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Calls for Justice for Ireland's Magdalene Women

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Ireland made headlines this July when its leader, Enda Kenny, attacked the Catholic Church: "The rape and the torture of children were downplayed... to uphold instead the primacy of the institution," he said -- the speech earned him praise across the world. But Kenny's government has yet to deal with fallout from the Magdalene Laundries, where thousands of women were incarcerated over the course of the twentieth century. That may soon change. In June, the UN Committee against Torture gave Ireland one year to examine "all allegations of torture, and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" allegedly committed at the Laundries.

Magdalene Laundries were penitential institutions for Irish girls who made mistakes. Often young women were sent to them by their families or by police. Their babies (if they had been pregnant) were adopted across Ireland, Britain and the US, while they remained working without pay in a routine of prayer and silence. Census records, unearthed by historians, show that these stays could last for anything from a couple of years to 70 years, and some women spent their lives behind the institutions' walls. On occasion nuns failed to document the deaths of those in their care -- graveyards have been discovered in which the number of women buried is far greater than the deaths certified. The last Laundry ceased to be a commercial entity in 1996. At that time it still had forty residents.

Mari Steed is co-founder of a campaign group called Justice for Magdalenes. Her mother was placed in the Good Shepherd Sisters' Laundry in Waterford after first spending time in an industrial school, and she stayed there from the age of 15 to 25. A couple in the US adopted Steed, who traced and found her birth mother later in life. Even now, Steed tells me over the phone, her 77-year-old mother shows signs of an institutionalized youth, keeping her house impeccably clean. "She still likes her rituals -- a very regimented type of lifestyle," Steed says. "I'm sure that was drilled into her. You keep everything immaculate and nothing can go wrong in life."

In a documentary aired in Ireland last month, survivors recalled a regime of beatings and hunger. "We were classed as nothing," said one woman, Josephine Meade. "We were told that we came from nothing, we never would be anything, and we would always go back to being nothing. That was our life summed up."

Such women get no compensation or pensions for their unpaid labor from either the Irish government or from religious orders, and Justice for Magdalenes wants that to change. It is clear there was some government involvement. "What happened in the Magdalene Laundries was the result of the combined forces of society, Church and state," said Maeve O'Rourke, a Harvard Law School global human rights fellow, speaking at a seminar in Dublin that I attended recently. O'Rourke has found "evidence of huge state knowledge of what was going on." The women, too, say that those who fled would be chased down and returned to the nuns by police.

Yet to date the Irish government offers no apology. Dr. Katherine O'Donnell, who teaches women's studies at University College Dublin, has spoken with many of those who were incarcerated, and says they harbor so much guilt they are surprised when someone listens to them. "When they get this message that the pain they're carrying is perhaps not fully their fault they get a tremendous amount of relief," O'Donnell told the Dublin seminar. "An apology is something that we've been asking for, for far too long."

Until this year, attempts to engage Ireland's leaders met a cold response, but interactions with the new government have been more promising. It is setting up a committee to investigate the state's role, which could lead to reparations. Meanwhile, though, the women grow older. "Our biggest concern right now is just the speed," Steed points out. "We don't want to see a lot of foot-dragging, for obvious reasons. Time is of the essence."

It seems unlikely that it will be possible to "prosecute and punish the perpetrators," as the UN has asked, since many of those who ran the Magdalene Laundries are dead. But redress would help Ireland face up to this dark chapter in its history. It's not only a matter for the Catholic Church. "We need to begin to explain it and understand it so that it doesn't happen again," said O'Donnell, the UCD lecturer. "How we 'other' people, how we marginalize people; and how good women get to be good women by the fact that they are the ones that control the bad women."