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Ireland: State involved in harsh system of Magdalen laundries

February 05, 2013|By Emily Alpert
  • The now-derelict Sisters of Our Lady of Charity Magdalen laundry in Dublin, Ireland.
The now-derelict Sisters of Our Lady of Charity Magdalen laundry in Dublin,… (Julien Behal / Associated…)

The Irish government was enmeshed in a harsh system of laundries run by Catholic nuns, where women and girls worked behind locked doors without pay, according to a fact-finding report released Tuesday.

More than 10,000 women labored in the infamous Magdalen laundries from 1922 to 1996, a government committee said in the lengthy report. Women and girls landed in the workhouses for a long list of reasons. Some were placed there by Irish courts, some by reform schools, some after being rejected by their foster parents, others after being abused or left homeless.

They were widely seen as “fallen women,” assumed to be prostitutes, the report says. Many still fear revealing their “secret.”

“The chronicle of the Magdalen Laundries was for many years characterized primarily by secrecy, silence and shame,” former Sen. Martin McAleese, who headed the inquiry, wrote in an introduction to the report.

The committee, which sought to put together a picture of how the laundries operated and how the state was involved, pored over church ledgers and other records.

The report paints a less damning picture of the laundries than has appeared on film and stage: It found no evidence of sexual assault by the nuns and few reports of beatings. Some women said the laundries were “their only refuge in times of great personal difficulty,” McAleese wrote, and some chose to go there.

Yet “others spoke of their real sense of being exploited,” he wrote. Most women who talked to the committee said they felt trapped and bewildered, kept in the dark about why they were there and when they could leave. Women and girls were routinely scolded and humiliated, the report says. Most recounted “a rigid and uncompromising regime of physically demanding work and prayer.”

Though the median stay was roughly seven months, more than 1 in 4  women stayed more than two years, the report says. The youngest known entrant was 9 years old.

“No one ever spoke why I was there,” one woman who worked in a laundry in the 1950s told the committee. “In our heads, all we could think of is, we are going to die here.”

Another woman said: “It was devastating to hear that door locked and I was never ever to walk out. There was a big wall. I knew I was there for life. When that door was locked, my life ended.”

The Catholic orders that ran the laundries said they regretted the harsh conditions. "We wish that we could have done more and that it could have been different," the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy, which ran two laundries that closed in 1963 and 1984, said in a statement Tuesday. "It is regrettable that the Magdalen Homes had to exist at all."

The Irish government was involved in the system in many ways, the report says. State institutions sent more than a quarter of the women and girls who were shunted into the laundries. They inspected the facilities, paid the system through public assistance and other state programs and contracted with the laundries for their services.  Irish police also returned runaways who had fled the laundries, the committee found.

The findings were heartening to activists who had pushed for acknowledgment of state involvement. However, activist groups were bitterly disappointed that Prime Minister Enda Kenny, who said Tuesday that he was sorry for how the women were treated, did not make a formal apology on behalf of the state.

“There is no question the state was involved,” said James M. Smith, a Boston College associate professor who wrote a book on the laundries and now sits on the advisory board of the Justice for Magdalenes activist group. The lack of an official apology left the women “disappointed, some are inconsolable,” Smith said. “They have been waiting for so long. These are elderly women in the main, and they simply don’t have time.”

Another activist group, Magdalene Survivors Together, called the words from Kenny “a complete and utter cop-out,” the Irish Times reported. Opposition leaders also pressed for a more sweeping government apology for depriving the women of their freedom.

An official government apology could also open the door to providing the women with lost wages or other redress, Smith said. Activists are still reading the report, he said, but they are already dubious of its assertion that the laundries made little profit, despite not having to pay wages. Some records were unavailable, which means the number of women who passed through the laundries is probably higher than the 10,012 reported, activists said.

The inquiry was prompted by the United Nations Committee on Torture, which in 2011 ordered an investigation of whether the Irish state was involved in reported abuses at the laundries. The government had argued that the institutions were privately run with little state involvement.

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