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Ireland’s religious welcome report on state role in Magdalen laundries

Posted By February 8, 2013 | 4:02 pm | International
DUBLIN (CNS) -- The body that represents Ireland's religious congregations has said that the issue of the Magdalen laundries must not be "presented as a matter only for religious." A report released Feb. 5 found "significant" state involvement in the religious-run institutions where young women, many placed by the state, worked in laundries without pay. Many former residents reported feeling stigmatized as a result of spending time in the institutions. The Conference of Religious of Ireland welcomed the publication of the report, expressing the hope that it can "lead to reconciliation and healing for all involved in this very complex matter."

 

By Michael Kelly Catholic News Service

DUBLIN (CNS) — The body that represents Ireland’s religious congregations has said that the issue of the Magdalen laundries must not be “presented as a matter only for religious.”

A report released Feb. 5 found “significant” state involvement in the religious-run institutions where young women, many placed by the state, worked in laundries without pay. Many former residents reported feeling stigmatized as a result of spending time in the institutions.

The Conference of Religious of Ireland welcomed the publication of the report, expressing the hope that it can “lead to reconciliation and healing for all involved in this very complex matter.”

“It is important that we, as religious, acknowledge the part we played in the entire issue, and it is also important that a system which had the support of many sectors of our society is not now presented as a matter only for religious — if the necessary healing and reconciliation is to be found,” the conference said in a statement.

Sen. Martin McAleese, the report’s main author, said the laundries were “by today’s standards, a harsh and physically demanding work environment.”

The report said about 10,000 women and girls entered Magdalen laundries since 1922, with more than a quarter of referrals made or facilitated by the state. The report also shows that significant numbers were placed there by their families. Just more than 60 percent of women spent one year or less in the laundries.

Most women who spoke to the committee described the atmosphere as “cold” with a “rigid and uncompromising regime of physically demanding work and prayer,” with many instances of “verbal censure.”

Most women spoke of hurt due to the “loss of freedom,” the “lack of information on when they could leave” and denial of contact with family.

The report revealed “significant” state involvement in the laundries — a fact repeatedly denied by successive governments.

Prime Minister Enda Kenny told a parliamentary debate Feb. 5 he was sorry the report had not been released earlier, because many of the laundries’ inhabitants “have for too long felt the social stigma” of the “wholly inaccurate characterisation” of them as “fallen women.” However, he rejected a call to apologize for the state’s role in admitting women to the laundries. He said there would be a full legislative debate on the report in two weeks’ time.

In the report, the committee said it found “no evidence” to support the perception that “unmarried girls” had babies in the laundries or that many of the women were prostitutes.

The women who shared their experiences with the committee made no allegations of sexual abuse.

McAleese paid tribute to the religious orders involved for their high level of cooperation with the preparation of the report.

“A large variety of private archives were voluntarily made available to the committee, and it is important to acknowledge that, without them, the work of the committee would have proved very difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish. In particular and of critical importance to the progress of the committee’s work is the fact that the four religious congregations — the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge, the Religious Sisters of Charity, and the Sisters of Mercy — voluntarily opened all their records to inspection and analysis and made themselves available at all times to provide the committee with the fullest information they could.”

The Sisters of Mercy, who ran two such institutions, said it was “saddened by the limitations of the care which could be provided in these homes.”

“Our sisters worked in the laundries with the women and, while times and conditions were harsh and difficult, some very supportive, lifelong friendships emerged and were sustained for several decades,” the congregation said.

The Good Shepherd Sisters responded to the report, insisting, “We acted in good faith, providing a refuge, and we sincerely regret that women could have experienced hurt and hardship during their time with us.

“It saddens us deeply to hear that time spent with us, often as part of a wider difficult experience, has had such a traumatic impact on the lives of these women,” the Good Shepherd Sisters said.

The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge said the report offered “an opportunity for state and society, church and congregations, to move beyond stereotypes and stigmatization.”

“We are challenged to move beyond denial, distortion and deletion to face and embrace the realities of how women came to be in a refuge, how they were treated while there, and how they were treated outside the refuge,” the congregation said.

A group representing many of the former residents, Justice for Magdalenes, has called on the government to issue an immediate apology. The group also called on the government to establish a “transparent and non-adversarial compensation process that includes the provision of pensions, lost wages, health and housing services, as well as redress, and that is open to all survivors, putting their welfare at the forefront.”

State funding for the institutions included capitation, grants and laundry contracts. The committee found the laundries operated on a subsistence or break-even basis rather than being commercial or highly profitable.

The first Magdalen laundry in Ireland opened in Dublin in 1767. There were 10 Magdalen laundries in the Irish Republic following independence in 1922; the last one closed in 1996.