) who allowed church indoctrination to override their instincts, the Irish Government who knew what was going on and did nothing over and over, the police who knew and did nothing. And the good people who looked the other way again and again and again . . . . .
In Rwanda, there is a memorial to the genocide. It reads: The Nazis didn’t kill six million Jews, the Hutus didn’t kill a million Tutsis, they killed one, then another, and another, and another.
As Catherine Corless, the historian who unearthed this horror, eloquently put it:
Do not say Catholic prayers over these dead children. Don’t insult those who were in life despised and abused by you. Instead, tell us where the rest of the bodies are. There were homes throughout Ireland, outrageous child mortality rates in each. Were the Tuam Bon Secours sisters an anomalous, rebellious sect? Or were church practices much the same the country over? If so, how many died in each of these homes? What are their names? Where are their graves? We don’t need more platitudinous damage control, but the truth about our history.