LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said he was “surprised” he learned of a letter Pope Francis sent an Irish government official from media reports.
The pontiff sent the letter to Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone last month, after she wrote him about the high mortality rate in maternity and children’s homes run by the Catholic Church in the first half of the 20th century.
Last year, a report from a judge-led commission confirmed that the former Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway, had an underground sewage structure divided into 20 chambers containing “significant quantities of human remains.”
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Church-run homes in Ireland housed orphans, unmarried pregnant women and their babies for most of the 20th century. The institutions have been subject to intense public scrutiny since a local historian in 2014 tracked down death certificates for nearly 800 children who had died as residents of the facility – but could find a burial record for only one child.
Investigators later found a mass grave containing remains of babies and young children from 35 weeks to 3-years-old on the grounds of the home, which closed in 1961.
In April, Martin – the Archbishop of Dublin – told Crux he told the pope about the situation when it first came to light.
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“He said to me ‘how are things in Ireland?’ And I said there’s a terrible story …emerging about children’s bodies being found. And afterwards a number of people came to me and said: What did you say to the pope? He was visibly upset, and he kept looking after you when you went away,” Martin said.
Zappone brought the issue up with the pontiff when he was in Dublin for the World Meeting of Families in August and gave him a letter saying the Catholic Church “should contribute substantially” to funding reparations for survivors of the Tuam facility.
“I believe the Church should contribute substantially to the cost of whatever option is decided by the Government. This should be done willingly, unconditionally and quickly,” she wrote the pope.
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In his reply, dated Nov. 13, the pope said he wished to assure the government minister “of my prayerful solidarity and concern for this sad situation,” adding that he prayed in particular that “efforts made by the Government and by the local Churches and religious congregations will help face responsibly this tragic chapter in Ireland’s history.”
Francis concluded his letter by telling Zappone that he would pray for her, her loved ones, and “for your important work at the service of the youth of Ireland.”
Speaking to the Irish Times on Dec. 10, Martin said he’d “never seen” the pope’s letter to Zappone.
“I’m surprised that I should learn contents of a letter which I think effects my position from the newspapers,” the archbishop said.
Speaking to reporters, Zappone’s spokesperson said the minister “believes that raising the issue of Tuam brought an awareness of what happened to the pope’s attention, and that he has thought about it. It is good that the leader of the Church is aware of and understands the role of the Church. This is important in addressing our past.”
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The Bon Secours Sisters have offered to pay over $2.5 million to help cover the costs of the excavation of remains at Tuam, but the government estimates the total costs to be over $6.5 million, although other estimates are much higher.
“She [Zappone] thinks it is possible because of his reference to the congregations that the pope is aware of the offer by the Bon Secours Sisters,” the spokesperson said.
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In his conversation with the Irish Times, Martin also spoke about the new Irish abortion law, which forces doctors not wanting to perform abortions to offer patient referrals to other practitioners.
“There’s a clear Catholic teaching that if legislation is against the basic principles of faith of people that they can’t be forced to carry it out,” the archbishop said.
“There’s a hierarchy of truths in Catholic teaching and the centrality of some aspects. If people have conscientious objection it’s a very important thing to remember it. For me, very often social change comes from people who stand up for their commitments,” he said.