Irish children in septic tank mass graves? AP issues mass correction

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The Associated Press issued a large correction to stories earlier this month that claimed Irish children staying in a Catholic Church home for children of unwed mothers were buried in mass graves.

The attention-getting story reported that hundreds of young children from the mother and child home in Tuam, Ireland were possibly buried in a mass grave in a septic tank. Historian Catherine Corless was interviewed in the report and said she obtained records for 796 children who died at the home.

But, now the AP has issued a lengthy (170-word) correction that backtracks its reports.

The AP’s correction admits that despite its earlier stories, there is no hard evidence to support two of the most alarming claims — that there were hundreds of children’s bodies inside a septic tank, and that the Catholic Church refused to baptize or properly bury the children.

The original June 3 story said in part:

“The Catholic Church in Ireland is facing fresh accusations of child neglect after a researcher found records for 796 young children believed to be buried in a mass grave beside a former orphanage for the children of unwed mothers.

“The researcher, Catherine Corless, says her discovery of child death records at the Catholic nun-run home in Tuam, County Galway, suggests that a former septic tank filled with bones is the final resting place for most, if not all, of the children.”

The correction lists the four specific errors in its stories:

  • There’s evidence that some of the children were baptized, even though the AP said they weren’t
  • There was no Catholic teaching against baptizing and properly burying children of unwed mothers, even though the AP said there was
  • There is no evidence that “most of the remains” are in a “disused septic tank” as the AP earlier said, just speculation. The historian, Corless, said there must be scientific analysis to determine this
  • The orphanage didn’t open in 1925, but in 1926.

Corless, whose research was cited in the AP stories, told iMediaEthics by e-mail that the “initial reporting of the burials…went a little bit out of proportion.”

“It is known that there is a burial plot in the immediate vicinity of the former sewerage area on the grounds of the old mother/baby/Home,” Corless wrote. “A large amount of little skeletal remains were found in a tank/crypt within the former sewerage area in the 1970’s by two boys who have relayed their story, also in the past fortnight an adult has come forward who gives an account to verify what the boys saw.”

Corless said she has “presented the results of my research, no one as yet can contradict my findings,” and that the Irish government has launched an inquiry.


America magazine investigated the original story

According to Patheos, U.S. Catholic weekly magazine America: The National Catholic Review raised questions about the reporting, which prompted the correction.

America’s Kevin Clarke’s report on June 18 called out the AP article for not attributing the claims that children weren’t given baptism or Christian burials.

He also reported that Tuam’s diocesan secretary Father Fintan Monahan said there was no policy about not baptizing children born out of wedlock.

The original AP story “was picked up by hundreds of news sites and blogs” according to Mediaite.

iMediaEthics found at least two news outlets that have posted corrections on their re-publication of the AP stories.

The Toronto Star for one, left the original June 3 article on its website. It posted the correction above the article.

The Washington Post has since published a correction and updated its story.

For the record, the full AP correction of its Tuam reporting reads:

“In stories published June 3 and June 8 about young children buried in unmarked graves after dying at a former Irish orphanage for the children of unwed mothers, The Associated Press incorrectly reported that the children had not received Roman Catholic baptisms; documents show that many children at the orphanage were baptized. The AP also incorrectly reported that Catholic teaching at the time was to deny baptism and Christian burial to the children of unwed mothers; although that may have occurred in practice at times it was not church teaching. In addition, in the June 3 story, the AP quoted a researcher who said she believed that most of the remains of children who died there were interred in a disused septic tank; the researcher has since clarified that without excavation and forensic analysis it is impossible to know how many sets of remains the tank contains, if any. The June 3 story also contained an incorrect reference to the year that the orphanage opened; it was 1925, not 1926.”

iMediaEthics has written to the AP for comment.

Hat Tip: The National Review

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Irish children in septic tank mass graves? AP issues mass correction

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