The news comes as the UN Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) again raised concerns about the independence and comprehensive nature of the McAleese Report.
Welcoming UNCAT’s intervention, Justice for Magdalenes Research said it was “deeply concerned” that a number of women had been offered compensation payments reflecting shorter lengths of stay in laundries than they actually suffered.
“We are deeply concerned that some women are being offered compensation payments reflecting much shorter lengths of stay than the women endured. Moreover, the women have been told that records no longer exist to support their claims of longer durations of stay.
“The women in question, all of whom were minors when they were incarcerated in the laundries, should not be penalised because of the failures of church and State to maintain adequate records.”
In its list of issues that require attention for Ireland in 2015, UNCAT questioned the Government’s assertion that the McAleese Report was “comprehensive, objective, and conducted under the supervision of an independent chairperson” given that the duration of stay was not recorded for 58% of admissions.
“Since the McAleese Committee did not have power to compel evidence, and only to receive what was forwarded voluntarily, please explain why the State party considers that it has obtained all the relevant evidence and facts,” said UNCAT.
“Please clarify how the McAleese Committee, comprised of representatives of the government agencies involved with the running of the Magdalene Laundries, can be considered as definitive solely because the chairperson was independent.”
The UN body also asked for the basis on which survivor testimonies submitted to the McAleese Committee were used, given only seven of the 22 testimonies submitted by Justice For Magdalenes (JFM) were included in the report.
“Was survivor testimony given a lesser status in this inquiry than written records of the State and the religious orders? In view of the fact that several of the cases cited by NGO sources highlight physical and psychological abuse, please clarify what measures the State party has taken to investigate their claims promptly and thoroughly,” asked UNCAT.
JFM Research also criticised the Government’s “callous” decision to exclude women living in other jurisdictions from the enhanced medical card, which it said was not consistent with the recommendations of the Quirke Report.
An Bord Pleanála has decided the impact of the Journey of Light design in the Garden of Remembrance would be too much to grant permission. The proposal was mostly for the rear of the garden and would have been accessed from the other side of Parnell Square, but it included plans for a walkway from the memorial through the raised podium that supports the Children of Lir statue in the main garden.
In its refusal, the board referenced the removal of the central section of the podium steps which form part of the processional route through the garden, where British monarch Queen Elizabeth historically laid a wreath at the foot of the Oisín Kelly statue in May 2011.
“Notwithstanding the importance of the creation of a memorial to commemorate the victims of institutional abuse, the proposed development would have an adverse impact on the setting, character and function of the Garden of Remembrance,” said the appeals board.
A planning inspector recommended refusal after hearing submissions from all sides last month, following Dublin City Council’s initial grant of permission in May.
The project drew further criticism even after its refusal from three objectors who have opposed it since plans were first lodged in Oct 2012.
“An Bord’s decision ensures that the proper respect and homage... for those who laid down their lives for Ireland is maintained; that our National Memorial is afforded the dignity that the people of Ireland require it to have, and that it is not the subject of unseemly controversy now or in the future,” said objectors Michael Heery, Mary Kirwan, and Alice Hanratty.
A memorial was recommended in the 2009 Ryan Report of the institutional child abuse commission.
Plans to build a memorial to victims of institutional abuse in the Garden of Remembrance on Dublin’s Parnell Square have been refused by An Bord Pleanála.
The application by the Office of Public Works to build the monument was approved by Dublin City Council last May despite several objections including one from an abuse survivors’ support group. It was subsequently appealed to An Bord Pleanála.
A number of parties, including Irish Survivors of Child Abuse and former industrial school resident and Independent city councillor Mannix Flynn objected on the grounds that it interfered with the existing memorial to those who died fighting for Irish freedom and that the association between the two memorials was inappropriate.
Others, including the Irish Georgian Society, objected to the effect the proposal would have on the structure and character of the historic 18th century square.
Despite the council having approved the application, An Bord Pleanála said the plans were in conflict with the council’s own rules for the protection of the special interest and character of conservation areas under Dublin City Development Plan “The proposal therefore would not be in accordance with proper planning and sustainable development,” An Bord Pleanála said.
It also said that as the Garden of Remembrance is a “State memorial” used for State ceremonial occasions and was of national importance, it was inappropriate to put a “second unrelated memorial” on the site.
“It is considered, notwithstanding the importance of the creation of a memorial to commemorate the victims of institutional abuse, that the proposed development would have an adverse impact on the setting, character and function of the Garden of Remembrance,” the board said.
The €500,000 Journey of Light memorial, designed by Dublin-based Studio Negri with Hennessy & Associates, featured a covered passageway, lit at night and flanked by fossilised limestone walls and waterfalls. It was to be put up behind Oisín Kelly’s Children of Lir monument commemorating the 1916 Rising, in line with the Irish flag, with the State apology to abuse victims inscribed at child’s-eye level.
The proposal also sought a gated opening in the railings along Parnell Square West to access the memorial and new service access gates to Parnell Square North on a 2,140sq m site.
The Journey of Light was chosen in July last year as the memorial for abuse victims by a committee set up by the Department of Education following a year-long design competition.
Nine elderly U.S. based Irish Magdalene Laundry survivors denied health care
Advocate says Irish government refuses central recommendation of the Quirke report
IrishCentral Staff Writers,
Girls of the Magdalene Laundries, decades later the Irish government continue to deny these victims compensation or medical coverage.
Nine elderly Irish women, survivors of the Magdalene Laundries now living in the United States, will not receive the health care coverage recommended in Justice John Quirke's 2013 Magdalene Commission Report.
Contrary to Justice Quirk's recommendation that all Magdalene survivors be afforded a medical card or equivalent health coverage, the Irish government announced this week that health benefits will only be given to survivors currently living in Ireland.
It's believed the decision to restrict health care coverage will impact differently depending on where the women now live. Survivors in Britain – where over 100 have applied to the scheme – may already be well served by the UK's national health service.
“But it's a very different prospect for women living here in the United States,” says James M. Smith, an associate professor at the English department and Irish studies program at Boston College and longtime campaigner on behalf of Magdalene survivors.
Smith, the author of 'Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment,' gave an example of one Magdalene Laundry woman.
He was first contacted by the 79-year-old Magdalene survivor after she read his book in 2008.
“This is a women who at 79 years of age relies on charity. A family who knew her in Boston in the 1970's moved her to the midwest. They pay her rent and have helped her with her health insurance. Butt she can't afford to make up the shortfall and she doesn't want to tell them, for fear of becoming more of burden than she already is.
“What this means is that at 79 she cannot afford the $22 dollars it costs to buy her multivitamins. For her a lump sum payment is well and good, as she might be entitled to somewhere south of $50,000. But the fact is that's a weeks hospitalization here.”
Justice Quirke's report was submitted to the government in May and published on June 26. After that date Magdalene survivors could apply to the scheme for financial assistance. A lump sum payment was recommended by the report, with the sum determined by the number of years or duration of stay of each woman in a Magdalene Laundry, with payments ranging from a minimum payment of between €10,000 and €12,000 ($13,500 - $16,000) up to a maximum of €1100,000 ($150,000).
“The Irish government announced this week that nine Magdalene survivors living in the US have applied for assistance. All will be denied health coverage. The survivor here in the U.S. that I am very familiar with, and on whose behalf I've previously lobbied the government, is now in her late 70's and living with medical issues and experiencing pain on a daily basis.
“She will receive her lump sum entitlement and she will receive a statutory old age pension, as she is entitled to having worked in a Magdalene laundry for a number of years, but she will not have her health care paid for and this was something that was recommended by the Quirk report,” Smith said.
The Irish government accepted the Quirke report in full and in principle, Smith adds. “But this week the Irish Minister for Justice Alan Shatter, in response to a question from Independent Minister Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan in the Irish parliament, seems to have moved away from that commitment.”
The first recommendation in Quirke's report states that all Magdalene women should have access to the equivalent full range of services currently enjoyed by holders of the Health Amendment Act 1996 Card (HAA Card). The card entitles its holder to extensive health services equivalent to those provided to the holder of a HAA Card. It was recommended it should be given to each woman who worked in a designated Magdalene laundry.
“There is no language in Justice Quirke's report that qualifies their entitlement in terms of people living in Ireland and people living outside of Ireland,” Smith says.
But in a statement on Tuesday Shatter wrote: “In line with the recommendation of Justice Quirke these services will be provided in this state.” Shatter's response came a week after Deputy O'Sullivan called the Irish Department of Justice on Smith's behalf to make specific enquiries about the 79-year-old Irish survivor who now lives in the midwest.
“O'Sullivan was told that this woman would qualify for the lump sum payment before Christmas (once she signs a waiver that stipulates she will not attempt to sue the State). She will also receive a pension, but she will not be receiving a Health Card (HAA CARD) or its equivalent.”
Recognizing that some former Magdalene Laundry women now live in other jurisdictions including the U.S., Canada, Australia and other countries, Quirke wrote in May: “Although my terms of reference do not refer to those women, the observations I have made apply with equal force to their circumstances, their tax liabilities and the social and other benefits to which they are entitled.”
“Justice Quirke imagined all former Magdalene women were entitled to all the benefits he outlined, including health benefits. The government accepted that in principle. But in his statement this week Minister Shatter seems to want to suggest that Justice Quirk only ever envisaged those benefits being for women living in the state.”
In February the McAleese report, a government appointed investigation into State involvement in Catholic run institutions, found that the Magdalene Laundries were not private institutions outside the remit of the state, nor did the majority of women who lived and worked in the laundries enter them voluntarily. The report also found that at least 2,500 women were sent to the laundries by the State.
The McAleese report also found that the State gave laundry contracts to the Magdalene Laundries, participating in a system of forced unpaid labor, a system it actually oversaw. Two weeks after the McAleese report was filed Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny offered a government apology.
“That was in February,” says Smith. “It's November now and no woman has yet received her lump sum payment. Legislation has not been put in place for women to receive health their health care if they live in Ireland, or their pension entitlements. Two of these women have died since February. Not only are things not happening fast enough in terms of them getting their money, in the year of The Gathering it’s appalling that some of the most vulnerable and marginalized members of the Irish Diaspora are being excluded in terms of access to health care which is being afforded to women who live in Ireland. The benefits they are entitled to they may never get the chance to enjoy.”
Smith is incredulous that the Irish government can't seem to offer health care to the nine Magdalene Laundry women it estimates are still living in the U.S.
“The Irish government needs to revisit this issue for survivors living outside of Ireland from whom health care coverage would improve their quality of life in their final years,” Smith says. “They should find a way to provide the equivalent of a medical card form of health care to the elderly women who might need it.”
A Plea for the Care of the World's Destitute Children
His Holiness Pope Pius XII
Prumulgated on January 6, 1946
To the Venerable Brethren: The Patriarchs, Archbishops, Bishops and other Ordinaries Having Peace and Communion With the Apostolic See.
WHILE THE TERRIBLE WAR RAGED We used all Our powers of persuasion and appeal to bring to a speedy end a conflict which had lasted all too long and to secure an agreement guaranteeing justice, equity and right. The same way now that fighting has ceased, but peace has not yet been restored, in virtue of Our apostolic office, We are leaving nothing undone to provide timely relief for so many ills and all possible comfort for the accumulated miseries that weigh on not a few nations. But of the almost countless ills born of the dire struggle none so hurts or so wounds Our paternal heart as that which involves a host of innocent children, millions of whom it is estimated are in many countries without the necessities of life and are suffering from cold, hunger and disease. Often, too, in their utter dereliction they feel the want not only of food, clothes and shelter but also of the affection which their tender years so need.
2. As you know, Venerable Brethren, We have done all that We could to solve this problem. And We gladly take this occasion to express Our sincerest gratitude to those through whose liberality We have been able to alleviate somewhat the need of these infants and children. We know, too, that many have individually or as members of societies and organizations undertaken to help or are already actively at work. To these, worthy of all praise as they are, We pay due tribute and pray God to bless their activities, their plans for the future, their achievements.
3. But since help of this kind is entirely inadequate to the immense task, We have deemed it Our duty to turn to you and paternally urge you to take to heart the extremely grave plight of these needy children, leaving nothing undone that may contribute to ease their lot and bring relief.
4. We ordain, therefore, that in each of your dioceses you assign a day on which public prayers will be offered to appease God's anger and on which through your priests you will admonish the faithful of this urgent need and exhort them to support by their prayers, good works and offerings every movement that is directing its forces fully and effectively for the succor of needy and abandoned children.
5. This is a problem, of course, which touches all citizens, whatever be their views, if only their hearts respond to the appeals of nature and religion. But it belongs, in a special sense, to Christians who should see stamped on these poor destitute little brothers the image of the Divine Child and who are bound to heed those words: "Amen I say to you, as long as you did it for one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it for me" (Matt. 25, 40).
6. Let all remember and reflect that these children will be pillars of the next generation and that it is essential that they grow up healthy in mind and body if we are to avoid a race infected with sickness and vice. Nobody should hesitate, then, to contribute time and money to a cause so opportune and essential. Those who are themselves less wealthy should give what they can with open hand and willing heart. Those who live in luxury should reflect and remember that the indigence, hunger and nakedness of these children will constitute a grave and severe indictment of them before God, the Father of mercies, if they harden their hearts and do not contribute generously. All, finally, should be convinced that their liberality will not be loss but gain, for we can safely say that one who gives from his means to the poor is lending to God Who, in His own time, will repay his generosity with abundant interest.
7. We firmly trust that, as in Apostolic times, when the Christian population of Jerusalem was subjected to poverty and persecution, the rest of the faithful throughout the world contributed their prayers and material aid. (Cf. I Cor. 16,1) so now, too, all will be inspired and animated by the same charity and will help as much as they can. This they should do, as We have said, especially by fervent prayer to our most merciful Redeemer. For, as you know, fervent prayer carries with it a mystic power that penetrates Heaven and calls down supernatural light and Divine impulses to illumine men's minds and incline their wills to good, to persuade and move them to charity.
8. Let us recall that in every age the Church has exercised the most diligent care of the young and has rightly deemed this as an official mission assigned in a very special way to her charity. And as she did this and continues to do it, she undoubtedly was following in the footsteps and obeying the injunctions of her Divine Founder, Who, gently gathering the children around Him, said to the Apostles who rebuked their mothers: "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for of such is the kingdom of God" (Mark 10, 14). For Christ, as Our predecessor of immortal memory, Leo the Great, very well says, "loves childhood which He had first assumed in mind and body. Christ loves childhood, the school of humility, the norm of innocence, the model of meekness. Christ loves childhood towards which He directs morality, to which He leads back the old age of men. Those whom He calls to His eternal kingdom above He inspires to follow His example" (Serm. XXXVII C. 3, ML 54, 258 C).
9. In the light of such words and sentiments, Venerable Brethren, you see with what love, diligence and care the Church looks after infants and children following the lead of her Founder. While she exercises all possible care to see that they be provided with food, shelter and clothing for their bodies, she does not ignore or neglect their souls which--born, so to speak, from the breath of God--seem to portray the radiant beauty of Heaven. Her first care and endeavor is, then, to preserve their innocence from stain and provide for their eternal salvation.
10. Accordingly, there are numberless institutions and organizations to educate the young, form them to solid virtue, and satisfy their needs in education as they grow in mind and body. In this important field, as you know, many Religious Orders and congregations of men and women are laboring with admirable zeal and effect, and their prudent, alert, devoted activity is making a magnificent contribution to the progress of Church and State. This is being done not only in civilized countries, with large and excellent results, but also among uncultured peoples or those which the light of Christian truth has not yet reached, where missionary endeavor and, especially, the Pontifical Society of the Holy Childhood, rescues so many children and infants from the slavery of the devil and of wicked men, procuring for them the freedom of the children of God, and trains them to be members of civilized society.
11. But at this tragic moment of history, when--alas--material and spiritual ruins are piled high, these providential charitable enterprises, which, perhaps, seemed capable of dealing with normal needs of this kind are certainly inadequate. For, Venerable Brethren, We almost seem to see with Our own eyes the vast hosts of children weakened or at death's door through starvation. They hold out their little hands asking for bread "and there is no one to break it unto them" (Lam. 4, 4). Without home, without clothing, they shiver in the winter cold and die. And there are no fathers or mothers to warm and clothe them. Ailing, or even in the last stages of consumption, they are without the necessary medicines and medical care. We see them, too, passing before Our sorrowful gaze, wandering through the noisy city street, reduced to unemployment and moral corruption, or drifting as vagrants uncertainly about the cities, the towns, the countryside, while no one--alas-- provides safe refuge for them against want, vice and crime.
12. How, then, can We desist, Venerable Brethren, when We love those children of Ours so intensely in the heart of Jesus Christ (Philip 1, 8); how can We desist from appealing again and again to you all individually and collectively and to all throughout the world who, like you, are inspired with a sense of mercy and piety, so that the full force of Christian charity--and it is a mighty force--may be pooled by willing and generous souls in order to mitigate and relieve their piteous condition.
13. Let us use all the means that modern progress offers or recommends. Let new methods be devised which may, through the cooperation of all provide an effective remedy for present ills and for those which are feared in the future. Thus, may it speedily come about that with God's help and inspiration the snares of vice, which hold so many derelict children as an easy prey, may give way to the attraction of a virtuous life; that their blank idleness and gloomy sloth may give way to honest and cheerful employment; that for their hunger, starvation and nakedness they may have adequate relief from the Divine charity of Jesus Christ, which should be most alive, eager and strong among His followers at a time like this.
14. Such a change will contribute most effectively not only to the increase of the Catholic Religion and of Christian virtue but also to the good of the human family at large and of civil society. For, as all know, there would not be such a mass of delinquents in the common jails if greater and more suitable measures were taken to prevent especially juvenile delinquency. And if everywhere there grew up a healthy, honest and industrious youth, it would be easier to find citizens remarkable for their probity, fortitude and other mental and physical qualities.
15. This was Our purpose, Venerable Brethren, in writing to you this Encyclical about so grave a question, committing to you the task of communicating Our paternal exhortation in the way you consider most suitable to your flocks. And We firmly trust that this, Our exhortation and appeal, will meet with a ready answer from all and with generous contributions and collaboration.
16. Inspired by this hope, as a pledge of heavenly graces and a sign of Our special benevolence with all affection in the Lord, We impart the Apostolic Benediction to you all, Venerable Brethren, to the flocks committed to your care, and especially to those who have already, in any way, served this cause and to those who will serve it in the future.
Given at St. Peter's, Rome, on the 6th day of January, Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the year 1946, the seventh of Our Pontificate.
Magdalene survivors living outside the State will not be entitled to health benefits in their country of residence but would have to return here to avail of promised healthcare under legislation being drafted by the Department of Justice.
By Claire O’Sullivan
This comes as it was announced that €250,000 has been paid by the department to a UK-based survivors network Sally Mulready’s Irish Women Survivors Support Network (IWSSN).
The department added that to facilitate good governance, the group have recently registered as a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee and an agreement has been entered into to route the funding through Voluntary Action Camden.
The money, originally earmarked just for Magdalene survivors, is now also to be used for advice and support services for institutional abuse survivors. Magdalene and institutional abuse survivors have been clamouring for their promised redress payments and for details about the statutory fund payments.
Justice for Magdalenes Research expressed “deep concern” that survivors have not being given redress payments and described the health benefits plans as “discriminatory”. Magdalene Survivors Together warned two of their members have died since the Taoiseach made his apology to the women earlier this year.
It was revealed in a parliamentary question to Maureen O’Sullivan TD that 620 applications were made to the Quirke redress scheme, with 486 of these originating from Ireland, 116 from England, five from Scotland and Wales, five from the North, 9 from the US, and the remainder from Australia, Germany, Cyprus, and Switzerland.
Meanwhile, survivors of institutional abuse have heaped criticism upon the new organisation administering the €110m statutory fund to former residents, accusing them of being “evasive and elusive”.
The independent body, named Caranua, will not begin accepting applications for funding from former survivors until next year.
Tom Cronin of Irish Institutional Abuse Survivors has expressed fears that eligibility for the fund will be means tested.
A spokeswoman for Caranua said full details about the scheme would be published shortly.
A brave woman who was thrown into a padded cell, had her hair shaved off and was given a boy’s name by nuns in the Magdalene Laundries has taken her fight for justice to the United Nations.
Terrified Elizabeth Coppin was just 14 when she was taken out of the Co Kerry industrial school she had attended for 12 years and “locked up” in the Peacock Lane Laundry in Cork.
She was never told why she was hauled away from everything she knew and dumped in the hated institution with the chilling warning: “It will be a very long time before you get out.”
And it was the start of a hellish four years in three laundries for Elizabeth where she was:
FORCED to work long days with no pay
MADE to sleep in a cell with bars over the window and only a bucket for a toilet
LOCKED in a bare padded cell for three days after being falsely accused of stealing another girl’s sweets, and
PUNISHED by having her beautiful hair shaved off and her named changed to Enda after she ran away to escape the nightmare.
Now 64, Elizabeth has returned home from England to Listowel, Co Kerry, to fight for justice for herself and the thousands of women like her who were treated like slaves in the Laundries.
Despite the fact the Government has offered survivors compensation, she wants the Taoiseach to admit women were subjected to “State-sponsored torture” and that they were cruelly stripped of their basic human rights.
And adamant that she won’t back down, Elizabeth and fellow Magdalene survivor Mary Merritt have taken their campaign all the way to the United Nations Committee Against Torture to make their voices heard.
Domnick Walsh / Eye Focus LTD
Defiant Elizabeth revealed: “As a vulnerable, ignorant, innocent and frightened child growing up in rural Ireland in an industrial school, abuse by the nuns was a daily ritual for as far back as I could remember.
“I have formed the opinion my torture in the Magdalene Laundries was State-sponsored because the Government and the nuns sent me to the Laundries whilst under-age and in their care.
“The fear of punishment was very real to us women in the Magdalene Laundries.
“We were dependent on the nuns for our welfare, liberty, subsistence and for our very survival.
“The religious have since tried to justify this saying they provided us with shelter, board and work and they acted in the best interests for all who entered the Laundries but this just adds insult to injury.
“I never asked the nuns to take me there and I want the Government to admit our human rights were violated and that we deserved better.”
Elizabeth finally got out of the Laundries aged 19 after almost five years and was so traumatised by what she had been through she fled to England.
But refusing to let the nuns and the State get away with the torture that went on behind closed doors in Laundries across the country, she has come back to Ireland temporarily to fight her battle.
Elizabeth said: “In February 1969 I went to England to escape persecution, slavery, psychological and all types of abuse inflicted on me in Ireland.
“I lived in fear and was constantly looking over my shoulder in England. I was always frightened and had severe nightmares for a long time.
“I was fearful the Government would incarcerate me and repeat the litany of abuse and torture on me again. How can any law-abiding Government ignore our lack of human rights?
“These experiences have left terrible lasting effects on our lives and this dull ache and pain is something I will have to live with and carry with me to the grave.”
Domnick Walsh / Eye Focus LTD
Elizabeth was put into an industrial school when she was just two but was suddenly moved to Peacock Lane two months before she turned 15 – and that’s when the real torture began
Elizabeth revealed: “We all slept in cells and every cell had a bolt on the outside. Every night the nun on duty would lock us in.
“Nearly every window had either strong mesh or bars on the windows with the exception of the windows looking out over the nun’s garden.
“We all had to use a pot and slop out every morning in a communal area and the stench was appalling.
“I can still hear the women crying and sobbing in their cells. Once I was accused of stealing someone’s sweets.
“I kept telling the nun in charge I didn’t take them but my protests fell on deaf ears and this nun, with the help of two women, dragged me to a padded cell.”
She told how there was no bed, a single air vent, a pot to use as a toilet, an enamel mug and plate to drink water from and dry bread.
Elizabeth added: “The nun filled my mug with water from the tap in the toilet and I was locked in for three days and three nights.
“Today I would call it solitary confinement.
“I felt so frightened, cold and alone and it was then that I realised I was on my own for survival and planned my escape.”
A few months later, Elizabeth managed to flee the institution with another girl and got a job in a hospital.
But her world crumbled all over again when three Government officials turned up three months later and warned her: “Run away from this place we’re taking you to and we will put you in a place you’ll never get out of.”
Elizabeth wasn’t taken back to Peacock Lane but was instead moved to The Good Shepherd’s Laundry in Cork.
She said: “I was given the name Enda, my hair was shaved by the nun in charge and as she cut it she said, ‘I don’t think you will be running away for a long time’.”
Domnick Walsh / Eye Focus LTD
Fortunately Elizabeth only had to endure that agony for five months, after which she was moved to another laundry, this time in Waterford.
She added: “I was there for one year. I had my own name and my own clothes, we used toilets and slept in dormitories and even though I was locked up and still doing the laundry work I found this place more tolerable.
“Maybe that’s because I was so institutionalised at that stage and the nun in charge was nice to me.”
And opening up about why she feels she can’t accept the Government’s offer of compensation after the Martin McAleese Report, Elizabeth said: “We worked, toiled and slaved under duress, coercion and fear.
“We were never given any type of education, we were not allowed to have friends and verbal abuse was normal so can someone please tell me how that wasn’t a serious breach of our human rights?”
St. Joseph’s Christian Brothers’ Industrial School
Glin, Co Limerick
Address at Mass 19th October 2013
The challenge now is to bring closure. We recall as children, many of us orphans, some from Killarney’s “Boys Home”, the most vulnerable in society, committed through the Criminal Courts to St. Joseph’s Christian Brothers’ Industrial School, Glin and locked away until we were sixteen. We were then sent to work in the “outside world” where our own inadequate life’s skills would often be the cause of embarrassment or ridicule. We were the refugee’s of those years, lost within a society that simply did not care. We made our way through life with all that was thrown at us and while many established themselves in careers and professions, many were unable to. We did this despite the States indifference to us. A great many had to leave Ireland to achieve this. If anybody believes we could be fully integrated into Irish Society even now, let them ask why we are having this Mass and Reunion here today and not in Glin?
After the Taoiseach’s apology in may 1999 and the ““The indemnity agreement 2002” services such as Counselling, Education, Commission, Origin Service and Redress Board were put in place. Many have benefited from these services while some have not. False expectations about the Residential InstitutionsStatutory Fund have confused some while others see its implementation as further prolonging the closure we all want.
Many of us were told we were orphans! Yet, I acknowledge present here today my own extended family after nearly 60 years and thank the Origin Services of Barnardos for their work. I much regret that I was not able to meet my own mother who died in 2001 - again I acknowledge with sadness the passing of my uncle Larry Hayes in Cork in 2012. I had the great privilege to have known him for over eight years and cherished my time with him.
In welcoming the Religious Congregations here today we must acknowledge the many Christian Brothers andNuns who served their communities and us with compassion, dedication and selflessness. That many were tarnished with the same abuse brush wasvery unjust and most regrettable.
If the challenge is to bring closure, then we must ask that the Religious Congregations begin to work with us towards this end. We should work together to have our Monument placed alongside the others depicting individuals and organisations who made a contribution to the life of Glin’s Heritage. In light of the objection to the agreed words on the Monument, the committee felt, with regret, we had nothing to celebrate by holding this event in Glin.
A Government-agreed compensation scheme for women who worked in a Magdalene laundry has been rejected by the campaign group Magdalene Survivors Together.
By Evelyn Ring
“Why can’t the Minister for Justice just make a full payment to the women? It seems that the Government don’t want to treat the women with dignity,” said Steven O’Riordan, director of Magdalene Survivors Together.
Under the scheme, eligible women will be entitled to a tax-free lump sum payment of between €11,500 and €100,000, depending on how long they were in the laundry.
However, amounts over €50,000 are to be paid in weekly instalments, as recommended by Mr Justice John Quirke.
Mr Justice Quirke recommended that eligible women should also receive top-up payments to bring their income from the State up to €100 if under 66 years and to the equivalent of the State contributory pension (€230.30) for those over 66 years.
Justice Minister Alan Shatter announced yesterday that the Government had agreed the details on how the judge’s recommendations should be implemented. He said arrears would be paid from last August.
Mr Shatter said his department had already encouraged women to submit applications and around 600 had been received to date.
He said the processing of 250 were at an advanced stage and hoped offers of payment would be issued over the next four to six weeks.
However, if an individual accepts the provisional offer, a waiver will have to be signed before the payment of the lump sums can be made.
Mr O’Riordan said some survivors would not want to be identified as somebody who once worked in a Magdalene laundry when they, or someone on their behalf, went to collect the extra payment at their local post office.
He also questioned why the payments were being backdated to August, not June, when the recommendations were published.
Mr O’Riordan said people were fooling themselves if they thought that the women had been looked after — just because a judge had recommended the payments did not make it all right.
“Women were recommended to go into the Magdalene Laundries, the mother and baby homes and industrial schools,” he said.
“We learned that was not the right thing to do.”
Mr O’Riordan said the campaign group has raised a number of issues in a letter that it had sent to the Department of Justice two weeks ago.
In particular, the group has raised a number of concerns in relation to those women who decide not to take up the offer and take a case against the State.
The Government has agreed details for the implementation of the Magdalene redress scheme.
In a statement, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter said 250 applications had already been processed and around 600 applications have been received to date.
Mr Shatter said he would hope that provisional offers of payments would be made in the next four to six weeks.
Eligible women are entitled to a lump-sum payment of between €11,500 and €100,000, with amounts over €50,000 to be paid by weekly instalments.
Four congregations - The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, the Mercy Sisters, the Sisters of Charity and the Good Shepherd Sisters - ran Magdalene Laundries.
An estimated 11,500 women passed through ten institutions between 1922 and 1996.
A report by the Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalene Laundries was published earlier this year.
It found the environment in the laundries was harsh and involved physically demanding work, which produced a traumatic and lasting impact on the girls.
There were many instances of verbal censure, scolding and humiliating put downs.
However, no allegations of sexual abuse were made against the nuns.
The report found that the State was directly involved in the running of the laundries, with just over one quarter of referrals made by or facilitated by the State.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny apologised unreservedly on behalf of the State to the survivors of the laundries earlier this year.
Elsewhere, Labour TD Anne Ferris has called for a mechanism to "claw back" contributions from religious orders towards the payment of redress.
Under the Finance Bill, those who are eligible for redress payments from the Magdalene Laundries listed in the bill will not be obliged to pay taxes on those payments.
While the Wicklow TD welcomed that aspect of the bill, she criticised religious orders, which she said are "not paying their fair share".
Speaking on the second stage of the bill in the Dáil, Ms Ferris said there was an "accounting assumption" in some church-run State-sponsored facilities that pension deficits for staff "would be funded by the State at some point in the future".
She concluded her contribution by calling for an inquiry into past abuses, adding if there was an expectation that the public would take on "an unfair share of the cost of these redress schemes then the Irish people should know why".
Justice Minister Alan Shatter last night said that full details of the compensation scheme were discussed at Cabinet yesterday and would be published in the coming days.
The provision of separate welfare payments for survivors will also be backdated to August as final administrative and legislative measures are worked out, it was announced.
“I am very pleased that payments of the lump sums will commence shortly and, as already stated, full details of the scheme will be published over the next few days,” the minister told the Dáil last night.
By yesterday, 545 applications for lump sums were made by women previously in Magdalene Laundries, 63 from those who were in the House of Mercy Training School, Summerhill, Wexford, and another 91 women who were in St Mary’s Training Centre in Stanhope St, Dublin.
Under the deal agreed, it is expected that 55% of survivors will be entitled to more than €50,000. The Government has made allowances for up to €58m in payments.
Mr Shatter said he expected his department would be in a position to issue the “first offers” within four to six weeks.
Independent TD Maureen O’Sullivan, who has campaigned for survivors, said there was a need for an independent probe so victims could tell their stories.
Under the scheme recommended by Mr Justice John Quirke, women who were in the laundries will receive lump sum payments of between €11,500 and €100,000 for time spent in institutions.
The Government has said it assumes there will be possibly up to 1,000 applications, for compensation as part of the scheme.
A woman who spent three months or less in a laundry will receive a lump sum of €11,500. For one year it will be €20,500 and €68,500 for five years.
The maximum amount is €100,000 for women who were in a laundry for 10 years or more.
Mr Shatter also said that survivors would be encouraged to seek advice before agreeing to compensation deals.
“Applicants will be facilitated to engage their own choice of solicitor and will be provided with a maximum amount from the State of €500 plus VAT as a contribution to the cost of obtaining legal advice with regards to the signing of the waiver.”
The Department of Justice has failed in its attempt to coax money from the Magdalene Laundry orders after opting not to drawn on 12 years of almost identical experiences of another department.
By Conor Ryan
The four religious orders that ran the Magdalene Laundries have told the Department of Justice a second time that they will not contribute to the compensation scheme.
This declaration followed meetings with Justice Minister Alan Shatter in June, at which he asked the congregations to support the fund.
However, according to a separate Freedom of Information request of the Department of Education, officials from the justice department never made contact to gauge the experiences of its redress unit.
The redress unit had been, and continues to be, involved in a lengthy and largely unsuccessful set of negotiations with 18 religious orders over the perceived €500m shortfall in contributions to the child abuse redress scheme.
The four laundry orders — the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Charity, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, and the Good Shepherd — were also involved in the child abuse redress scheme.
Following publication of the Magdalene report by former High Court judge John Quirke, Mr Shatter made his request of the religious orders.
In July, Mr Shatter was left empty-handed and had to express a similar degree of disappointment and frustration as Education Minister Ruairi Quinn had made a year earlier, when he had sought for top up payments towards the €1.5bn redress bill.
According to the records held by the Department of Education, their colleagues in justice did not inquire about the likely stance of the congregations.
“No correspondence has issued from this department to the Department of Justice regarding the issue of seeking contributions from religious orders towards a compensation scheme linked to the Magdalen laundries in the period from February 2013 to the present,” it said.
In a statement, the Department of Justice said that, after two requests, the orders had stood firm in refusing to support the laundry redress scheme.
“In June 2013, the minister met with the four religious congregations concerned and had discussed the issue of a contribution from them to ex-gratia Scheme recommended by Judge Quirke,” said a justice department spokesperson. “Following reflection on the matter, all four declined to make a financial contribution.
“Following the Government meeting in July, the minister wrote to all four congregations expressing disappointment that they had decided not to make a financial contribution, pointing out that the Government is of the view that the congregations have a moral obligation and urging them to reconsider. The congregations responded to that second request and reaffirmed their position.”
The critical issue, which is no closer to being resolved, is the Government’s insistence that 50% of a €1.5bn redress bill should be met by the congregations responsible for running institutions probed by the Ryan Report.
A €127m contribution was agreed under a 2001 indemnity deal. Further offers were made in 2009.
But the Department of Education feels the combination is still €500m short of the €750m target set in the Programme for Government.
The request has been rejected by almost all of the orders involved, with varying degrees of disdain for the tactics adopted by successive governments in a bid to deliver on it.
Details of three years’ worth of negotiations between the orders and the Department of Education and the congregations have now been released.
The publication of these papers became possible after the Coalition abandoned a hard-line strategy in July. This had included an expressed attempt to seek the total transfer of education infrastructure into the State’s ownership. It was to be explicitly in lieu of cash payments to the redress scheme.
The department has deemed this process to be over and, as a consequence, decided that communications from the negotiations should be made public.
The original commitment in the Programme for Government, agreed by the Coalition in 2011, targeted schools’ assets as an alternative means of getting religious orders to increase the value of their offers.
“We will negotiate the transfer of school infrastructure currently owned by 18 religious orders cited in the Ryan Report, at no extra cost, to the State.
“In principle, school buildings and land will be zoned for educational use, so that they cannot easily be sold and lost to system,” it said.
This line was softened by the Cabinet in July following a proposal by the department to accept properties, but allow congregations to remain in control of the assets and take control of land that had been put into trust. The idea, as detailed in a proposal to the minister in February, was to de-couple the redress dispute from the wider school patronage issue and seek to reach the same end by a different route.
This came after a difficult 2012 which began with letters from the minister to each of the orders involved, restating his position on the Programme for Government and seeking views on an alternative approach to the transfer of education assets. There had been meetings throughout 2011, in groups and individually, but by and large the offers that were made by the orders in late 2009 remained.
Broadly, the orders fall into three categories: Those who say they cannot pay, those who say they will not pay and those who say they may pay a little more under certain conditions.
In some cases, such as the Daughters of Charity, the Sisters of Charity and the Christian Brothers, the cash commitments were delayed or shelved due to the depressed property market.
Other congregations, such as the Presentation Brothers, made small amendments to their offers to increase the likely value to the State.
The most powerful religious order, the Sisters of Mercy, said its voluntary offer was non-negotiable. A briefing note, prepared for the minister in January ahead of a meeting with Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore on the Programme for Government, summarised the State’s stance.
“Clearly there is a wide gap to realise a 50% contribution and the minister proposed the transfer of school infrastructure at no cost to the State as one mechanism to allow those involved the opportunity to shoulder their share of the costs.
“The schools involved would continue in their own ethos until they decide otherwise. However, the responses from the congregations continue to be most disappointing,” it said.
The position had barely moved from Education Minister Ruairi Quinn’s correspondence of Feb 2012, in which he expressed frustration at the attitude of the orders and, as he set out in a letter to the De La Salle order, the Government did not want to deviate from the desire to split the €1.5bn bill.
“I wish to confirm that the 50:50 approach was taken in the light of the resources available to the congregations. I have confirmed that the present Government believes that a 50:50 approach is right and just in the light of the Ryan Report and the capacity of the congregations to meet their share of the costs incurred,” Mr Quinn said.
Many of the orders wrote back revealing anger at the State’s handling of the redress scheme and, in particular, the decision to extend it in 2005.
Orders such as the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity said the Government is simply looking for retrospective agreement to cover the costs it incurred because of poor administration of the redress scheme.
Many of the orders feel they have made concessions but the State has not been able to provide information required to progress talks.
One of the key problems has been the confidentiality clause attached to the Redress Board. This prevents the orders getting an order- by-order breakdown of the awards.
Such a breakdown was requested to allow the orders to decide which of them should carry the greater burden as they are now dealing with the State as individual groups, rather than as a unit under the umbrella of CORI.
In a statement to the Irish Examiner the Trustees of the Brothers of Charity said that without this information, the orders were left in the dark. “Based on the best calculations that can be made from the information available, the trustees are of the opinion that the contributions they have already made amount to at least a 50:50 sharing of the costs.
“Also, arising from previous meetings with the minister, there was an expectation that every effort would be made to provide those responsible for managing the institutions concerned with accurate information with regard to the costs incurred and the trustees feel that only if and when that information can be provided will they be able to ascertain with any greater certainty what the actual position may be in respect of the contributions they have made,” it said.
This is a position articulated by many other, particularly smaller orders, in correspondence with the department.
However, the tone and direction underpinning the original Programme for Government commitment was obviously targeted at two orders who for the best part of a century controlled much of the Irish school system.
The Sisters of Mercy and the Christian Brothers have both moved to push education sites into trusts and have flatly refused to accept the approaches of the State.
The Sisters of Mercy has told the minister it made a voluntary offer in 2009 and that was final.
It also expressed resentment at the Programme for Government demand and it said that while this stood, talks on school patronage could not happen.
“In the course of several letters and meetings, I have explained our position that we are not responsible for a 50:50 cost sharing.
“The congregation of the Sisters of Mercy has not made any agreement with the Government to pay half of the State’s expenditure in respect of redress and [the Commission to inquire into Child Abuse],” the congregational leader Sr Coirle McCarthy said.
Meanwhile the Christian Brothers said it was the Government’s problem.
“On the question of the 50:50 sharing of costs I would make the following observations.
“Firstly, it is notable that no such principle was ever discussed and secondly, the concept was never mooted until after the publication of the Ryan Report and after the submission of voluntary incremental offers by the congregations in November 2009.
“In this respect it is a unilateral construct developed retrospectively without consultation and without regard to the ability to pay,” said its province leader Brother JK Mullan.
Other orders feel their sins were not as great as others and asked the department to leave them alone.
The De La Salle brothers said none of its brothers were ever convicted of a criminal offence and the threat of litigation was the only reason it agreed to its initial contribution.
The chairman of its provincial council, Brother Francis Manning, said the State alone was to blame for the increased costs of redress because it extended the scheme from 2005 to 2011.
And it said the proposal in the Programme for Government was not something it would consider.
“The transfer of schools to the State is not an issue of patronage but of the inalienable right of the congregation to dispose of its property as its sees fit,” said Brother Manning.
The financial standing of other, smaller, congregations has given them cause to ask the State to relent in its demands for more money. The province leader of the Good Shepherd Sisters, Sr Bernadette McNally, said it was dependent on its investment portfolio to fund its services and it needed money to care for its elderly members.
The Daughters of Charity is one of the orders that has not only refused to entertain the idea of additional contributions to the redress fund, but has also found it difficult to honour its original promise.
In letters to the minister in 2012 the Daughters of Charity said the collapse of the property market had created “immense problems” in its attempt to sell property to fund the bulk of its €10m commitment to the statutory fund.
The order told the minister his department had been made aware that its original promise was linked to its plan to sell land assets. And it believed the concept of a 50:50 cost sharing between the orders and the State was “impossible for us to consider”.
The Government was told to scrap its pledge on the cost of the child abuse redress scheme before the most powerful religious order in education would discuss school patronage.
By Conor Ryan
The demand was revealed in newly released records of a three-year stand-off between the State and congregations covered by the indemnity deal.
The Government’s original plan had been to pursue the transfer of school properties from religious orders to bridge a perceived €500m shortfall in contributions to the redress scheme. The Sisters of Mercy said no.
The 2011 Programme for Government said the transfers would be used to get the orders to cover 50% of the €1.5bn redress bill.
In July, Education Minister Ruairi Quinn got Cabinet approval for a more conciliatory tack that would allow congregations to remain in control of schools but relinquish title to the land.
According to a policy proposal put to Mr Quinn in February, the new strategy was designed to move the schools’ property debate away from the battle to get congregations to accept the 50:50 redress bill principle.
The softer stance came after more than three years of fractious negotiations which commenced following the publication of the Ryan Report.
The correspondence between Mr Quinn, his department, and the 18 orders covered under the indemnity deal has now been deemed eligible for release under the Freedom of Information Act. These revealed the frosty exchanges between the sides.
The most significant struggle involved the Sisters of Mercy, which owns 96 schools worth €281m and which transferred a further 66, worth €412m, to the Ceist religious trust.
It made an additional offer of €20m towards the new statutory fund, and property it valued at €107m. This offer was dismissed as inadequate and overvalued.
Following meetings with the department, the order wrote a letter making it clear its voluntary contribution in response to the Ryan Report “was not a matter for negotiation”.
It said it would not participate in any attempt by the State to revalue its post-2009 offer and it wanted the Programme for Government changed.
“We are not willing to enter negotiations with Government towards its fulfilment of school infrastructure which it made in its Programme for Government for the transfer of school infrastructure,” the order wrote.
In a memo to Mr Quinn, department officials said the compromised proposal, to transfer school sites without changing control, had been put to the 18 orders. Fifteen did not respond and the three that did express an interest only owned 16 schools between them.
Tom Wall at what remains of the industrial school. Bishop Brendan Leahy offers up a Mass of reconciliation this Saturday 2, Dominican Church, Pery Square at 2pm for institutional and clerical abuse survivors. Everyone is welcome; tea and talk afterwards
IT was intended as a ceremony of reconciliation but the fact that a Mass and reunion for past pupils of Glin Industrial School was held on the city outskirts rather than in the village itself indicated that the purpose of the event wasn’t shared by all.
The Mass, at which Bishop Brendan Leahy was chief celebrant, was held at St. Nessan’s Church Raheen as a consequence of a row with the Glin Development Association over the wording and placement of a monument near the site of the former St. Joseph’s Industrial School.
Almost 60 years have passed since the Christian Brothers closed the school but hurt and rejection linger for many of those who experienced the physical, emotional and sexual cruelty of the Brothers and their chosen ‘monitors’ who kept the boys in line.
Survivor Tom Wall has just published ’The Boy from Glin Industrial School’, which tells of how he and others were beaten, abused, raped and denied food, proper clothing, care and education during his years at St. Joseph’s.
No contact with family or the external world was possible; there was no accountability as to the boys’ educational and emotional welfare; escapees were punished horribly.
On the the last of the book’s 270 pages there is a picture of the monument the Glin Project Committee (past pupils) chose to have engraved and placed in their communal park. It is there that elements of the village’s history are symbolised but there is no acknowledgement of the school (1928-1966) or its legacy.
“The Glin Development Association deemed the engravings unsuitable and wanted to have the apology by Brother Philip Pinto, congregation leader of the Christian Brothers placed under ground level. This made it meaningless for us and we had no option but to pull out of Glin for the Mass and look for accommodation in Raheen Church”, Mr Wall explained.
With the credibility of their former charges no longer reviled, Brother JK Mullan, provincial leader of the Christian Brothers in Ireland, added his apology to Brother Pinto’s at the Raheen service which was supported by bishops, parish clergy, Glin survivors and County Council Cathaoirleach John Sheahan who launched the book.
But the monument that was intended for the park in Glin remains in storage with its engraved dedication still wrapped up from a wider gaze.
Those words, written by pioneering journalist the late Mary Raftery, state: ”Thousands of victims of industrial schools bear witness to a society unwilling to question its own comfortable certainties out of a fear that those beliefs might turn out to have been built on sand”.
Bill Donohue President Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights
Prejudice, as the psychologist Gordon W. Allport stressed, is always an “unwarranted” attitude. If someone experiences severe discomfort by eating certain foods, there is nothing prejudicial about refusing to eat any more of them. But there is something prejudicial about making sweeping generalizations about an entire category of food, or a community of people, when one’s experiences are limited. One contemporary example of prejudice is the popular perception of the nuns who ran Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries.
From the mid-eighteenth century to the late nineteenth century, the laundries housed “fallen” girls and women in England and Ireland. Though they did not initiate the facilities, most of the operations were carried out by the Sisters of Charity, the Sisters of Mercy, Good Shepherd Sisters, and the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity. The first “Magdalene Home” was established in England in 1758; Ireland followed in 1765 (the first asylum being a Protestant-run entity).
The popular perception of the laundries is entirely negative, owing in large part to fictionalized portrayals in the movies. The conventional wisdom has also been shaped by writers who have come to believe the worst about the Catholic Church, and by activists who have their own agenda. So strong is the prejudice that even when evidence to the contrary is presented, the bias continues.
There is a Facebook page dedicated to the laundries titled, “Victims of the Irish Holocaust Unite.” Irish politicians have spoken of “our own Holocaust,” and Irish journalists have referred to the “Irish gulag system.” But the fact is there was no holocaust, and there was no gulag. No one was murdered. No one was imprisoned, nor forced against her will to stay. There was no slave labor. Not a single woman was sexually abused by a nun. Not one. It’s all a lie.
How do we know it’s a lie? The evidence is fully documented in the McAleese Report on the Magdalene Laundries, formally known as the “Report of the Inter-Developmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalene Laundries.” The Report, which was released February 5, 2013, was chaired by Senator Martin McAleese.
An analysis of the McAleese Report will show how utterly false the conventional view of the Magdalene Laundries is. First, however, we need to understand the genesis of the popular mythology. Nothing helped to put a monstrous face on the laundries more than the movie, “The Magdalene Sisters.”
“The Magdalene Sisters”
The 2002 movie is often described as a “fictionalized” account of what happened inside the laundries. The New York Times prefers to speak of “semifictionalized” stories that have been recounted on the screen. As we will see, the McAleese Report does not validate the cruelties portrayed in the film, but the problem is few have even heard of the Report, much less read it. It’s the movie’s thesis that is embedded in people’s minds, and it is one of unrelieved horror: sadistic nuns who punished young women with impunity, all in the name of Catholicism. Here is a sampling of how the movie was received.
“Slave Labor in Irish Convents as Terrible as Prison.” This was the headline in the New York Timesstory of September 28, 2002. The movie review spoke about “the victims of a stringently moralistic brand of Irish Catholicism,” referring to the “religious labor camps” run by the nuns. “Some 30,000 women are thought to have passed through their gates.” Whom did they meet? “Most prison movies have a monster authority figure, and so does ‘The Magdalene Sisters.’” Specifically, the audience meets the “ogre” head nun, Sister Bridget, “a twisted diabolical autocrat.”
Exactly two months later, the Times ran a story, “Irish Recall Sad Homes for ‘Fallen’ Women.” It said the movie depicted “the casual cruelty and commonplace despair in the homes,” explaining that a host of television documentaries “have revealed an array of abuse and cruelty by institutions run by the Catholic Church, often with the collusion of the state.”
On August 3, 2003, the Times carried a piece by Mary Gordon, a long-time critic of Catholicism. After restating the themes of the two Times articles from the previous year, she opined that the “moral horrors” were not examples of mere “sadism”; rather, they reflected the even more pernicious “belief that they were intended for the victims’ own good.”
In 2003, Roger Ebert took to the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times commenting how “these inhuman punishments did not take place in Afghanistan under the Taliban, but in Ireland under the Sisters of Mercy.”
The first of three articles by the Associated Press in 2003 referred to “the nuns’ deep-seated greed and corruption,” and to Sister Bridget’s “whip to keep the girls in line.”
The second article said “some 30,000 women were virtually imprisoned,” and that they “sometimes suffer[ed] physical and sexual abuse.”
The third article cited the 30,000 figure as well, and described the laundries as “forced-labor” establishments.
An August 15, 2003 review in the Washington Post said the laundries were “veritable prison camps” that were run by “an unmovable monster,” Sister Bridget.
On the same day, in the same newspaper, it said that in watching the film “it’s difficult not to be reminded of a World War II concentration camp.” It spoke of the “30,000 women [who] were incarcerated,” and the “ghastly images” that it “uncomfortably shares with so many fictionalized Holocaust films.” Indeed, “the nuns begin to resemble Nazi guards.”
A 2003 review in the U.K.’s Guardian picked up on the Nazi angle by speaking of “Dr. Mengele.” It also described “the beatings, the breast-binding, the head-shaving, the forced fasting [and] the weekly mortification sessions, when the women were stripped and laughed at for their vanity.”
On August 1, 2003, the New York Daily News concluded that “the whole system was sadistic and indefensible,” saying “the church” was deserving of all the scorn.
On the same day, the San Francisco Chronicle pulled no punches, saying, “For some, the asylums were like a roach motel—girls checked in, but they never checked out, except 40 or 50 years later, in a pine box.”
Newsday offered its review the same day, speaking of the “moral fascism” of the laundries.
The New York Post also chose August 1 to say, “You’ll walk away amazed at the heartlessness of the people running the asylums and wondering how such a gruesome practice could have existed into the late 20th century.”
Yes, it would be amazing if this heartlessness were tolerated as recently as the late 20th century. What is truly amazing is that so many movie reviewers would come to rock-solid conclusions, believing the worst about the nuns. Indeed, they acted as though the movie portrayed indisputable historical facts. What made it easier for people to believe the movie’s narrative was the news stories coming out of Boston at this time: the priestly sexual abuse scandal, with Boston as the epicenter, erupted as front-page news in 2002.
Regrettably, reviews are still coming in, years later, offering the same conclusion. In 2011, a feminist magazine at Yale put it this way: “The abuse committed by the nuns and priests overseeing the laundries was physical, sexual and psychological. Oftentimes the women had their heads shaved, and were stripped naked to be examined. They were subject to a variety of horrific tortures, beatings for disobedience, and sexual degradation.” In fact, none of this is true.
The man behind “The Magdalene Sisters” is Peter Mullan. The Irish writer and director said he got the idea for the movie by watching the 1998 TV film, “Sex in a Cold Climate.” That was a 50-minute documentary that described the lives of four women who lived and worked at the laundries. It made a big splash at the time, especially because it featured Phyllis Valentine, a woman who said she was interred in the laundries because she was deemed “too pretty” by the nuns.
If, of course, it were true that the nuns rounded up “pretty girls” for placement in the laundries, that would indeed be a big story. It would also suggest that other such cases must have surfaced by now (unless we are prepared to believe that Valentine was the only “pretty girl” encountered by the nuns). But they haven’t: only Valentine has made this claim. In her case, we know that at age 15 she was moved from the orphanage where she was raised to the laundry. Such a transfer was standard practice, whether the girls were homely or pretty. By the way, the laundry was literally next door to the orphanage. It should come as no surprise that not a single nun who worked at either the orphanage or the laundry was asked to verify the “pretty girl” tale.
To say Mullan hates Catholicism would be an understatement. His comment that “There is not much difference between the Catholic Church and the Taliban” is unqualified. Anyone capable of saying the Catholic Church is a terrorist organization can be trusted to portray it that way. So when he says that “The film encapsulates everything that is bad about the Catholic Church,” he is simply telling the truth. That was his goal, and he succeeded. He sought to throw as much mud as he could, and hope that at least some of it would stick. Mullan is so riddled with hate that he contends, “The worst thing about the Catholic Church is that it imprisons your soul, your mind and your d***.” This is the man whose depiction of the Church is taken at face value by movie reviewers.
Recently, a writer for the website Decent Films, raised some serious questions about the movie’s controversial elements. Steven D. Greydanus noted that “Mullan’s black-and-white (or rather black and more black) depiction of clergy and religious is absolute: Not a single character in a wimple or a Roman collar ever manifests even the slightest shred of kindness, compassion, human decency, or genuine spirituality; not one has the briefest instant of guilt, regret or inner conflict over the energetic, sometimes cheerfully brutal sadism and abuse that pervades the film.” It should be noted that other reviewers admitted that they actually liked the fact that not one redeeming character was presented in the film.
Perhaps the most maverick statement about the movie was made by Valerio Riva, a member of the administrative board of the arts council that runs the Venice Film Festival (the movie won the festival’s top award in 2002). He called Mullan’s work “an incorrect propaganda film.” In fact, he said “the director is comparable to Leni Riefenstahl,” Hitler’s favorite director and Nazi propagandist.
Boston College professor James M. Smith is one of the few academics to research the laundries. He is hardly an apologist for the asylums, so what he says bears consideration. In his research, he never met a single woman who lived and worked in the laundries who described the kind of unconscionable conditions that Mullan describes. To be exact, sexual abuse manifestly did not occur. Moreover, none of the women Smith met said they were stripped naked and examined by nuns. Perhaps most important, he charges that Mullan never solicited or incorporated any comments made by the nuns who ran these facilities.
Patricia Burke Brogan backs up Smith’s observations. A former novice who wrote a play on this subject, “Eclipsed,” she admits she never witnessed any physical beatings. Speaking specifically about Mullan’s movie, she said, “I could not stand it. Some of the parts were really over-the-top. The nuns were monsters.” It is not shocking to learn that when Mullan is asked to respond to those who challenge his account, he refuses to offer a specific rebuttal; he simply replies that his movie understated the horrible conditions.
Media commentary about the laundries eventually led to an investigation about the treatment of wayward youth in every Irish institution. In 2009, Ireland’s Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse published its findings; it became known as the Ryan Report (after the chairman of the Commission, Justice Seán Ryan).
News stories about the Ryan Report quickly emerged maintaining that abuse was rampant in these institutions. Upon closer inspection, however, we learn that the Ryan Commission listed four types of abuse: physical, sexual, neglect and emotional. Most of the evidence showed there were no serious violations. For example, physical abuse included “being kicked”; sexual abuse was considered “kissing,” “non-contact including voyeurism” and “inappropriate sexual talk”; neglect included “inadequate heating”; and “lack of attachment and affection” was deemed emotional abuse.
Even by today’s standards in the West, these conditions are hardly draconian; in the past they were considered pedestrian. And consider the timeline: fully 82 percent of the incidents reported took place before 1970. As the New York Times noted, “many of them [are] now more than 70 years old.” Keep in mind that corporal punishment was not uncommon in many homes (and in many parts of the world), never mind in facilities that housed troubled persons.
Nonetheless, Irish commentators (see the website culchie.works) continue to carp, condemning those who say we need to “place it in the context of the time.” They argue that this leads us down a dangerous road. “Do we excuse Nazi genocide of Jewish and other people because it was ‘just the way things were done then’?” This is exactly the kind of obscene hyperbole that makes a mockery of what happened in Nazi Germany: delinquent Irish women who lived in quarters with inadequate heat are placed on a par with innocent Jews who were baked in ovens.
A year after the release of the Ryan Report, the Irish Human Rights Commission expressed its dissatisfaction with government probes into these institutions. It specifically called for an investigation of the Magdalene Laundries; the Associated Press (AP) labeled them “prison-style Catholic” homes. A year later, in 2011, the United Nations joined the fight: an AP story explained that a U.N. panel urged Ireland to investigate allegations that for decades girls and women were “tortured” in Catholic laundries.
Ironically, of the ten nations on the U.N. Committee against Torture, half of them were guilty of bona-fide instances of torture. In its annual tally of freedom around the world, Freedom House had just accused Morocco of “arbitrary arrest and torture.” The year before, Amnesty International said that “Senegal security forces continue to torture suspects held in custody, sometimes to death.” Human trafficking was cited by a Cyprus news agency as a “huge problem in the north of the island,” adding that “cabaret owners routinely threaten women with torture in chambers beneath their nightclubs.” The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims concluded that “torture and ill-treatment” are “still highly prevalent” in Ecuador. Similarly, Freedom House observed that “torture remains widespread” in China. These were the nations accusing Irish nuns of torturing women in the laundries!
Responding to the growing interest in this subject, Justice for Magdalenes, a non-profit organization, undertook its own investigation; its findings, “State Involvement in the Magdalene Laundries,” represents the work of several researchers, including professor James M. Smith. This document was submitted in 2012 to those working on the McAleese Report.
The word “torture” typically conjures up images of relentless and extraordinarily brutal acts; it is not generally invoked to describe unpleasant conditions. Yet in the 14 instances where “torture” is mentioned in the document, there is not a single instance where a woman used this word to describe how she was treated; there were 11 references to the word as part of the nomenclature, e.g., the United Nations Committee against Torture, and three occasions where it was cited in a very general way.
Even more astounding, on p.10 of the document it says evidence of torture is detailed in an upcoming section. Yet the word never appears again until p.82 where the U.N. Committee against Torture is cited in a footnote.
What follows are the first few sentences of paragraph 6 where “torture” is allegedly described: “Seven (7) female witness reports related to continuous hard physical work in residential laundries, which was generally unpaid. Two (2) witnesses said that the regime was ‘like a prison,’ that doors were locked all the time and exercise was taken in an enclosed yard. Working conditions were harsh and included standing for long hours, constantly washing laundry in cold water, and using heavy irons for many hours.” Drudgery? Yes. But if this is “torture,” then it is safe to say that millions have suffered this fate without ever knowing they did.
The McAleese Report
Information garnered for the McAleese Report constitutes the most comprehensive collection of data ever obtained on the Magdalene Laundries. A full statistical analysis of all available data was conducted by the McAleese Committee, with the assistance of the Central Statistics Office. Additionally, 118 women who lived in the asylums were interviewed. Though their accounts reflect their experiences of the past half century, they match up well with what many scholars have previously unearthed about earlier times. Moreover, the size of the sampling is significant, especially in comparison to the few women that were the source of laundry-bashing movies.
The first of many myths to be dispelled is the notion that the laundries were an exclusively Irish or Catholic phenomenon. Not only did they exist throughout the United Kingdom, they were a fixture in many parts of Europe, North America and Australia. In the United States, the first asylum for “fallen women” was founded in Philadelphia in 1800, and spread from there to New York, Boston and Chicago. Depending on the setting, they were run by Catholics, Protestants, and non-denominational lay committees. In Ireland, no new ones were established after the founding of the State in 1922; the last ones were closed in 1996.
The first laundries were run by lay women, though in time they would be taken over by the nuns. It was the Sisters of Charity, the Sisters of Mercy, Good Shepherd Sisters, and the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity who played the key role. The first “Magdalene Home” was established in England in 1758; Ireland followed in 1765, the first asylum being a Protestant-run entity.
These were institutions that served prostitutes, and women seen as likely candidates for the “world’s oldest profession.” Unmarried women, especially those who gave birth out-of-wedlock, were likely candidates. Contrary to what has been reported, the laundries were not imposed on these women: they were a realistic response to a growing social problem. For example, in 1868, it was estimated that there were at least 1,000 prostitutes and 132 brothels in Dublin alone.
Those who sought refuge from the streets found a welcome hand in those who served in the “rescue movements.” The nuns soon took over, offering these women an alternative to exploitative conditions. In her research of seven institutions up to the year 1900, Maria Luddy found that the “majority of women who entered these refuges did so voluntarily…just over 66 percent” and that “entering a refuge was, for the majority of women, a matter of choice.” The other facility available to them, the workhouse, was rejected because of the inferior conditions. Luddy also found that the decision to stay was made by the women, not the nuns.
Not only is it a myth that the laundries were “imposed” on these women, it is equally fatuous to believe that the nuns forced them to stay. They were not held hostage. Frances Finnegan’s analysis of the Magdalene Laundries up to the year 1900 “also confirm a high proportion of both voluntary entries and exits.” The actual figures of voluntary entrance and exit are higher than what Finnegan found. “It should be noted that cases where women left to re-join family or friends,” the Report says, “or who left to take up employment are not included by Finnegan in the figures for voluntary departure….”
James M. Smith concurs with this analysis. “In the nineteenth century,” he writes, “regardless of how they entered these institutions, it was the women themselves who made the decision to stay.” Why? “With little or no social welfare system to fall back on, her choices were limited to entering the county home, begging on the streets, or possibly resorting to prostitution.” So while the laundries were not exactly a hotel, they sure beat the available options. The most common alternative was the workhouse, but as the Report points out, such institutions were explicitly “designed to be grim and foreboding places in order to deter all but the most desperate from seeking refuge there.” Others wound up in the “lunatic” asylums, which were even worse.
Another myth, floated by Mullan and the media, is that the laundries were highly profitable institutions run by greedy nuns. Summarizing Mullan’s comments, a CNN story contended that “The laundries were quite profitable—helped by the almost slave-labor of the young workers.”
The evidence cited in the Report debunks this myth. The analysis of the financial records shows that the laundries “operated on a subsistence or close to break-even basis, rather than on a commercial or highly profitable basis and would have found it difficult to survive financially without other sources of income—donations, bequests and financial support from the State.” Now if Mullan’s account were accurate, we would have to believe that the donations and bequests were made either by evil persons who sought to keep these women locked in slave-labor camps, or by idiots. That the donors sought to help, not hurt, the women is closer to the truth.
The McAleese Report sought information on all ten Magdalene Laundries that were established prior to the foundation of the State. It looked at five issues, the most controversial being routes of entry, state inspections, and routes of exit. “In each of these areas,” the Report concluded, “the Committee found evidence of direct State involvement.” So much for the malarkey that the nuns ran institutions parallel to state-run facilities.
The first big myth that was blown to smithereens was the number of girls and women who entered the laundries: it was determined that 10,012—not 30,000—spent time there. So what accounts for the fact that the public has come to believe that there were three times as many women in the laundries? It’s what they’ve been told by Mullan and his sympathetic friends in the media. In other words, the same people who distorted what happened in the asylums distorted the number of those who lived there.
Mullan et al. would have us believe that those who lived in the laundries were forced to stay there in perpetuity. In fact, the average length of stay was seven months; eight in ten stayed less than three years. The majority had no knowledge of their parental background, and only 12.5 percent said both parents were alive. Almost one in four had previously been institutionalized. By every measure, these were troubled girls and women.
Until the McAleese Report was published, it was widely believed that the nuns did whatever they wanted, free from state oversight. This view is also incorrect. The laundries were subject to the same Factories Acts that governed similar non-religious institutions; they were routinely inspected. The Report found that the laundries “were generally compliant with the requirements of the Factories Acts, and that when minor breaches occurred, they were remedied when brought to the attention of the operating Congregation.”
The majority of women either left on their own, went home, were reclaimed by a family member, or left for employment. Only 7.1 percent were dismissed or “sent away,” and less than two percent ran away. One might have thought that if Mullan’s depiction were accurate, a lot more than 1.9 percent would have run for the hills. That so few did is further testimony of the bogus portrayal he offered.
The two most serious accusations made against the nuns who operated the Magdalene Laundries were a) they tortured the residents and b) they sexually abused the girls and women. Both are totally inaccurate. Not once in the McAleese Report is the word “torture” even mentioned—the charges are a complete fabrication. Exactly one woman claimed to have been sexually abused, but it was committed by a lay woman auxiliary who decided to stay in the institution for life. No nun ever sexually abused anyone.
This is not to say that the women never experienced sexual abuse. They did. But it was in their home, or in the Industrial School where they came from (the majority of women interviewed were previously housed in an Industrial School, places that housed neglected youths). Not only were these women not abused by a nun, all of them said they never even heard of another woman being molested by any member of the staff.
Physical abuse was uncommon. “A large majority of the women who shared their stories with the Committee said that they had neither experienced nor seen girls or women suffer physical abuse in the Magdalen Laundries,” the Report notes. But they did say that in their time in an industrial reformatory school there were instances of brutality. As for the laundries, a typical complaint was, “I don’t ever remember anyone being beaten but we did have to work very hard.” Another common criticism went like this: “No they never hit you in the laundry. They never hit me, but the nun looked down on me ‘cause I had no father.”
One of the biggest myths about the laundries contends that the women had their heads shaven by mean-spirited nuns. Here is what the Report found: “None of the women told the Committee that their heads had been shaven, with one exception. The exception occurred where one woman had her head shaved because she had lice.”
Besides the testimony of the women, the Report lists many comments made by physicians who worked in the laundries. What they had to say is among the most enlightening aspects of the Report: their experiences completely debunk the horror stories told by Mullan and his ilk. What follows is a selection of their remarks. To offer an accurate picture, statements by all of the doctors in the Report are listed.
Dr. Michael Coughlan:
“I had expected to find a very unhappy, deprived group who would have significant medical and especially psychological complaints and special needs. I was, therefore, surprised to encounter a group of ladies who appeared to be quite happy and content with their current environment and who presented with the type of symptoms and problems that reflected those of the wider Practice population.”
“My expected image of them all looking the same in drab uniform was quickly dissipated when I observed that each one presented dressed in colourful clothes and those who came directly from the Laundry were wearing a type of overlapping protective overall or apron, under which I could notice that they were wearing a variety of more personal choice of clothes.”
“Whenever I sensed that one of the ladies had something personal or sensitive to discuss, I always asked the Nurse or Nun to leave and afforded them the opportunity to elaborate in confidence. Interestingly, I cannot recall any occasion that the patient complained in any manner about her treatment by the Nuns in the Home, neither recently nor in the distant past….”
“With respect to the question of any evidence of past injuries, broken bones or any other suggestions of physical or psychological abuse in the past, I cannot remember coming across any patient that presented with symptoms or signs that would or should have alerted me to such maltreatment, apart from one case when a resident got scalded with hot water, which I believe was an accidental injury.”
“Overall, my experience [with the Magdalene] was a happy and gratifying one. The Residents were a delightful and happy group of ladies, each with their own unique personality and they appeared to me to have a good and friendly relationship with the Mercy Sisters. Equally, my impression was that the Sisters were very caring towards the Residents and I never found any evidence to the contrary.”
Dr. John Ryan:
“[T]here were a number of incidents of fractures but they were all from falls and usually out in the city, but none were suspicious in any way and I did not come across any evidence of unexplained bruising or scalding etc.”
Dr. Donal Kelly:
“Many of these ladies were forgotten by their own or orphaned. They were poorly educated and some were mentally retarded. If the Sisters of Charity had not provided them with a home I don’t know who would have cared for them….Never did I witness any evidence of physical or mental abuse.”
Dr. Harry Comber:
“There was no evidence of any traumatic injuries inflicted during my time, nor did anyone ever show me evidence of any previous injury….The women seemed reasonably happy, although some regretted the loss of opportunity to have a life, families and children of their own….I would be surprised if there was, in the time I was there, any mistreatment of them, either verbal or physical.”
Dr. Malachy Coleman:
“I always felt that the ladies were well fed and well cared for. Their complaints were routine and normal consistent with those presenting in general practice. I saw no evidence of any traumatic injuries either historically, prior to my taking up the post, or for the time I cared for the ladies.”
“My overall impression of the Good Shepherd Convent in the main, was of an institute run by caring nuns which contained a number of ladies who were unlikely to be able to care for themselves.”
“While the ladies were very deferential to the nuns I did not at any stage get an impression of coercion or fear in the relationship between the ladies and the nuns. If anything I think the nuns did too much for the ladies and so decreased their capacity to care for themselves.”
When Peter Mullan is asked if his portrayal of women being raped in slave-labor camps is an exaggeration, he replies, “You ask any woman who was there and they’ll tell you the reality was much worse.” Well, the McAleese Report details the stories of 118 women who lived and worked in the Magdalene Laundries and they say it’s all a lie. The doctors who worked there say it’s all a lie. What needs to be explained is why.
In the case of Mullan, it’s rather easy: he admits that he hates the Roman Catholic Church. But there are others, too, and their motives may not be as easy to uncover.
Let’s begin with press coverage of the McAleese Report. The most striking aspect of media reaction to it was how little there was of it. In most instances, the Report was either ignored or treated lightly. Worse, in some cases it painted a negative picture of the laundries, thus calling into question whether anyone actually read the Report. Sadly, this was true of the Catholic media, as well. Our Sunday Visitor, however, was a prime exception; it did a very fair analysis of the Report by Michael Kelly.
It has been my experience that when bad news about the Catholic Church surfaces, it is seen as good news by three groups: hard-left Catholics; hard-right Catholics; and anti-Catholics.
Catholics of a left-wing orientation typically respond to bad news about the Church by saying this proves that Vatican II did not go far enough; Catholics of a right-wing orientation typically respond to bad news by saying this proves Vatican II went too far (or that it should never have been held in the first place).
In the case of the Magdalene Laundries, of course, it makes no sense to invoke Vatican II (the Council was convened between 1962 and 1965). What brings critics on the left and right together is an abiding tendency to believe the worst about the Church. Why? Because in doing so it validates their position.
For example, hard-core left Catholics are highly critical of the Church’s teachings on sexual ethics, which they regard as repressive. They want a more expansive, and tolerant, view of sexuality. They naturally incline, then, to a hypercritical perception of priests and nuns who hold to traditional Church teachings on sexuality. So in their view, it is not hard to believe that the nuns who supervised the women in the laundries were scolds, if not worse.
Hard-core right Catholics look at the Church through the lens of purity, and are aghast whenever they learn of sinful behavior, particularly sexual misconduct, on the part of priests and nuns. Their purist streak accounts for their deep-seated—and wholly justifiable—anger at sexual abuse on the part of the clergy and the religious. Yet this disposition also inclines conservative Catholics to swallow too readily wildly exaggerated, and even totally fabricated, allegations of abuse such as Mullan’s moonshine about the Magdalene Laundries. For example, Michael S. Rose, who has chronicled contemporary priestly sexual abuse, was quick to believe Mullan’s account.
Left-wing and right-wing Catholics of a strong bent have something else in common: when bad news about the Church breaks, they congratulate themselves for holding to their convictions. At bottom, it is their appalling self-righteousness that unites them; they have more in common than they know.
Regarding the anti-Catholics, most of those who were unmoved by the McAleese Report either work in the media or are activists who belong to a professional victims’ group. As soon as the Report was released, they got a boost from Enda Kenny, Ireland’s Prime Minister. He made a public speech lamenting the history of the laundries, stopping just shy of a formal apology. Astonishingly, he gave no evidence he had read a word of the Report. Immediately, professional victims’ groups took aim at him, saying his remarks were insufficient.
The New York Times was particularly delinquent. The day after the Report was released, February 6, it issued a story on how unsatisfied the activists and the “survivors” were with Kenny’s statement. It said practically nothing about the myths that the Report debunked. Instead, it continued the myth by writing about the “virtual slavery” that existed in the laundries. The next day the Times wrote again about the “slave labor” that took place. To this day, the Times has not written one story on how the Report convincingly disputes the lies that have been told about the Magdalene Laundries. Had the Report verified the worst accounts, it is a sure bet it would have been front-page news. The same is true of the BBC: it ran many stories on the laundries, but had virtually nothing to say about the McAleese Report.
The pressure on Kenny to issue a formal apology—Mullan is the one who should have been pressed to apologize—continued to mount. On February 19, he caved. This, in turn, invited anti-Catholics to focus not on the Report, but on the professional victims. On March 1, John Spain, writing for IrishCentral.com after the Report was released, continued to write about “The ‘National Shame’ of the Taliban Tabernacle—Ireland’s Recent History of the Magdalene Laundries.” Instead of quoting from the Report, he simply gave voice to a few women who brand themselves “Magdalene survivors.” He couldn’t quote from the Report because that would have undermined his agenda.
There is a long history of activists who have lied with alacrity about their cause, and this is especially true of those who claim to represent victims, or survivors, of abuse. In the 1980s, no one championed the cause of the homeless in the U.S. more than Mitch Snyder. Never mind that he never supported his own family: he was treated as a hero because he lectured the nation on its heartless response to the homeless. The truth is Snyder literally lied his way to fame. When he testified in 1984 before a Congressional committee, he was asked how he came up with the figure of three million homeless Americans (this number was cited by everyone who wrote or taught about the subject at the time). He admitted he simply made it up. More recently, David Clohessy, the director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), admitted under oath that he has lied to the media about his work.
There are, of course, honest parties to this discussion, observers who have long been critical of the laundries, but who upon reading the McAleese Report, sought to correct the record. No one has done so with greater valor than Irish writer Brendan O’Neill.
When O’Neill read that the Irish Times was trying to look at the good side of exposing abuse, even if it didn’t happen, he was taken aback. Worse was a playwright who told the newspaper that even if the stories weren’t true, they “served an important function at the time—that is, to raise awareness about the problem of abuse in Catholic life more broadly.” To which O’Neill responded, “This sounds dangerously like a Noble Lie defence—the idea that it is okay to make things up, to spread fibs, if one is doing it in service of some greater good.”
“Anyone who points out that reports and depictions of abuse in Catholic institutions have been overblown risks being denounced as an abuse apologist or a sinister whitewasher,” says O’Neill. He insists, not without reasons, that those “who are genuinely interested in truth and justice should definitely be concerned that films and news reports may have left the public with the mistaken belief that women in Magdalene Laundries were stripped and beaten and that thousands of Irish and American children were raped by priests.”
What makes O’Neill’s account so persuasive is that he is an atheist; he has no vested interest to serve. His honesty is refreshing. “Catholic-bashers frequently accuse the Catholic religion of promoting a childish narrative of good and evil that is immune to factual evidence. Yet they do precisely the same, in the service of their fashionable and irrational new religion of anti-Catholicism.”
The horror stories associated with the Magdalene Laundries cannot withstand scrutiny, but they will continue to have a life of their own. That’s the way prejudice works. Unwarranted negative attitudes, especially when employed about a familiar whipping boy, are hard to shake. All we can do is pursue the truth and educate fair-minded people about what really happened. We certainly can’t count on the likes of the New York Times or the BBC to publish the truth.
Philomena is a film that’s left grown men sobbing: the heart-rending story of a naïve Irish girl whose illegitimate son is taken from her at the age of three and adopted by American parents — only for the two of them to spend the rest of their lives searching for each other.
What makes it inspirational is that it’s all true, and astonishingly the real Philomena feels no bitterness.
Here, the still-sprightly 80-year-old grandmother, played on screen by Judi Dench, tells her story . . .
True tragedy: Philomena Lee's true story about how her beloved boy was taken from her at a convent has made it onto the silver screen with Judi Dench playing the role of Philomena
All this attention is strange and something I am not used to. It seems odd that I spent so many years hiding my secret and now it’s all anyone wants to talk to me about.
Where to start? The beginning, maybe. I suppose you could say I grew up in a small village in Ireland having no love from anybody really.
My mother died of tuberculosis when I was six and my father put me and my three sisters in a convent while he kept my three brothers at home. He didn’t really ever come and see us; he was a poor man and only had a bicycle and we were 20 miles away.
I left the convent when I was 18 and went to live with an aunt. A few weeks after she took me to a carnival in Limerick. Well, as you can imagine, it was like nothing I had ever seen in my whole life which until then had been full of nuns and praying day and night.
Apart: Anthony during his first Christmas in America with his adoptive family
It was there that I met John. He bought me a toffee apple and we had a kiss and we did the deed that same day and that was it.
I didn’t know what I had done because I didn’t know what sex was. A few months later my aunt noticed my growing bump.
I hadn’t — I didn’t know anything about the facts of life.
You might be thinking I am making it up but this is the truth: when she said, ‘Are you pregnant?’, I said ‘What’s pregnant?’ As God is my witness I didn’t even know what pregnancy was!
I had arranged to meet John the next week, when the carnival came back, but she locked me up and wouldn’t let me see him again.
He never knew he was a father. All I knew about him was that he worked in the post office in Limerick which meant he was educated.
My father and aunt disowned me. My father told my siblings: ‘I don’t want her mentioned again, she’s dead!’
Only my brother who was closest to me in age knew what had happened — through my aunt, who he was close to — and he got me into the nursing home at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, County Tipperary. My sisters thought I really was dead. I had vanished off the face of the Earth.
The baby’s birth was painful. He was in the breech position but the nuns at the convent said my pain was my penance and wouldn’t let me have painkillers. I thought I was going to die of the pain but they told me I was a sinner, I was like Mary Magdalene.
I had committed a mortal sin and I believed I did need to do penance. I had eight weeks to nurse my son, who I called Anthony, and then I was sent to work in the laundry.
I would work there unpaid, from 8.30 in the morning until four in the afternoon, and then I would get to spend an hour with my boy.
I would sing Anthony Irish ditties and cuddle him. He was such a lovely gentle boy.
Most of the nuns weren’t that nice but there were a few that were nice in their way. One was my friend and we sang in the choir together — singing was one of the few things that saved me in that place.
She took a few pictures of Anthony for me. For nearly 50 years they were all I had of him. I knew that the children there might be adopted and I wanted to leave, but the nuns said my family would have to give them £100.
That wasn’t going to happen, there was no way they could come up with that sort of money.
Anyway, my father wouldn’t even acknowledge that I was still alive and I didn’t have a single visitor in the three and a half years I was there.
I asked them to try to find me a job in the outside world so I could keep Anthony, but they wouldn’t help. Even if I had tried to walk out with him there was nowhere to go and the police would have brought me back.
A few weeks before Christmas in 1955, when Anthony was three and a half and had my blue eyes and dark hair, my friend the nun came running up to tell me he was being taken. She ran me up the stairs so we could look out the window. That was it — I didn’t even have a chance to give him a last cuddle. I saw his little face looking out of the back window of the black car that was taking him away. That’s never left me, that image, in all my years.
I was there when they filmed that scene for the movie and it was exactly how I remembered it. The director Stephen Frears said: ‘What are you doing here today, are you mad?’ I did shed a tear. Awful. Awful.
After Anthony was taken, oh, I cried and caused a right carry on. The nuns told me to shut up and to stop being stupid and that I was lucky I had my baby adopted.
I was crying day and night — I couldn’t stop. We were together for three and a half years and now he was gone.
Age of innocence: Philomena Lee, pictured as a young girl, was locked up in a convent when her family found out she was having a child out of wedlock
On screen: Judi Dench and Steeve Coogan in new film Philomena detailing Ms Lee's life and search for her long lost son
After two weeks, the nuns wanted me to leave. They got me a job in a boy’s school in Liverpool run by their order and I suppose you could say it was the start of a different life for me. I came to England and have stayed ever since.
I lost my faith in the beginning. I was very bitter, but at least I was out of that place. I did admin work and helped in the school kitchens. After a year, I went on holiday to Ireland to see my brother, who had got me into the nursing home, and I went back to Sean Ross Abbey and asked the nuns to tell me where Anthony had gone — but they refused.
I worked in Liverpool for two years and then I had a hankering to do some nursing. My grandmother was a midwife and it might have been in the genes.
I became a psychiatric nurse in Hertfordshire and that’s what I did for 30 years. It’s also where I met my husband John, who was also a nurse. Just before we married in 1959 I told him about Anthony. I was soiled goods and I thought he should know. He said: ‘What’s past is past’, and we never talked about it again.
I had two children, Kevin and Jane, but I never let Anthony go out of my mind. Once I started psychiatric nursing I discovered what a lot of other sorrow there was in the world. There were some tragic cases and seeing what had happened to them helped me lose my bitterness.
The place where I worked in St Albans had been a workhouse before it was a hospital.
There were women there who had once been like me; they were sent to the workhouse because they were single mothers but they had never left. They became old and infirm and they stayed for the rest of their days.
By the early Sixties people started to treat these women differently. There was an ‘open door’ policy to try to get them out into the community but some of them were so institutionalised they didn’t want to leave their wards at all.
Gradually, as time went on, I thought I would go back to my religion. I had a neighbour who went to the Abbey in St Albans where they have a Catholic mass every Friday and I started going with her. I haven’t been back to confession or communion, I just like going to church to pray.
Discoveries: Philomena is pictured in 2004, after finding the grave of her son Anthony, or Michael Hess as his adoptive parents named him
I was still thinking about Anthony all the time and praying that he was happy. I had been back to Ireland and Sean Ross Abbey several times and they always refused to tell me anything. I started to think I should tell my children about Anthony.
I wasn’t to know, but by this time Anthony had already died of Aids. You might think I’m daft, but I think somewhere along the line between this world and up there he managed to get it into my head to tell them. He probably knew I was going to tell them before I did.
I broke down and told my daughter, Jane, then 32, on what would have been Anthony’s 50th birthday in 2002. She knew what he looked like; she had seen me looking at his photographs when I told her it was my cousin’s little boy. She immediately said: ‘Why didn’t you tell me sooner?’
But it was so embedded in me that I was a sinner. Don’t forget I was with the nuns all my young life and I believed them.
Jane immediately started trying to find out what had happened to Anthony. And then we got a call from the society which arranged his adoption saying that Anthony was dead. It felt like I had lost him all over again. But even then they refused to say anything about where he had gone, what his life had been like.
Jane found a picture of a gravestone at Sean Ross Abbey on the internet. It had the name Michael Hess but the same birthdate as Anthony and we had a feeling it was him.
The inscription read: ‘Michael A. Hess, a man of two nations and many talents. Born July 5, 1952, Sean Ross Abbey, Roscrea. Died August 15, 1995, Washington DC.’ We were sure it must be Anthony.
Lost time: Anthony, renamed Michael Hess, pictured in 1988 died of Aids in 1995, before his real mother could find him
So now we needed someone to help us find out about his life in America. That’s where Martin Sixsmith came in. A journalist who had been a foreign correspondent with the BBC, and a former press officer for the Government, he had the right contacts.
A friend of Jane’s who met him at a party put him in touch with us.
Martin went to America on his own (not with me, as in the film) and he found Anthony’s adoptive sister, Mary, and his partner Pete Nilsson. Pete came to London and he was lovely. He brought me lots of pictures and memorabilia and gave me Anthony’s Celtic ring which I wear every day. It turned out Anthony was adopted by a professional couple from Missouri and had done so well for himself.
He became a top lawyer for the American government, working closely with Ronald Reagan and George Bush. But Pete said he had a difficult relationship with his adoptive mother and he missed me.
The saddest thing to learn was that he had been to Sean Ross Abbey to find me and was told they knew nothing about me, in the same way they had told me they knew nothing about him.
I can accept some of what they did; they really did think I was a sinner and should be punished. I can’t condemn them. But the part that hurts me the most is that he went to see them, for the third time, when he was a dying man. They didn’t just refuse to put him in touch — they told him I had abandoned him at birth. I think that was evil.
But maybe there was a part of him that didn’t believe them; that’s why he asked for his ashes to be buried there. He told Pete ‘One day my mum will find me’. And he was right.
At that stage I was content to know that he had a good life and I had found him. I didn’t know Martin was going to bring out a book. And now there is a film, with that lovely lady Dame Judi Dench playing me. My goodness.
The first we knew of it was when I got a phone call from Martin saying Steve Coogan was interested in making a film. I didn’t know much about him. In fact, I got him mixed up with Rob Brydon.
When Steve, who plays Martin, said he wanted to get Judi Dench to play me I didn’t think it was real. I love watching her on TV in As Time Goes By and all the Bond films. Jane said to me: ‘Mum, that means Judi Dench knows who you are!’, and we just laughed. She is such a beautiful lady.
Well, soon I was going for lunch with Judi. She had lots of questions but we talked about other things, too. We both can’t stand cooking so we swapped easy recipes. I was so at ease with her.
I saw the film a few weeks ago and it still doesn’t feel real. I come across as a bit of a dumb clock in it — an Irish term for a silly billy — and I suppose that’s what I am really. I know they had to put some humour in it and they say ‘There is no way we think you are silly’.
I still don’t know whether it is any good but people seem to like it.
I am trying not to show everyone how apprehensive I am about the whole thing. I don’t know what people will think of it. It’s just my story.
For me the most important thing was finding Anthony. At least now I know he is at rest. I hope he is at peace and I think he is in heaven. I feel like he is watching over me.