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When tragedy strikes, let's not play the blame game

Thoughts on a fatal fire in a Henan orphanage

  • Fr Paulus Gan, Shijiazhuang
  • China
  • January 9, 2013
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A fire broke out last Friday morning killing seven orphans being cared for by a housewife in Lankao county, central Henan province.

Debate has raged around the country since the tragedy about illegal orphanages, the fire and, in particular, the housewife caring for the children.

Yuan Lihai, locally known as “Loving Mama” who has cared for more than 100 orphans at her home in the past decades, is now “in police custody and being interrogated.”

Is she a hypocrite “exploiting the social security system by adopting orphans” or a criminal “making money by trafficking children”? Will she go to jail? Can she adopt more abandoned babies with mental or physical disabilities in the future?

The incident has drawn extensive media coverage and some video clips of past interviews given by Yuan have been posted on the internet. I am not going to add to the comments and analyses that have accompanied them, but I would like to share my thoughts.

I have had dealings with orphanages of different sizes and capacities when working with Jinde Charities (a Catholic-run charitable organization in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province) and local dioceses over the past few years. Some are operated by families like Yuan’s, while some are managed by Religious communities, especially nuns.

Despite the differences in how these people run their orphanages, their stories are more or less the same. They come across a disabled baby abandoned by its parents and their conscience urges them to reach out to it. Then they take in a second baby, a third, a fourth … and so forth. They had never thought of starting an orphanage, but they will end up taking in a few hundred in 10 to 20 years’ time.

Like Yuan’s orphanage, as a press conference given by the Lankao county government on January 5 indicated, most of these non-governmental homes do not fulfill all the requirements of the Adoption Law and are therefore illegal.

However, since they are doing good work for society, local governments tend to let them be.

Notwithstanding, good deeds do not prevent accidents from happening. The government has now pushed the accountability button. A particular staff member from a particular department will be found responsible for Friday’s tragedy and will soon be fired.

While Yuan is investigated and waiting for her punishment, the media and the general public have started to ask and think, “Who should bear the responsibility?”

Truly, we should seriously reflect, conclude and learn from every tragedy or incident to avoid similar accidents from happening again.

Confronted by sad stories such as the tragic death of the seven orphans, how can we jump to conclusions, hastily point the finger and punish someone?

Did the fire that killed these babies begin on the morning of January 4? Could it be said it began the moment when their parents heartlessly abandoned them? One could say it began when civil service departments, the fire department and public security bureau turned a blind eye and adopted a “do not disturb” policy.

Or if you look at us, does it begin when we, moved by a sense of pity over the unfortunate situation of the orphans, generously make donations but become mean when it comes to concern for their non-monetary needs?

If any of this is true, let us stop looking for a scapegoat, and let us all bear the moral responsibility.

Fr Paulus Gan is a priest in Shijiazhuang, in Hebei province.

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