“The Missing Children” – The absent conscience [TELEVISION REVIEW]

The passport of a baby sent to America in "The Missing Children." Photo courtesy of Topic.

Catherine Corless in “The Missing Children.” Photo courtesy of Topic.

The abuses inflicted on the innocent in the name of religion are seemingly endless. Ireland has its own portal in hell with their women and children homes set up to deal with the “fallen.” That would be a euphemism for unwed mothers who, in the eyes of the church, were deserving of punishment, not sanctuary. From 1922 until 1998, 57,000 children passed through mother and baby institutions in Ireland. Most were separated from their mothers. 9,000 are recorded as having died. The majority of those have no burial records.

That the government was in collusion with the Catholic Church in supporting these abusive institutions should come as no surprise. This ground has been explored in the past, most notably in the film “The Magdalene Sisters,” and more recently in the story of “Philomena.” Claire Keegan’s excellent and illuminating novel Small Things Like These illustrates how the church and local government were able to silence doubters and those who suspected wrong doing because they controlled the access to employment and someone raising uncomfortable questions could suddenly find themselves without an income. Shockingly cruel and even underplayed are the endless stories of unmarried and pregnant young women sent to Catholic homes designed to shield them from society and prevent further shame being brought down on their families.

“The Missing Children,” a three part documentary directed by Tanya Stephen, is the latest exposé of the damage done to the girls, their children, and society in general by one such now-abandoned home in Tuam, Ireland run by the Bons Secours order of nuns.

A forensic anthropologist in “The Missing Children.” Photo courtesy of Topic.

When infant bones floated to the surface of a septic tank on the grounds of the Tuam home, one woman began to investigate what they might be and where they had come from. Her name is Catherine Corless, a lifelong resident of Tuam. Thus began a journey of discovery. Researching church and county records, she discovered that between 1925 and 1961, 796 children died in the St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home run by the order of Bons Secours. What she also discovered was that here were no burial records. It was she who suggested that the septic tank where a few bones were discovered in the 1970s might be the location of those missing bodies. It took quite a while before she could prod anyone in pursuing this lead further. Eventually she was able to interest a few journalists to investigate.

When the story began trickling out, the church began a public relations campaign against the allegations. By 2014, as the stories continued, the government was finally forced into an investigation of sorts almost 30 years after the initial discoveries. Finally in 2016 there was a preliminary and superficial excavation to determine whether the bones were, in fact, human. Forensic anthropologists were brought in and determined that the bones were, indeed, the remains of infants. But because of the nature of the septic tank, only a few items could be removed and exact figures on the number of remains could not be determined. It would be up to the government to begin a further excavation, something that would be enormously expensive.

The nuns were meticulous record keepers and recorded the names, dates, and causes of death of the infants in their charge. Given the specificity of the recorded records, the absence of burial information and records is thought to be deliberate. Shockingly many of the deaths were from preventable diseases, and no small number were from starvation, ironic because the state was paying to feed these wards.

Lest one think that this order of nuns was providing the “care” for these wayward mothers out of the goodness of their hearts, think again. After the girls, because so many of them were girls, delivered their babies, they were forced to stay on for a year and work off their debt. And what of the babies?

The unwed mothers were most often separated from their babies, allowed to see them, if at all, for only a few hours a day. And here lies the other part of the scandal. What became of the babies who survived? As in the case illustrated in “Philomena,” many, if not most, of the bastard children were put up for adoption against the wills of the mothers or without their knowledge.

An investigative journalist in “The Missing Children.” Photo courtesy of Topic,

Part Two of this documentary series illustrates the adoption issue alleging that what was done at Tuam and other similar institutions was no less than baby trafficking. In one year alone, over 500 babies were sent to adoptive families in the United States through cooperating, or rather colluding, dioceses that benefitted financially from this system. Although rules and regulations were in place for documenting the adoption of Irish babies, of the 4,000 that were sent to the U.S., only 2,000 adoptions were officially recognized by the Irish government.

Interviews with Ms. Corless, investigative journalists, adoptees who traced their origins to the Tuam home, and government officials fill out this shocking story. Not surprisingly, Catholic Church officials on both sides of the Atlantic and representatives of the Bons Secours nuns have yet to be heard from. Slowly, at a snail’s pace, the government began to explore the issue. Most recently they have announced that they will begin a full excavation of the sewage tank and surrounding area in a final attempt to identify the remains contained within.

Well researched, this three part series would have been more effectively told in two parts. Interestingly, this material was presented as a 90 minute film in Ireland. In its present three part form, there is a great deal of redundancy. Spending too much time on surviving adoptees slows the pace and diminishes the impact that the filmmaker is hoping for. Nonetheless, this is an interesting tale with horrific underpinnings, adding one more black mark against the modern day church that is still reeling from sexual abuse scandals.

Premiering March 3 on the Topic streaming platform.


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