London — The Roman Catholic archbishop of Dublin, regarded as among the most influential church leaders in England and Ireland, has added his voice to those calling for an urgent inquiry into the discovery of nearly 800 babies and children buried in a septic tank at Tuam, a home for unwed mothers in western Ireland.
The scandal is just the latest among many to come to light involving the suffering of children in Ireland's history, and it may be among the factors that have contributed to a big fall in church attendance in recent years.
"If a public or state inquiry is not established into outstanding issues of concern surrounding the mother-and-baby homes, then it is important that a social history project be undertaken to get an accurate picture of these homes in our country's history," said Archbishop Diarmuid Martin.
He also backed calls to excavate the site and set up a monument.
The archbishop is only the latest to respond to the international rage following the revelations. Ireland's prime minister, Enda Kenny, has demanded to know the scale of the deaths and whether similar mass graves exist anywhere else in the country.
Amnesty International has also called for an inquiry into the scandal.
"A thorough investigation must be carried out into how these children died and if ill-treatment, neglect or other human rights abuses factored into their deaths," said John Dalhuisen of Amnesty International. "We also need to know why these children were not afforded the respect of a proper and dignified burial."
When the children's remains were first found 40 years ago in the septic tank, they were thought to date from the 1850s famine.
Catherine Corless, a local historian who has been researching the Tuam mother-and-baby home run by the Sisters of Bon Secours discovered that nearly 800 children could have died there between 1925 and 1961. "Bon Secours" means "good help" in French.
Representatives of the Sisters of Bon Secours in Ireland are to meet Archbishop of Tuam Michael Neary to discuss how best to honor all who died in the home. Neary said he was "greatly shocked" and that the church had no records of the children's deaths or their burial.
The home was closed in 1961.
In all, as many as 35,000 unmarried pregnant women are thought to have been sent to 10 homes, including the one at Tuam. If their babies survived childbirth, they were kept separate from children born to married couples.
According to County Galway death records, most of the children buried in the unmarked graves died of sickness or malnutrition. Many "fallen women" were sent to Magdalene Laundries, where they were punished by hard physical work as well as long, enforced periods of silence and prayer. Many died. The last of these laundries in Ireland closed in 1996.
The focus turned to the plight of unmarried mothers after last year's hit film "Philomena," based on a book by journalist Martin Sixsmith, which tells the true story of a woman sent to work in a laundry after she became pregnant and her son was given up for adoption without her consent.
"The government has known about this since the 1960s," said Michael Kelly, editor of The Irish Catholic. "There is just a new consciousness of it."
The people of Ireland generally took pride in how "friendly" and "great" the country is, he added.
"Our 20th century history shows that for a large part of that century, this was not a very nice place to live, particularly if you did not fit in, like unmarried mothers or gay people," he said. "One thing that gets forgotten is the connivance of families and communities. The impression is given that the nuns behaved like the child catcher in 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.' But it was a community thing. If their daughter became pregnant, parents were quite happy to send her off to a laundry with the firm intention of never seeing her again. Sometimes we forget that the nuns and religious who did these things did not come from Rome. They were our neighbors."
[Ruth Gledhill is a London-based freelance journalist writing about religion. She can be reached on Twitter.]