By CAROL RYAN Published: May 25, 2011
DUBLIN — For years, it was Ireland’s hidden scandal: an estimated 30,000 women were sent to church-run laundries, where they were abused and worked for years with no pay. Their offense, in the eyes of society, was to break the strict sexual rules of Catholic Ireland, having children outside wedlock. Although it has been over a decade since their story came to light, the women are still waiting for an apology, and possibly compensation. Now, an advocacy group, Justice for Magdalenes, which has spent the last two years lobbying the Irish government to investigate the history of the laundries, is taking the case to the United Nations, alleging the abuse amounted to human rights violations, and hoping that an official rebuke from the international body will shame the government into action.
“We don’t take any pleasure in embarrassing the government in this way but we have worked the domestic structure as far as we can and still the government has done nothing,” said James Smith of Boston College, a spokesman for Justice for Magdalenes. The United Nations is examining Ireland’s human rights record this week as part of the Universal Periodic Review, a review of the human rights records of all 192 member states. The U.N. Committee Against Torture invited Justice for Magdalenes to make a statement in Geneva after reading their submission about the alleged abuses in the laundries.
Maeve O’Rourke, a Harvard Law School human rights fellow, presented the Magdalenes’ case last Friday. She told the committee that the Irish government’s failure to deal with the abuse amounted to continuing degrading treatment in violation of the Convention Against Torture. She also said the state had failed to promptly investigate “a more than 70-year system of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of women and girls in Ireland’s Magdalene laundries.” The story of the Magdalene women was uncovered in 1993 when a religious order in Dublin cashed in on the booming Irish property market and sold a portion of its land to a developer. The bodies of 155 women who had died in the laundry were exhumed from unmarked graves and the media began to ask questions. The story went made international headlines with the release of Peter Mullan’s 2002 film “The Magdalene Sisters.” Until recently, the Catholic Church was the ultimate moral authority in Ireland, and it promoted strict rules on sex. In this climate, the shame of giving birth to an illegitimate child was so great that many unmarried mothers were rejected by their families. They were taken out of “decent society” and put into Magdalene laundries by members of the clergy, government institutions and their own families. The Magdalene laundries were a network of profit-making workhouses run by four religious communities — the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Charity, the Good Shepherd Sisters and the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity. Named after the Bible’s redeemed prostitute Mary Magdalene, they were initially used to reform prostitutes. By the 1940s, however, most of the residents, or “penitents” as they were called, were young women who had sex outside of marriage (in some cases victims of rape), unmarried mothers, women deemed flirtatious and the mentally disabled. Magdalene women worked long hours, typically seven days a week, without pay. There have been accounts of the harsh conditions the women endured, including allegations of mental, physical and, in some cases, sexual abuse. Many lived and died behind convent walls until the last laundry closed in 1996. Today’s Magdalene women are in their 70s or 80s. Victims of the child sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Irish Catholic Church have received an apology and compensation, but no one has taken responsibility for what happened in the laundries. Cardinal Sean Brady, the most senior Catholic cleric in Ireland, met with Justice for Magdalenes in 2010. He said “by today’s standards much of what happened at that time is difficult to comprehend” but that it was a matter for the religious orders who ran the laundries to deal with. The religious orders have declined to meet the women. The Irish government acknowledged as far back as 2001 that the Magdalene women were victims of abuse but says that because the laundries were privately run, they are outside its remit. It has resisted numerous calls for a statutory inquiry, the latest from the Irish Human Rights Commission in November 2010. The government also rejected proposals for compensation, saying that the state “did not refer individuals, nor was it complicit in referring individuals to the laundries.” However, there is evidence that the state was involved. The Irish courts routinely sent women who were handed down a suspended sentence for petty crimes to the laundries, which operated as a kind of parallel detention system. Public records show the government also awarded lucrative contracts to the nuns for its army and hospital laundry without ever insisting on fair wages for the “workers,” nor did it inspect conditions inside. Testimony from Magdalene women claim that state employees like the Irish police force and social workers brought women to the laundries and returned those who had escaped. There is widespread public support for the Magdalene women’s requests for an apology, compensation, a statutory pension reflecting their years of work in the laundries and access to their records. Mr. Smith and his colleagues at Justice for Magdalenes said they hoped that the U.N. would persuade the Irish government to act. They said elderly survivors needed justice sooner rather than later. “I have always described them as Ireland’s disappeared,” he said. “They were edited out in the past and unfortunately the government seems to want to forget them in the present. But we won’t let that happen.”