DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland is considering an inquiry into what the government called a "deeply disturbing" discovery of an unmarked graveyard at a former home run by the Roman Catholic Church where almost 800 children died between 1925 and 1961.
Ireland's once powerful Catholic Church has been rocked by a series of scandals over the abuse and neglect of children, and the government is concerned that research carried out by a local historian in county Galway has revealed another dark chapter.
The graveyard was discovered in the former grounds of one of Ireland's "mother-and-baby homes" run by the Bon Secours order of nuns. Researcher Catherine Corless said the bodies were buried in a sewage tank on the grounds.
Corless said public records show that 796 children died at there before its closure just over 50 years ago. She told national broadcaster RTE that some of the dead were as young as three-months-old.
Children's Minister Charlie Flanagan said on Wednesday that consideration was being given to the best means of addressing the "harrowing details" emerging on burial arrangements for children at the institutions that housed unmarried pregnant women.
"Many of the revelations are deeply disturbing and a shocking reminder of a darker past in Ireland when our children were not cherished as they should have been," Flanagan said in a statement, adding that a report would be delivered to government by the end of June.
The Catholic Church ran many of Ireland's social services in the 20th century, including mother-and-baby homes where tens of thousands of unwed pregnant women, including rape victims, were sent to give birth.
Unmarried mothers and their children were seen as a stain on Ireland's image as a devout, Catholic nation. They were also a problem for some of the fathers, particularly powerful figures such as priests and wealthy, married men.
Like the Magdalene Laundries, where single women and girls were sent because they threatened Ireland's moral fibre, the mother-and-baby homes were run by nuns but received state funding. They acted as adoption agencies and in that capacity were overseen by the state.
The treatment of women at mother-and-baby homes has come under scrutiny following the release last year of the Oscar-nominated movie "Philomena", the true story of an Irish woman whose son was sold as a toddler by nuns to a U.S. couple.
The Adoption Rights Alliance, which campaigns for greater access to adoption records in Ireland, particularly for those born in Catholic-run institutions, said there could be mass graves in other homes.
"This has got to be a national inquiry, it's got to take in all of the mother and baby homes, all of which have mapped children's graveyards on site," the group's co-founder Susan Lohan told RTE.
"We're looking at the very big mother-and-baby homes we know about but there are also smaller ones."
In a synopsis of the research published on her Facebook page, Corless said some mothers who gave birth in the Western Ireland home told her of long unattended labours, mostly without help from a sister or midwife, and that they were examined only once by a doctor when first admitted.
The Bon Secours order which ran the home was not available for immediate comment. Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin was quoted by the Irish Examiner newspaper as saying that work was needed to get an accurate picture of what happened at the homes.
Opposition parties and government members of parliament said an immediate inquiry was required.
"How can we show in Ireland that we have matured as a society if we cannot call out these horrific acts of the past for what they were? They were wilful and deliberate neglect of children, who were the most vulnerable of all," junior minister for education Ciaran Cannon told Reuters
"They were deserving of love and nurturing, but they received the exact opposite. They were shunned by society at the time. The only way we can address that injustice is to tell their story, to determine the truth."
editing by Ralph Boulton