Press interest has been high over the last few days regarding the Bethany Home for mothers and children and what went on there during its time of operation from 1921-1971.
According to the Irish Times, it was a place of detention for women convicted of petty theft, prostitution, infanticide and birth concealment.
219 unmarked graves of children have been located in Mt Jerome cemetery.
The big difference here is that this story hits right home into the small world of southern evangelical Protestantism. While the Church of Ireland has denied formal responsibility, apparently C of I clergy were actively involved in the management committee. An evangelically orientated trust apparently had overall oversight
Former residents are asking the Govt to include them in the state’s redress board for those mistreated in religious institutions for which the state also had significant responsibility. So far the Govt has said no, since supposedly the ‘clients’ were there supposedly voluntarily and the length of stay was not that long. There is increasing pressure for this to change.
Details will probably keep emerging and I’m only surmising from press reports. But this whole sad affair seems to be another insight into how ‘holy Ireland’ treated the weakest and socially marginalised. This time the twist is that this was a Protestant run home. This takes us right back into the early to mid 20th Century zero-sum ‘battle’ between Catholicism and Protestantism.
There seem to be two big questions outstanding:
1. Is there evidence of systemic neglect and abuse?
From 1934 the Home had to register cause of child death. According to research by Griffith College lecturer Niall Meehan, two thirds of the deaths occurred from 1935-1944, before it gained recognition under the 1939 Public Assistance Act and was given more resources by the State.
Meehan has published an article about Bethany in History Ireland , which states that 54 children died from convulsions, 41 from convulsions and 26 from marasmus, a form of malnutrition and 19 were still-born. He points out that the government’s own inspectors brought concerns about increasing mortality, illness and chronic overcrowding at the home to the then dept of local govt and public health. This evidence is serious, and it would significant to hear the story from someone involved in working or running the Home what conditions were like. It should be said that nothing I have heard or read gives any hint of the sort of systemic violence and sexual abuse detailed in the Ryan Report on treatment of children in religious institutions.
If there is a case to answer, what should the response be from the Church of Ireland, or any evangelical groups connected to running the Home (if still in existence)?
2. What is the responsibility of the State?
The big political issue is what responsibility the state bears if there was serious neglect. This is where the religious zero-sum game between Catholicism and Protestantism seems to rear its ugly head. The accusation is that the govt actively deprived Bethany of recognition and funding because of its evangelical / Protestant ethos. After it gained recognition the serious health issues appear to have rapidly resolved. A key inspector of the time is charged with being more concerned about Bethany’s active proselytism, than with the welfare of the children. And the State had an active role in sending children to the Home.
So far the response of the state has been a legal one – to deny requests by survivors to be included in the State Redress scheme. Given the state’s obvious failure to protect children in its care, this seems to me an unsustainable position. What do you think?