Magdalene laundries' controversy - 20 years on

Wednesday 26 June 2013 16.12
It is 20 years since the State's Magdalene laundries became a source of public controversy
It is 20 years since the State's Magdalene laundries became a source of public controversy

The Government has unveiled a package of financial and other supports for survivors of Magdalene laundries.

It was based on recommendations of Mr Justice John Quirke who was asked by the cabinet to devise eligibility criteria and other aspects of a non-adversarial scheme.

RTÉ's Religious & Social Affairs Correspondent Joe Little reports

It’s 20 years since the State’s Magdalene laundries became a source of public controversy. In 1993 the exhumation, transfer and cremation of the remains of 155 former residents of a Magdalene laundry in Dublin by an order of nuns clearing its land for sale sparked public outrage.

Eighty of the women had not been identified because death certificates were missing or never existed in the first place.

Earlier this year a committee of civil servants independently chaired by Dr Martin McAleese said “the most likely reason” for the blunder was the absence at that time of catalogued records in the order’s archives.

He noted the concern and distress caused to - potentially thousands of - women who had spent some of their lives in the State’s ten Catholic Magdalen laundries. And he said the women’s pain had been shared by their families and the general public.

But exhumations were not the only focus of criticism. In the landmark 'States of Fear' television documentary series, produced for RTÉ in 1999 by the late Mary Raftery, forced labour and wrongful deprivation of liberty were identified as hallmarks of the laundry life.

Women told of how, as young girls, they were made to work without pay in sweltering laundries with no indication of when, if ever, they would be released by their families, the nuns and the State which together frequently conspired to keep them hidden from wider society behind high walls and locked gates.

Raftery’s work on the plight of institutionalised children here– she also co-authored 'Suffer Little Children' with the Trinity College Dublin academic, Eoin O’Sullivan - forced the State to apologise to thousands of survivors of industrial schools and reformatories.

But the survivors of Magdalene laundries were largely ignored despite the fact that laundries often shared campuses with the other kinds of Catholic-run residential institutions and took referrals from them when girls were nearing graduation age.

While the State paid €1.5bn on a Redress Scheme for the survivors who merited its apology – much of it on lawyers’ fees – “the Magdalenes” as they came to be known, were virtually ignored.

However, movies were made on their plight and the making of Steven O’Riordan’s documentary 'The Forgotten Maggies', (2009, TG4) brought together the nucleus of Magdalene Survivors Together, an organisation that represents about 80 women in their campaign for justice.

Simultaneously, the Justice For Magdalenes Campaign (JFM) lobbied the Government and the Catholic Church for apologies and restorative justice measures for the ageing cohort of survivors and their families.

In 2011, JFM’s a recently-graduated legal academic, Maeve O’Rourke, brought their case to the UN Committee Against Torture in Geneva.

It was moved to strongly criticise the Irish Government for failing to launch a prompt, independent and statutory investigation into the women’s claims and for failing to apologise to them.

The State’s representative testified that, from the limited evidence available, the Government was satisfied that the great majority of the women had been admitted voluntarily to the laundries and, in the case of minors, had been put there with the consent of their families.

Embarrassed by the findings in Geneva, the newly-elected Fine Gael-Labour Government promptly asked Dr Martin McAleese in 2011 to chair a group of civil servants from relevant departments to establish any State involvement with the laundries.

Report details State's responsibility

Last February saw the publication of the 1,000-page McAleese Report. It found that approximately 10,000 women and girls had been put into the laundries between the founding of the State and 1996 when the last one closed.

It also found that the State was responsible for about a quarter of all referrals.

Many of the survivors who Dr McAleese met “experienced the laundries as lonely and frightening places” This was true, he added, particularly in the case of those who were put there as young girls”.

Dr McAleese noted that most girls were not told why they were put away. Possible reasons included poverty, the loss of a mother, disability, the risk of becoming pregnant, being sexually abused, and having had a second child outside marriage.

Girls committed by industrial schools - where they had been detained for some of their earlier years - were not told how long they would have to stay in the laundries. Dr McAleese added that the same open-ended policy was applied to those admitted by families and charities.

“To add to this confusion,” the report continues, “most found themselves quite alone in what was, by today’s standards, a harsh and physically demanding work environment. The psychological impact on these girls was undoubtedly traumatic and lasting.”

The report’s impact was blunted somewhat by the finding that 61% of residents had spent less than one year in the institutions. It was as if some sections of public opinion were disappointed that the picture painted by the report did not live up to the stereotype of laundry life portrayed by film-makers in particular.

But this was based on information concerning only 42% of admissions, those for which duration is known. The report in fact finds that the average duration of stay of those particular admissions was 3.22 years.

While some former residents who met the committee said the laundries were “their only refuge at times of great personal difficulty”, “the majority described the atmosphere in (them) as cold, with a rigid and uncompromising regime of physically demanding work and prayer, with many instances of verbal censure, scoldings or even humiliating put-downs.”

However, the vast majority told the committee that the ill-treatment, physical punishment and abuse that had been prevalent in the industrial school system was not something they experienced in the laundries.

Critically, although the laundries were owned and run by four religious congregations of nuns, the State was directly involved with the institutions. The McAleese Report detailed four cross-overs in addition to the previously mentioned responsibility the State bore for about a quarter of all fully recorded admissions:

State inspections and State funding of the laundries; State involvement in the routes by which women left the institutions; and its role in death registration, burials and exhumations.

Almost immediately after the report’s publication last February, the four Catholic congregations that had run the Laundries expressed their regrets for how they had treated women and girls in their care and apologised with varying degrees of intensity.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny also expressed regret for what had been revealed but stopped short of making an unequivocal apology to the women. But two weeks later, on the 19 February, he apologised unreservedly on behalf of the State to the survivors.

In a well-attended but hushed Dáil, his voice broke with emotion as he apologised for the hurt the women had endured in the laundries and for any stigma they suffered as a result of their time there. Dozens of survivors were moved to tears as they looked on from the visitors' gallery.

Mr Kenny said that he wanted to initiate a process to help and support the women in their remaining years, and announced that the retired High Court Judge John Quirke had agreed to review how the Government could provide support to the women.

Shortly afterwards, the Department of Justice invited survivors of the laundries - and of a Catholic residential training centre for females in Dublin’s Stanhope Street - to register their intent to seek State support. So far more than 750 have done so. Meanwhile, Mr Justice Quirke began devising the eligibility criteria for the general scheme of supports and a payments system.

The Government had already decided all assistance should be given on an an ex gratia basis, that is, out of a sense of its moral obligation rather than because of any legal requirement.

The judge has been asked to estimate how much his proposed payments will come to. He’ll define their “nature” and “amount” and propose a method for deciding on payments “in an effective and timely manner that ensures the.... Fund (is) directed only to the benefit of eligible applicants and not on legal fees and expenses”.

Critically, his terms of reference also oblige him “to take into account relevant criteria including work undertaken by the women”. He has also been asked to examine “other matters as considered appropriate, to contribute to a healing and reconciliation process”

Judge Quirke will advise as well on help-in-kind for former residents who need it. Examples given are medical cards and other public health supports like mental health and counselling services and other welfare needs.

He’ll tackle the complex and thorny question of double-payments: how the government should respond to women who have already received money from the now defunct Residential Institutions Redress Board in recognition of abuse suffered in an Industrial School but where the payment included “a sum specifically due to their direct transfer to a Laundry and time spent there.

He has been asked to propose ways of ensuring that former residents living in the UK won’t lose existing entitlements to benefits and supports if they receive a payment from the Fund.

And finally, he will suggest ways of ensuring that “payments or supports or assistance” provided here are disregarded when Social Welfare entitlements and/or income tax liability are being determined.

The report, and the Government’s response to it, are scheduled to be launched in Dublin at 3.30pm today by Minister for Justice and Equality Alan Shatter and Junior Minister Kathleen Lynch.