Ireland should investigate the Catholic Church’s mistreatment and burial of babies who died decades ago in homes operated by Roman Catholic nuns for unmarried mothers, a senior church official declared Sunday as the country confronted another shameful chapter in its history of child abuse.

Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin made his appeal following revelations that hundreds of children who died inside a former church-run residence for infants were buried in unmarked graves at the site in western Ireland.

Martin said the probe should have no church involvement, be led by a judge and examine the treatment of children in “mother and baby homes” for unwed mothers. These mostly operated in Ireland from the 1920s to 1960s, when Catholic policy and control of social services reached their zenith in post-independence Ireland.

Typically, the women’s families and wider society had shamed and rejected them because of their pregnancies. Babies born inside the institutions were denied baptism and, if they died from the illness and disease rife in such facilities, also denied a Christian burial.

A researcher found records showing that 796 children, mostly infants, died at the home in Tuam, County Galway, from its 1925 opening to its 1962 closure. Residents suspect they were interred in a nearby field, including in a disused septic tank. Ireland had approximately 10 such facilities run by different orders of nuns until the 1960s.

The government of Prime Minister Enda Kenny, which has had rocky relations with the Vatican since taking power in 2011, has authorized police and government record-trawling efforts into the Tuam home and may recommend a wider inquiry. Ireland previously has funded four fact-finding investigations into the church’s coverup of child abuse inside industrial schools and by priests in Dublin, Cork and the southeast county of Wexford.

Martin said the next government inquiry should focus on all “mother and baby” institutions, not just the one in Tuam, because the problem of unmarked graves existed at most if not all of them. He said the investigation should explore allegations that many children in the homes were sold illegally to adopting families overseas, and many others were used without their mother’s legal consent as test subjects in vaccine trials.

“These are very complicated and very sensitive issues,” Martin told the national broadcaster RTE. “But the only way we will come out of this particular period of our history is when the truth comes out.”

— Associated Press