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The squalid truth behind the legacy of Mother Teresa

The nun adored by the Vatican ran a network of care homes where cruelty and neglect are routine. Donal MacIntyre gained secret access and witnessed at first hand the suffering of "rescued" orphans.

The dormitory held about 30 beds rammed in so close that there was hardly a breath of air between the bare metal frames. Apart from shrines and salutations to "Our Great Mother", the white walls were bare. The torch swept across the faces of children sleeping, screaming, laughing and sobbing, finally resting on the hunched figure of a boy in a white vest. Distressed, he rocked back and forth, his ankle tethered to his cot like a goat in a farmyard. This was the Daya Dan orphanage for children aged six months to 12 years, one of Mother Teresa's flagship homes in Kolkata. It was 7.30 in the evening, and outside the monsoon rains fell unremittingly.

Earlier in the day, young international volunteers had giggled as one told how a young boy had peed on her while strapped to a bed. I had already been told of an older disturbed woman tied to a tree at another Missionaries of Charity home. At the orphanage, few of the volunteers batted an eyelid at disabled children being tied up. They were too intoxicated with the myth of Mother Teresa and drunk on their own philanthropy to see that such treatment of children was inhumane and degrading.

Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950 in Kolkata, answering her own calling to "serve the poorest of the poor". In 1969, a documentary about her work with the poor catapulted her to global celebrity. International awards fol-lowed, including the Nobel Peace Prize and a Congressional Gold Medal. But when, in her Nobel acceptance speech, she described abortion as "the greatest destroyer of peace today" she started to provoke controversy. She died on 5 September 1997, her name attached to some 60 centres worldwide, and India honoured her with a state funeral. Her seven homes for the poor and destitute of Kolkata, however, are her lasting monument.

I worked undercover for a week in Mother Teresa's flagship home for disabled boys and girls to record Mother Teresa's Legacy, a special report for Five News broadcast earlier this month. I winced at the rough handling by some of the full-time staff and Missionary sisters. I saw children with their mouths gagged open to be given medicine, their hands flaying in distress, visible testimony to the pain they were in. Tiny babies were bound with cloths at feeding time. Rough hands wrenched heads into position for feeding. Some of the children retched and coughed as rushed staff crammed food into their mouths. Boys and girls were abandoned on open toilets for up to 20 minutes at a time. Slumped, untended, some dribbling, some sleeping, they were a pathetic sight. Their treatment was an affront to their dignity, and dangerously unhygienic.

Volunteers (from Italy, Sweden, the United States and the UK) did their best to cradle and wash the children who had soiled themselves. But there were no nappies, and only cold water. Soap and disinfectant were in short supply. Workers washed down beds with dirty water and dirty cloths. Food was prepared on the floor in the corridor. A senior member of staff mixed medicine with her hands. Some did their best to give love and affection - at least some of the time. But, for the most part, the care the children received was inept, unprofessional and, in some cases, rough and dangerous. "They seem to be warehousing people rather than caring for them," commented the former operations director of Mencap Martin Gallagher, after viewing our undercover footage.

I first learned of the plight of the Kolkata children from two international aid workers, both qualified nurses and committed Catholics. They came to me after working as volunteers for the Missionaries of Charity last Christmas. Both made the comparison with images that emerged from Romanian orphanages in the early 1990s after television news teams first gained access.

"I was shocked. I could only work there [Daya Dan] for three days. It was simply too distressing. . . We had seen the same things in Romania but couldn't believe it was happening in a Mother Teresa home," one told me. In January, she and her colleague had written to Sister Nirmala, the new Mother Superior, to voice their concerns. They wrote, they told me, out of "compassion and not complaint", but received no response. Like me, they had been brought up in Catholic schools to believe that Mother Teresa was the holiest of all women, second only to the Virgin Mary. Our faith was unwavering, as was that of the international media for about 50 years. Even when the sister in charge of the Missionaries of Charity's Mahatma Gandhi Welfare Centre in Kolkata was prosecuted and found guilty of burning a young girl of seven with a hot knife in 2000, criticism remained muted.

The most significant challenge to the reputation of Mother Teresa came from Christopher Hitchens in 1995 in his book The Missionary Position. "Only the absence of scrutiny has allowed her to pass unchallenged as a force for pure goodness, and it is high time that this suspension of our critical faculties was itself suspended," he wrote, questioning whether the poor in her homes were denied basic treatment in the belief that suffering brought them closer to God. Hitchens's lonely voice also raised the issue of the order's finances, which in 1995 (and still in July 2005 when we were filming) seemed never to reach Kolkata's poorest.

Susan Shields, formerly a senior nun with the order, recalled that one year there was roughly $50m in the bank account held by the New York office alone. Much of the money, she complained, sat in banks while workers in the homes were obliged to reuse blunt needles. The order has stopped reusing needles, but the poor care remains pervasive. One nurse told me of a case earlier this year where staff knew a patient had typhoid but made no effort to protect volunteers or other patients. "The sense was that God will provide and if the worst happens - it is God's will."

The Kolkata police force and the city's social welfare department have promised to investigate the incidents in the Daya Dan home when they have seen and verified the distressing footage we secretly filmed. Dr Aroup Chatterjee, a London-based Kolkata-born doctor, believes that if Daya Dan were any other care home in India, "the authorities would close it down. The Indian government is in thrall to the legacy of Mother Teresa and is terrified of her reputation and status. There are many better homes than this in Kolkata," he told us.

Nearly eight years after her death, Mother Teresa is fast on the way to sainthood. The great aura of myth that surrounds her is built on her great deeds helping the poor and the destitute of Kolkata, birthplace of her order, the Missionaries of Charity. Rarely has one individual so convinced public opinion of the holiness of her cause. Her reward is accelerated canonisation.

But her homes are a disgrace to so-called Christian care and, indeed, civilised values of any kind. I witnessed barbaric treatment of the most vulnerable.

The Missionaries of Charity have said that they welcome constructive criticism, and that the children we saw were tied for their own safety and for "educational purposes". Sister Nirmala even welcomed our film: "Our hopes continue to be simply to provide immediate and effective service to the poorest of the poor as long as they have no one to help them . . . May God bless you and your efforts to promote the dignity of human life, especially for those who are underprivileged."

For too long Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity have been blessing critics, rather than addressing justified and damning condemnations of the serious failings in their care practices.

Donal MacIntyre is a reporter and documentary-maker for Channel 5 Television

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Have you heard the one about. . .

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The Okay Place: the psychological value of mediocre TV

Why do we watch comedies that don’t make us laugh?

I’ve been watching Brooklyn 99 on the train. The comedy cop show makes me laugh roughly once an episode, but nonetheless I watch it compulsively. I watch it on my commute, and I watch it while cooking dinner. It’s in the background when I’m paying my bills. I consumed so many episodes last night, Netflix sent me its most notoriously judgemental pop-up: “Are you still watching?”

Yes, Netflix, I was still watching. The real question was: why?

Brooklyn 99 doesn’t really make me laugh, and it’s far from the most critically-acclaimed show available on the streaming service right now. It’s not technically mediocre – the sitcom has won two Golden Globes – but it is to me*. It provokes the same feelings in me as Netflix’s The Good Place, a kitsch sitcom set in the afterlife. I am compelled to watch at all costs, but on the whole unamused and occasionally frustrated by formulaic storylines. (Sometimes, The Good Place even makes me cringe.)

I enjoy both shows, sure, but I don’t love them. So why am I wasting my time?

(*Because this is the internet, it's a good time to specify that "mediocre" here means in the view of the person being quoted, not objectively.)

“To understand why people are drawn to certain shows, it’s helpful to look at the type of feelings the shows elicit,” says Elizabeth Cohen, a media psychologist and assistant professor at West Virginia University. Cohen says media often has a “mood management function”, in that we use it to make ourselves feel better.

“Sometimes we are looking to be emotionally stimulated, so we might choose to watch something that we think will thrill us,” she says. “But other times we might decide to forego the dark cerebral drama on our DVR and opt for a safe sitcom instead. That could be because we need something that will help us wind down, relax, and boost our mood.”

Photo: Netflix

A desire to unwind is one of the reasons Oliver Savory, a 30-year-old grad student from London, watches The Big Bang Theory, a comedy that has inspired much ire.

“It fills a niche of something to watch while eating, when you can’t focus fully, or you’ve just got in and want to unwind without thinking too hard,” he explains. Oliver says “average” TV comforts him more than “good” TV because he doesn’t have to worry about keeping up to date. “Good TV you have to make time for, average TV can fit around your own schedule without imposing itself.”

Cohen says this is referred to as “comfort food TV”, the entertainment equivalent of eating boxed mac and cheese even if you have the recipe for mum’s spaghetti. “These are shows that people watch not because they are exceptional in quality, but because they are simple, predictable, or nostalgic.”

Sometimes, we watch “okay” shows because we feel they have the potential to be great. Karen Dill-Shackleford is a media psychologist who explains this was her experience with The Good Place.

“I love The Good Place, but there was a stretch when I thought it was poor,” she says. “I kept waiting for it to right itself because I thought it had real potential.”

The potential many of us see in the show is its fresh premise, and its engagement with moral philosophy. As Dill-Shackleford puts it: “[the show] is a palatable way to ponder life’s biggest questions. So, even if the jokes are lame, the potential for real value is still there.”

Charlotte Mullin, a 23-year-old illustrator, says she doesn't laugh at the jokes either. “But what keeps me watching is the premise, and the characters. I’m a sucker for good character development, and The Good Place has it in spades,” she says. (Cohen tells me she does laugh at The Good Place, once again illustrating that mediocrity is in the eye of the beholder.)

Photo: Netflix

Ross McCafferty is a 27-year-old journalist from Glasgow who couldn’t tell you anything about NBC’s Parks and Recreation, even though he’s seen every episode. During a difficult time at work, he consumed the entire show.

“It’s actually quite a derivative, even mediocre show,” he says. “But I still ate it up, because at the time it was oddly comforting to me, self-contained and uncomplicated and unobtrusive, like so little in my life at that time.”

The reasons McCafferty liked the show, he says, is because it was “nice”, “brightly lit”, “nonthreatening” and “so sweet it was cloying”.

Bright lights and pretty colours certainly feel like one of the reasons I keep going back to mediocre sitcoms, but I also find comfort in certain characters: Chidi in The Good Place and Boyle in Brooklyn 99 are comfortingly familiar – I almost switch on to keep up to date with them, as if they were friends.

George Clarke is a 25-year-old management consultant who finds similar comfort in Seinfeld characters, even though the show doesn’t make him laugh much. “Some days I might fancy Netflix’s latest psychological thriller, but most of the time I’d just prefer to sit and watch Kramer doing something ridiculous or George stuff it up with the girl of his dreams for the fourth time that season,” he says.

But couldn’t Clarke and I find our televisual buds in prestige dramas?

“I find the idea of watching prestige shows non-stop to be exhausting,”  says David Renshaw, a 30-year-old news editor, who jokes it can feel like you “need a map” to keep up with Game of Thrones. When he finishes watching something acclaimed, such as Breaking Bad, he “cleanses the palette” with shows like Masterchef or Gogglebox. “They are much lower maintenance… especially if you’re switching between TV and phone as often as I do.”

Photo: Netflix

The comfort of the mediocre is so powerful that it can often override other emotions, such as the cringing I experience during some of The Good Place’s more strained jokes. Lizzie Roberts is a 25-year-old masters student who enjoys Gilmore Girls even though she dislikes the character Lorelai’s “painfully unfunny monologues”.

“It’s my way of letting my brain reset,” she says of the show, as well as reality TV such as Towie and I’m A Celeb. “It’s not taxing, it’s tolerable.”

“Not taxing and tolerable” are perhaps the words that best sum up the complex psychological reasons we continue to watch mediocre TV during the Golden Age of Television. Streaming services like Netflix are also designed to keep us watching, with episodes auto-playing one after the other (plus it's easier to find a show you've essentially already paid for on the Netflix homepage than go out and hunt for something better suited to your tastes).

Although watching mediocre TV can feel like a waste of time, it does seem to have a psychological purpose. When we're stressed, busy, or tired, it can be exactly the entertainment we need. Nothing is more stressful, busy, or tiring than a commute – so I'll be watching Brooklyn 99 on the train home.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Have you heard the one about. . .