March 3 (UPI) -- Irish investigators have discovered what they believe are many sets of children's remains at the site of a former home for unwed mothers, authorities said Friday after a lengthy two-year investigation.
Officials investigated and scoured the property, located in Tuam, for 24 months. Between the 1920s and 1960s, numerous mothers and their children had lived at the residence, which was operated by Bon Secours nuns.
It had long been believed that a mass grave existed somewhere on the property, and news of such a burial site was first reported in 2014, although at that time no remains had yet been discovered.
Authorities launched a formal investigation in February 2015 and subsequently found the remains. Friday, officials released a summary report of the probe.
"This news is very disturbing and will touch everyone's heart. There were, of course, strong suspicions about burials of this kind in Tuam for some time," Ireland's minister for children and youth affairs, Katherine Zappone, said in a statement. "The information I have received confirms these suspicions and, importantly, they trace the remains specifically to the period of the Home's operation, rather than to earlier times."
Authorities believe the human remains belonged to hundreds of children who once lived, and ultimately died, at the home. Officials said some of the remains were located in a collection of chambers that were once possibly part of the home's sewage system.
"It is not certain whether the chambers ever functioned for sewage purposes, but the Commission believes that there are a significant number of children's remains there," Zappone said. "It has [been] determined that the remains are between 35 fetal weeks and 2 to 3 years of age. From carbon dating it has correlated the age of these samples with the time period during which the home was in operation -- between 1925 and 1961."
For years, it was uncertain what happened to the children who had died at the home -- a question that was difficult to answer due to an 8-foot wall that surrounded it.
"This is only the start. The truth has been revealed," researcher and historian Catherine Corless, who found death certificates for nearly 800 children at the Tuam home, said.
Irish authorities might also turn their attention to two similar homes for unmarried mothers in Bessborough and Dublin after former tenants -- some who'd lived there as recently as the early 1990s -- called for police to look into what happened to the children who died there.
"The Commission has been examining a wide range of concerns related to the institutional care of unmarried mothers and their babies during the period 1922 to 1998," Zappone said. "The Commission is examining 14 Mother and Baby Homes and 4 County Homes. It will in time provide a full account of what happened to vulnerable women and children in these institutions; how they came to be there; and the pathways they took as they left.
"Our first concern must be to respect the dignity and the memory of the children who lived their short lives in this Home. But the Government is very mindful too about the questions that people will have, and what should happen next."
"The mothers in the group who were at Bessborough [in Cork] are calling for an examination of the grounds. There are mothers who are now in their 80s, who were told their babies died and they have no evidence," Irish First Mothers group member Kathy McMahon told the Irish Times.
"The worst is yet to come," Paul Redmond, chairman of the Coalition of Mother and Baby Home Survivors, wrote in Ireland's The Journal Friday. "It is likely that the total for these three homes alone will be well over 4,000 babies and children buried in shoeboxes and rags."
The Bon Secours sisters said they could not comment on the Tuam investigation because all their records for the home were given to city officials when the residence closed in 1961.