TUAM, Ireland (CN) — The ground underfoot seems to emit an eerie cry. It's here where the bones of potentially hundreds of children lie in a mass grave inside a sewage tank on the former site of an institution for children of unwed mothers once run by nuns.
As a weak sun dips behind the rooftops and chimneys of nearby houses, this forlorn place becomes even chillier and lonelier. In the corner of a stone wall, a visitor is drawn to a statue of the Virgin Mary evoking sadness. She looks down on pairs of baby shoes and flowers arranged below her feet.
This was the site of the St. Mary's Mother and Baby Home, a church-run institution in Galway County where unmarried mothers and their babies banished from Irish society were kept in miserable conditions from 1925 until 1961, when the home closed down. Today, this site lies at the center of an unfolding scandal in Ireland over the Roman Catholic Church's treatment of unwed mothers and their babies in its care.
In Tuam, nuns with the Sisters of Bon Secours ran the home and allegedly treated children so badly many died from disease, neglect and malnutrition. Investigators believe about 800 children were buried on the home's grounds without proper burial and that most of their bodies were put into an underground chamber that was part of a sewage system, according to a government report.
The inhumane treatment of children and the burying of children inside a cesspit was revealed in 2014 by Catherine Corless, an amateur historian in Tuam whose own mother was born out of wedlock. Corless found death certificates for 796 children who died in the Tuam home but no official burial places for them. Since then, the story she uncovered has led to a judicial inquiry and numerous stories in the media.
Children at the Tuam home were separated from their mothers, and if they survived beyond a few years, were often sent to live with other families as foster children. A quarter or more of the children sent to the home died.
The Irish government is investigating what happened in Tuam and at a network of similar institutions around Ireland. The government is considering exhuming the remains in Tuam and other institutions to allow for identification and proper burial.
No criminal charges have been brought against anyone connected with the Tuam home. The Bon Secours say only one nun who served there is alive and she is unable to help, according to a report issued in March by a commission investigating the homes. The Tuam home was owned by Galway County and public officials were aware of the abysmal conditions.
Children who made it out of the home are leading the drive to shed light on what happened and to bring the church and government to account.
“Definitely crimes were committed,” said Peter Mulryan, a 74-year-old man who spent the first four and a half years of his life at the Tuam home. He helps run the Tuam Home Survivors Network, a group of people who lived at the children's home.
They want the remains to be exhumed, identified and given “a dignified burial.” Mulryan said the group also wants the government to examine how and why children at the home died.