“Eight Hundred Dead Irish Children thrown into the sewer by Catholic nuns.” So charged Rod Dreher last week at The American Conservative. Dreher was referring to the findings of local Irish historian Catherine Corless, who found that 796 children died at a home for unwed mothers and their children operated in Tuam by the Bon Secours nuns from 1925 until 1961. As part of her research, Corless was told that two boys came upon an underground pit filled with bones in the 1970s. Corless’ findings prompted a breathless story in the Washington Post, which reported that “Their bodies were piled into a massive septic tank.” Dreher then one-upped the Post, telling his readers why this happened: the “Children [were] seen by Christ’s own consecrated brides as so filthy that they deserved burial in a septic tank.” Dreher also wrote that the nuns saw the illegitimate children as “subhuman.” From this Dreher concluded that “The collapse of Catholicism in Ireland is a judgment upon the Irish church, priests and laymen both, which will not emerge from it until it has paid the last penny.” Dreher then disagreed with his friend Andrew Sullivan who used the same story to conclude, even more illogically, that Christian sexual morality had to be abandoned, but both Dreher and Sullivan were in agreement on the evils of the Catholic Church, from which Dreher, a former convert, is now a bitter apostate and Sullivan an equally bitter member.

It now turns out that the story has been grossly exaggerated. On Saturday, The Irish Times–a paper that is about as friendly to the Catholic Church as its New York namesake– reported that Catherine Corless told the paper that “I never said to anyone that 800 bodies were dumped in a septic tank. That did not come from me at any point. They are not my words.” One of the boys who found the bones in the 1970s, Barry Sweeney, told the Times that “there was no way there were 800 skeletons down that hole. Nothing like that number. I don’t know where the papers got that.” When asked by the Times how many bodies were in the pit, he replied, “About 20.” Nor is it clear that the underground pit found by the boys ever was a septic tank, though it may have been; or that the bodies they saw there were from the home, though they may have been; or that the nuns were the ones who decided to put them there, though they may have been. The Times story also notes that the number of dead children from the institution is “a stark reflection of a period in Ireland when infant mortality in general was very much higher than today, particularly in institutions, where infection spread rapidly. At times during those 36 years the Tuam home housed more than 200 children and 100 mothers.” Indeed, the Irish Catholic blog Lux Occulta calculated that the mortality figures at the home are in line with general infant mortality in Ireland at the time.

Four years ago, when the same papers and bloggers trumpeting this story were attempting to blame Benedict XVI for clerical sexual abuse in Milwaukee decades earlier, British atheist Brendan O’Neill made this telling point: “it might be unfashionable to say the following but it is true nonetheless: very, very small numbers of children in the care or teaching of the Catholic Church in Europe in recent decades were sexually abused, but very, very many of them actually received a decent standard of education.” Whatever may have happened at one home for unwed mothers and their children in Tuam, O’Neill’s basic point also applies to  the vast number of Irish nuns who served in countless schools and hospitals in Ireland and throughout the world in the first half of the twentieth century. Rod Dreher’s desire to pass judgment on Irish Catholicism on the basis of one poorly sourced story, and Andrew Sullivan’s desire to jettison sexual morality on the basis of that same story, tell us that they cannot be trusted when it comes to the Catholic Church. Nor, indeed, can the myriad of newspapers that gleefully ran with this story.