The Children's Funeral Parish

Early in the 1980s, I served a parish in Woburn, Massachusetts. This suburban city, some 12 miles north of Boston, had boasted of tanneries for 300 years. Other companies supplied the chemicals for the tanneries, so Woburn never lacked for industry. In more recent times the W.R. Grace Co., a transnational conglomerate, built a small plant in the city.

Beginning in the '60s an unusual number of leukemia cases, especially among children, surfaced in Woburn. In one part of the city, the incidence of the disease was at least seven times greater than average. During my short service in the city, the people described their church as "the children's funeral parish." One family in the community I served, the Toomeys, had lost one young son in a car accident. Their second son, 10-year-old Patrick, contracted leukemia in 1979 and died sometime later. Despite these tragedies, Dick and Mary Toomey, the parents of these children, decided to stay in their hometown. Dick died of a malignant melanoma in 1990.

A 1995 book, Jonathan Harr's A Civil Action, outlined in great detail the efforts of a lawyer and his associates, together with the parents and neighbors of the dead and dying children, to prove in court what they already knew—that one of the tanneries and W.R. Grace Co. had caused water pollution and consequently the many cases of leukemia by dumping toxic waste into the ground near their factories.

The lengths to which these companies went to avoid, obstruct, forestall, and overturn legal judgments against them provides truly horrifying reading. It reminds one of latter-day efforts by cigarette companies similarly to evade responsibility for their irresponsible, or at best ignorant, actions that result in enormous harm to innocent people. A Civil Action is a very small sampling of what has happened in the last decades through the virtually unbridled activities of national and multinational corporations.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1999
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