Saturday, June 21, 2014

Anne Biggs: Irish survivor tells her story

Anne Biggs
Fresno Bee
June 21, 2014

In Ireland, at 14, my birthmother was raped on her way home from school. Three months into her pregnancy, she was transported to Castlepollard, one of many of the mother-baby homes throughout Ireland, to anticipate my delivery. While she waited, her name was changed, and her belongings taken from her. She toiled in the fields, washed walls and cleaned floors, but it was never enough. The Catholic sisters demanded 90 pounds to cover her maternity costs. Her family couldn't pay, so she was sent to the Magdalene Laundries to pay off her debt to society.

We newborns were taken from our mothers because the Catholic Church deemed them sinners in the eyes of God, and unfit to care for us. We were labeled "bastards," and later "banished babies."

We were kept a secret to the outside world. Only when a chance for adoption came was care taken to meet standards required by the government to leave Ireland. When my time came, I didn't meet their requirements. Sisters immediately provided me with the temporary care necessary to be adopted. Why weren't we all treated as well, every day?

I spent the first four years of my life with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Ireland. They were responsible for my care. My health issues, plainly put, were abuse and neglect.

I survived that mother-baby home in Ireland and, in 1953, I was carried off a plane and handed into the arms of my shocked adoptive parents. The sisters wrote them, stating I was "fragile." Their definition of fragile must have been: unable to walk or talk, severe malnutrition, intestinal parasites, rickets, epilepsy and emotionally stunted.

When I started school, the sisters told me to be grateful, that my experiences had not been that bad. We had been the chosen few. Yes, I was grateful to be placed in a loving home, but I cannot say I was grateful to be taken from my birthmother because she was deemed a sinner and neglected because I was her bastard child.

A lucky one, I survived a home where last week news broke that 796 skeletons of infants and toddlers were found "resting" in a septic tank because members of the church were unable to provide a proper burial.

In this country, when a child is abandoned in an alley, or behind a building, it receives massive headlines. Reporters, parents, schools and government organizations become outraged and are quick to take a stand.

I have to ask, in 1975, when the church knew these bodies were there, why didn't they acknowledge it? How could no one be outraged? Babies left in a septic tank? Imagine your deceased child put in a septic tank "to rest," until a better place could be found for a proper burial. How would you feel?

The question now is, who is responsible for such atrocities? Well, of course, we first reach out to blame the church. The Catholic Church is responsible for everything that happened to these children, everything that happened to my birthmother and me.

Remember though, those infants and toddlers could not take care of themselves. Human beings, who had free will and knew the difference between right and wrong, but participated in this ongoing tragedy, cared for them.

One Irish priest implied that, because it happened in the past, it's a mistake the church should be sure never happens again. Those babies were mistakes because they happened in the past?

As a survivor of Castlepollard and St. Patrick's in 1950s Ireland, I will not forget where I came from and what was taken from me. I want my children and grandchildren to understand every time anyone is harmed, they have a responsibility to stand up and make a difference.

I don't blame God for what happened to those babies, to me, or my birthmother. I blame each person who knew and did nothing, each person who remained silent out of fear, ignorance or simple apathy. Edmund Burke, an Irish statesman, once said, "Evil flourishes when good men do nothing."

Simply said, it does not matter if it involves a particular nationality, children or a gender, when evil actions are ignored, we all pay a high price.

Anne Biggs of Clovis is a retired high school special education and English teacher.

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