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Claire McCormackFebruary 27, 2013


This report from Ireland comes from Claire McCormack, a freelance journalist based in Dublin:

On February 19 Irish Prime Minister made an official government apology for state involvement in the Magdalene Laundries, a network of workhouses that were run by Catholic religious orders between 1922 and 1966. More than 10,000 women and girls were forced into unpaid labor at the laundries. Following the government’s apology hundreds more women have come forward, each potentially due thousands in compensation.

Now that the government has apologized, some are seeking an extended apology from the religious congregations involved.

“At last we have been heard and believed by the country,” said survivor Maureen Sullivan, 61, who was placed in New Ross Magdalene Laundry, Co. Wexford, at age 12 after her father died. “But the state and the Catholic Church allowed this to happen and they too should apologize, individually as separate orders,” she said.

The official apology came after the publication of a damning report (Feb. 5) linking the Irish state with the incarceration of over 2,500 women and failing to supervise their care. That represents roughly 25 percent of the total number of women to go through the Magdalene network. The remaining 75 percent were sent by various other sources including family or parish priests; some women entered voluntarily.

The report, set up after recommendation from the United Nations Committee Against Torture, confirms the Irish state gave lucrative cleaning contracts to 10 Magdalene Laundries, located across the country, including a contract to clean the uniforms of the Irish Defense Force. The state did so without complying with fair wage clauses or social insurance obligations. Evidence also revealed the state inspected the laundries and in doing so oversaw and advanced a system of forced and unpaid labor.

“By day I would work in the laundry but by night I would sleep in St Aidan’s Industrial School,” said Sullivan. “It was long, hard tedious work and because I was small they made a timber box for me to sleep in,” she said. “I remember being hidden in a tunnel when the school inspectors came. I can only assume that this was due to the fact that I was too young to be working in the laundry.”

The advocacy group Justice for Magdalenes welcomed the report, stating it ensures that the state can no longer claim the institutions were private, as it has in the past, or that the majority of young women entered of their own accord.

"I, as Taoiseach, on behalf of the state, the government and our citizens deeply regret and apologize unreservedly to all those women for the hurt that was done to them, and for any stigma they suffered, as a result of the time they spent in a Magdalene Laundry," said Enda Kenny.

Following the apology, the Irish Prime Minister announced plans to set up a compensation fund for the survivors. Each survivor could potentially claim up to €200,000 in compensation for unpaid work and for the physical, psychological and emotional damage they claim to have endured at the laundries.

“I didn’t know why I was put in, I didn’t know how long I would be there, I couldn’t contact my family, I couldn’t speak to anyone except to God when I was forced to pray for penance for sins I didn’t commit,” said survivor Maureen Sullivan. “I still blame the nuns, the stigma they caused took over my life and forced me to pretend I was a different person with a different past,” she said.

Although the Catholic Church was not investigated in the report, some survivor testimonies give details of maltreatment by the nuns who dominated the laundries. These were the Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Charity, Sisters of our Lady of Charity of Refuge and the Good Shepherd Sisters. “We should have been so proud to say we were brought up by the nuns but it was the complete opposite, they took our education from us,” said Sullivan. “The nuns in my parish advised my mother to send me to the Magdalene home to be educated by the Good Shepard Sisters, she trusted the nuns as did everyone else,” she said. ‘The whole country looked up to the Catholic Church.”

The Magdalene Laundries were first introduced in Ireland as Magdalene Asylums in 1765. The asylum was seen as a reformatory for “fallen” women, implying sexual promiscuity or prostitution, and used to rehabilitate them back into society. But when the short-term refuges were appropriated by the Catholic Church in 1829, they increasingly became long-term institutions. Although residents had no religious obligation, they were required to work in the laundries and offer long periods of prayer and silence for their sins. As the Magdalene Movement grew throughout “a harsh and uncompromising Ireland,” as Prime Minister Kenny said in his initial reaction to the report, the phenomenon grew to include unmarried mothers, women with “special needs” and women considered as too pretty or tempting to men. Without a family member to claim them on the outside, many inmates ended up living out their days in the Magdalene homes. However, six months was the average stay recorded in the inquiry.

Since the publication of the report and the prime minister’s apology the Catholic Church and the four religious congregations involved have remained relatively tight-lipped, choosing instead to issue short apologetic statements on their Web sites. “We apologize unreservedly to any woman who experienced hurt while in our care. In good faith we provided refuge for women at our Magdalene Homes in Donnybrook and Peacock Lane,” reads a statement from the Religious Sisters of Charity. For the survivors and advocates, this is not enough. “Responsibility lies equally upon the church and the state. The state should not fully foot the bill,” said Steven O’ Riordan, Founder of Magdalene Survivors Together.

In an interview with America, nuns from one of the religious orders said the shame of the era is being “dumped” on them. “The society those women grew up in encouraged them to be compliant and to conform and all those who ended up in the laundries went against that stereotype and many were also very institutionalized,” said Sister A. “We were the last in a long line of providers and we gave those women a bed and their keep. If they really wanted to escape it wouldn’t be too difficult to outrun a seventy year old nun.”

Frustrated by widespread media perceptions, the Orders claim to be suffering the same generational hurt as the survivors. “All the Orders involved, saw a need in society and tried to respond to it in the best way they could. There was a terrible need because so many women were on the street, with no social welfare and starving,” said Sister A, who has no experience of working in a Magdalene home. The findings revealed that 10 percent were sent in by their families, almost 9 percent were referred by Roman Catholic Church and a further 17 percent entered voluntarily. No evidence of sexual abuse was recorded in the report. “We were last in a line or providers,” said Sister A. “We did not go out an advertise for pregnant women and orphans.”

Relaying stories passed down by older sisters who did work in the Magdalene homes, the nuns said they were often told of women and children sitting outside the doors of the laundries wanting to get in for food and shelter.

“I know a lot of abuse cases are being reported in the media and some of these may have been exceptional circumstances, I’m sure they were not everyday events,” said Sister B. “I know we were harsh and capable of passing a snide remark but I think a lot of the stigma the women are carrying is the enormity of being rejected by their family and by society,” she said. “No woman had a voice 40 years ago, regardless of whether you were in a Magdalene home, the wife of a husband or whether you were a girl growing up in family. Women were seen and not heard.”

Since their inception, it is estimated that 30,000 women have passed through Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries. The youngest was nine years old and the eldest was 89. Almost 900 women and children died while living and working in there. Ireland’s last such  home closed it’s door in October 1996.

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Molly Roach
8 years 9 months ago
I find the comments of the sisters an unhappy echo of bishops who point their finger to "society" when confronted with questions about sexual abuse by priests. It is laughable to describe the religious administrators of the Magdelene Laundries as "providers" for those incarcerated there. Maybe what we are witnessing in both these kind of religious orders and in our bishops is an unwillingness to confront--in Jungian terms--the shadow of these ecclesial roles. It does seem to me that many of our bishops, priests and religious have long wanted to regard their place in the church only in terms of their professed ideals. Looking at the dark side creates too great a contradiction to those ideals. This kind of tension suggests distorted ideals which can be a source projecting the unwanted negatives onto others---oh, just what was done in the Magdelene Laundries.
Jack Jonson
8 years 6 months ago
Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that what went on in Irish laundries went on all over the world in one form or other then and still goes on today in the sexual and many other trades, big time and is well and alive ALL over in what we are supposed to call a Civilized world with little or no comment from big governments, so may I ask what or why the big stigma on Ireland or the Irish people??? It's happening under are very nose and the majority couldn't give a dam. If we want to do something positive about fixing the world it would be a great idea to start protecting little children from child pornography which as everyone knows is a billionair business, don't you think so? Why is it today that millions of babies are murdered legaly in the abortion mills and nobody blinks an eye? It would be very interesting to see how many people out there who are highly critical of Ireland and the Irish people in the past, are out on the streets of the world protesting against the dreadful atrocities to women and babies in these abortion mills as the latest scandal of Dr. Kermit Gosnell In Pennsylvania has reveled? Constantly licking old soars will not help healing and much less amend for what these poor women had to suffer and are still suffering the world over today. It is the Irish State’s moral obligation (as it is of all States around the world) to ensure that these poor vicitms have adequate housing and a good pension to live comfortable and all the social services they require for their mental well being. Once these need have been met , these people should be allowed to live in peace to enable them to come to terms with their traumatic past, without closure no healing is possible! For those of you interested in historical facts it was the Anglican church in Victorian England in the middle 18th century who founded and established laundries in both UK and Ireland for the so called fallen women and girls of society of the day where children as young a 9 years of age where locked up for simple petty crimes like stealing fruit at the public market etc. The Catholic Church didn't follow suit until many years later when it got religious liberty in Britain! Obviously it's a total lack of ethics and right reason and historically misleading to accuse any one country or church for these abuses. By the way, I’m not Irish so no personal interest involved, I just detest one sided and untruthful journalism! Statistics tell us that 90% of sexual and physical abuse is connected with the home or connections to the home and why is it not constantly highly publicised, to stigmatise it, obviously some hidden agenda is been played out here! I’s time we all got our thinking caps back on and start thinking for ourselves instead of been zombies led along like sheep to the slaughter by the mass media!

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