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The True Scandal of the Magdalene Laundries

12/30/2013 12:33 pm ET | Updated Mar 01, 2014

The newly released movie Philomena, from British filmmaker Stephen Frears, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, is inspired by a tragic book written by Martin Sixsmith. It is the true story of a woman searching for her lost son, a lifelong quest that will take her from the UK to America, a desperate quest and heart-wrenching saga.

Taking place in Ireland, which explains some of the conservative positions of the highly Catholic society in which she lives, Philomena, the woman in the film, found herself pregnant out of wedlock (such a word) shipped away to a convent of sort, and forced by nuns to give up her baby boy to a rich family.

The only choice available to her in those days, and in that society, was to live in hiding in one of the many "asylums" suited for scandalous behaviors and unspeakable actions, mostly errors of the flesh. It is highly probable that none of the residents were actually insane. Guarded by nuns, the women were subject to forced unpaid labor for the benefit of the Catholic Church.

These medieval and cruel institutions were known in Ireland as the Magdalene Laundries, maybe referring to the work the jailed victims were doing, and so named after Mary Magdalene, who was wrongly thought to be a prostitute. Several such places existed in Australia, England, Ireland and even in North America.

Locked away with no identities, no visits, no human rights, the women were treated as criminals without any trials and no judgments. They had to scrub prison floors, cook for the nuns, take care of aging prisoners and other tasks nobody wanted to do. They all lost their children to adoptive families chosen by the nuns.

From 1765 to the late 1990, about 30,000 women were incarcerated and deprived of normal lives for a youth mischief that their own church was not able to forgive. Supported by the State and the Church, the goal of theses institutions was to rehabilitate "fallen" women into society, but in reality, their return to freedom was seldom a fact.

In 2001, the Irish Government admitted that the Magdalene Laundries were places of abuse. In 2011, the United Nations Committee Against Torture urged Ireland to investigate the facts and truth of the government involvement.

In 2013, the panel found evidence of verbal abuse, and Ireland's Prime Minister Enda Kenny issued a full state apology to the victims, calling them the "nation's shame".

The last Laundry in Ireland closed in 1996.