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The Magdalen Laundries: an important corrective

Despite the failings of the Magdalen system, unbalanced analysis failed to reflect the full story

By on Tuesday, 14 May 2013

A scene from the 2002 film, The Magdalene Sisters

A scene from the 2002 film, The Magdalene Sisters

Reading through Personal Update, the newsletter of the Irish ‘Family & Life’ movement for May 2013, which has just arrived in the post, I see it includes an article entitled, A very brief reflection on the Magdalen Laundries. I think this article is worth a mention because even though the subject has already passed through media spin and pseudo-scrutiny, old prejudices die hard and it could always emerge again. It is the kind of “scandal” that those outside the Church are always happy to hurl at us, so it is good to have a reasoned response at the ready.

The article speaks highly of the report by Senator Martin McAleese, which it describes as “conscientious and respectful of the facts and [which] should have been a corrective to untruths and exaggeration”, both of which were very evident in the media coverage of the subject. For instance, the number of women who worked in the laundries is approximately 10,000, not the 30,000 alleged to have done so. Nor were the laundries seen as a way of making money out of exploitation; most depended on donations and outside finance to survive.

When the modern Magdalen movement began it was a Protestant rather than a Catholic initiative. The first was opened in London in 1758 for the reform and rehabilitation of prostitutes. The idea then spread to Protestant Dublin, with Catholic initiatives soon to follow. Why choose prostitution as a cause among all the social ills of society? The author comments sensibly that “The marriage options for a woman who wanted to leave prostitution were nil in the 18th century. Whatever the reasons that drove a woman to sell her body… there was little chance of escape. She had a poor life expectancy, faced violence, disease and social ostracism, and many women resorted to cheap gin and opium to ease the pain.”

The article emphasises that the Magdalen Refuges or Asylums “were intended to provide an opportunity for a woman to reform herself” and achieve a better life. She escaped the power of a pimp and learnt a useful trade. Most stayed for about three years. It is worth pointing out that WE Gladstone, the great evangelical Christian prime minister of the Victorian period, as well as several of his high-minded contemporaries, was a keen supporter of these laundry refuges for “fallen women” as they were called. Problems arose later on, when the lay patrons died. In Ireland the laundries were then taken over by religious orders “even though this kind of work might not have been within the apostolate of the order of sisters.” By the beginning of the 20th century, prostitutes had been joined by girls convicted of petty crime, as well as “difficult children” dumped in the laundries by their families.

The author explains that in the newly-established Irish State, “the Magdalen Laundries and the Industrial Schools were a convenient solution for dealing with young offenders and problem children”. It points out that “Today, the religious orders have taken most of the blame for the unacceptable practices of this system of social control” – even though the Irish state was clearly in collusion with the system. The article concludes: “Despite the failings of the system, I have no doubt that, over 200 years, many young Irish women were rescued from a life of prostitution or crime, and given the chance of a better life through the dedication of the religious orders, now so thoughtlessly excoriated.”

In these modern times, it would probably be thought “judgmental” to try to help prostitutes abandon their way of life. And in this country the social services have taken over the care of problem teenage girls; but given recent news of the sexual exploitation of young girls in care by older men in the community, it is debatable whether these very vulnerable young women are better served in our modern welfare state. We have to be careful not to make quick judgments of past practice through our own more liberal eyes, especially when they blind us to other forms of systemic neglect of young people today.

  • Acleron

    As an article designed to avoid any mention of the appalling conditions in the modern Magdalen organisation it does very well.

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    As an article designed to highlight some aspects of the laundries that the enemies of Catholicism would rather ignore, it does an even better job.

    But I’m sure you won’t let the truth get in the way of a good prejudice…

  • sarah

    What was suitable for society in 1765 was not suitable in 1996. We wouldn’t accept dental practices from the 18th century. They went on for too long which was the fault of the state and the church.

  • $20596475

    I bet there are many posters on here who won’t let this truth get in the way of their own prejudice.

  • http://jabbapapa.wordpress.com/ Julian Lord

    “dental practices from the 18th century went on for too long by fault of the church ???!!!???

    CRIPES any old straw will do when you need to clutch at one …

    This is, I think, THE most absurd suggestion I’ve EVER seen made to support Church-bashing … !!!!

  • la Catholic state

    So you think social services do a good job do you?! They are horrendous….and do more harm than good. It’s time for the Church to come out of hibernation….and start tackling social and educational issues again. Secular agencies have failed children and young people big time.
    Every Parish should have an outreach of experienced mothers etc to provide help to families in difficulties….and evangelise at the same time.

  • teigitur

    Well you should be able to spot a fellow traveller in that sphere. Since it sums you up nicely. New/old friend!

  • Acleron

    The truth of the matter is that it was an awful situation. Publishing an article that omits the most relevant part is denialism. While a group continues to take solace in such denialism it will never improve. Grasp the opportunity to examine why this practice continued past the history emphasised in the article and find modifications to the organisation to prevent it happening in the future. Otherwise accept criticism.

  • Recusant

    The practice continued because Ireland was a poor country with socialist economic policies. Anyone who thinks there was a better alternative in the circumstances is acting put a denialism of their own. The people who were accepted in the organisation should get down on their knees and thank the Sisters for their charity, because the alternatives were far, far worse.

  • Laurence

    Everyone keeps missing the point: this is a relfection of Ireland and it’s people; by no means the whole story, more like a sneak peek behind the carefully erected facade.

  • http://jabbapapa.wordpress.com/ Julian Lord

    What on EARTH is that comment supposed to even MEAN ??

  • Laurence

    Ah sure, I don’t know what I’m saying half the time.

  • Acleron

    You want a better system? Don’t abuse people. Your wealth or lack of it doesn’t enter into the equation.

    Surely some nun could see that this system was wrong. If they couldn’t, then there is something rotten with their education, if they could then something was rotten with the system if they failed to get their voice heard.

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    Actually read the article referred to by Francis rather than just using it as an excuse to air your usual mindless anti-Catholicism. For example, it says:

    ‘The evidence is clear that, by the beginning of the 20th century, many of the inmates of the Magdalens were not there voluntarily. The balance had changed, and in some cases the nuns or laypeople in charge ceased to be caring guardians and became more like harsh jailors.’ It goes on to talk about, ‘unacceptable practices of this system of social control’.

    It’s a short article which a) refers favourably to the McAleese report, b) acknowledges the awful situation in the Magdalens and c) tries to put that package in some sort of overall historical perspective. But none of that matters to you because, as on every other issue in which you pop up to offer your opinion on this site, all you want to do is simply attack Catholics. It is your blinkered hatred for religion that is more of a danger to social progress than this article’s attempt to try think through what it itself acknowledges were serious failings in the laundries.

  • $20596475

    See the post from Lazarus as it his post I was referencing. It seems to me that some people will do anything to avoid acknowledging any failure of Catholicism.

    We can all learn from our failures, even you.

  • http://jabbapapa.wordpress.com/ Julian Lord

    We can all learn from our failures

    Go ahead then, try it for yourself.

  • http://jabbapapa.wordpress.com/ Julian Lord

    Fair enough :)

  • teigitur

    You must be joking, I am very well aware of the many failures of the RCC. I have many a “robust discussion” with my PP and Bishop, and indeed have very little regard for the Hierarchies of these islands. But, unlike you I know that is was set up by God for man’s salvation, and that all things considered it is a force for good on this rotating spec of dust.

  • Acleron

    Your spin is as as good as the authors of both the above and the Family and Life article. The abuse was by your religion, trying to deny that by concentrating on the role of state and history fails to allow you to address the core problem.

    And before you try to dismiss criticism as prejudice you might examine the beam in your own eye.

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    You hadn’t read the article: if you had, you wouldn’t have said it avoided, ‘any mention of the appalling conditions in the modern Magdalen organisation’. It did mention them as I evidenced above.

    It’s rationality 101: read what you’re critiquing.

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    Sorry, MC, it was my post you were referring to when you wrote ‘some people will do anything to avoid acknowledging any failure of Catholicism’???

    My original post simply welcomed an article which tried to put the laundries in some sort of historical context, in response to an ill-thought out onslaught by a commenter who had not read the article referred to by Francis and whose only appearances on the site are to attack Catholicism: no denial of what happened in the laundries; no attempt to deny that Catholics were complicit in wrongdoing.

    The oddity of the comments by the brigade of anti-Catholics who have appeared to slag off Francis is that the article from the ‘prolife.ie’ website she bases it on acknowledges and welcomes the McAleese report which is hardly a whitewash of Catholic failure. The article is an honest (if brief) attempt to wrestle with a difficult aspect of Irish history (and moreover one with a wider set of questions as to how Western European societies in general discipline(d) the morally or socially errant none of which I’ve seen explored in know-nothing attempts to slander the Catholic Church and Ireland). But rather than acknowledge that, you’re off again on your hobby-horse: ‘Catholicism is bad and nasty’.

    Just get a grip.

  • AnthonyPatrick

    I’m not being impervious to the point, but why leave the responsibilities and consciences of individual citizens, parents, families, neighbours, communities, schools, police officers, local councillors and business men and women who constituted Irish society out of this historical analysis?

  • $20596475

    Oh I do, every day. No need for any advice from you. Have you learned anything from your failure to make any impact on me, other than that you think it is all my fault?

  • http://jabbapapa.wordpress.com/ Julian Lord

    Have you learned anything from your failure to make any impact on me ?

    Indeed I have — that your political and philosophical indoctrination leads you to be impervious to any views that you disagree with.

  • $20596475

    I wasn’t actually referring to you at all, but just borrowing your words to make a much more general point. I am very glad to know that you accept that there have been failures by the RCC, and I am happy to also acknowledge that they were far from alone.

    If you read all my posts you will also realise that I don’t ride a “Catholicism is bad and nasty” hobby-horse as I have often paid tribute to the good work which is done. My gripe is with some attitudes held by some people and this was what, my somewhat tongue in cheek, remark was aimed at, for there are some who rush to deny anything which approaches criticism.

  • $20596475

    Good for you and actually it was not you that I was aiming at.

  • $20596475

    No you haven’t! I specifically excluded a belief that it is “my fault”, for that is a given. You have never, ever, acknowledged that you have been wrong about anything where I am concerned.

    Substitute “religious” for “political” and your own remarks are therefore a near perfect description of yourself.

  • http://jabbapapa.wordpress.com/ Julian Lord

    I don’t ride a “Catholicism is bad and nasty” hobby-horse

    This comment is mendacious.

  • $24570317

    “What on EARTH is that comment supposed to even MEAN ??”

    Somebody asked me that once, on Dawkins’ website (shortly before the first time they threw me off).
    PS: I’m back there under another name.

  • $20596475

    Yours is very rude! You seem either never to read, or take notice, of any of the positive things I say and only ever take offence at the criticism. As to call me a liar is simply untrue what does that make you?

  • RuariJM

    Jabba, the syntax may have room for improvement but I think it is the effort of but a moment to appreciate what sarah was actually saying. “Dental practices” was a metaphor, as I’m sure you are aware, in reality – but you, I fear, are the one guilty of clutching any old straw on this occasion!

    Unnecessarily so, I think, as sarah made a valid point – solutions from the past do not necessarily work today. For example,the Magdalen Laundries were largely funded by private philanthropists. Would that work today?

  • RuariJM

    Is there any danger of you acquainting yourself with what you are condemning before going on the record?

    I only ask for your own sake. If you spout off about something you are clearly unfamiliar with you risk making yourself look like an ill-informed, prejudiced buffoon. And we would not want that, would we?

  • Feldon

    I would urge your readers (and particularly some of the people who have commented below) to read at least the Introduction to the report of the official inquiry into the Magdalen laundries (the McAleese report) which came out in Ireland in February 2013 and is easily available on the internet (google “McAleese Magdalen report”). This paints a rather different picture to the established horror story. Senator McAleese reports that, while the laundries were harsh places by modern standards: :
    i) no allegation of sexual abuse by nuns was made to the inquiry and very few of other types of physical abuse;
    ii) 61% of the girls and women working in the laundries were there for one year or less;
    iii) the laundries mostly operated on a break-even basis or at a loss.
    The report is extremely thorough and I have not heard of any challenge made to its factual basis. Extraordinarily, all the media reporting which I saw appeared to ignore its actual conclusions and wrote about the laundries as though the most lurid accusations of abuse, virtual imprisonment and vast accumulation of profits by the nuns were established facts. Truly, ignorance is invincible once the “liberal” and anti-Catholic media have decided on the narrative they wish to propagate.

  • Mari Tatlow Steed

    Once again, the Catholic Herald relies solely on the McAleese report, rather than thousands of pages of testimony and historical evidence, to form a whitewashed overview (or ‘corrected’ narrative, if you will) of the Laundries. The McAleese report was commissioned to find evidence of State involvement in the Laundries. It did so, admirably. However, it presented a number of other “findings” which remain under dispute. Figures from two of the largest Laundries, run by the Sisters of Mercy at Galway and Dun Laoghaire, were omitted from the report; other reported numbers are clearly in error as the maths don’t add up (entry routes, numbers remanded from mother-baby homes, etc.) So until this report can be thoroughly analysed and compared against historical record by an unbiased entity outside the State’s purview, it only proves what it was originally intended to do – that the State was overwhelmingly complicit in remanding girls and women to Magdalene Laundries. That they suffered abuse is a matter of historical record and based upon not only the testimonies of the survivors themselves, but also of eyewitnesses in ‘outsider’ roles (gardai, doctors, paid Laundry workers, etc.) Even Sister Stanislaus Kennedy in her 1980′s book on institutional care in Ireland presents evidence of abuse. Moreover, by their very nature and by definition of the UN Committee Against Torture, Magdalene Laundries were abusive: being held against one’s will in harsh conditions, denied food as punishment and a litany of other daily human rights violations, constitute abuse by definition.

    I would suggest that the author of this and other attempts to whitewash what occurred in the Magdalene Laundries, or to shift the narrative, take a closer look at publicly available evidence and testimonies and stop seeing this as some attempt to smear the Church. That was already amply accomplished with the Cloyne, Murphy, Ryan, Ferns and other damning reports on institutional Church rape, abuse and torture and the attendant cover-up. Both State and Church (as well as society, although society was led by the moral teachings and instilled fear of the Church) were complicit in this ‘architecture of containment,’ and must own up to it. It’s a pity the Church or writers in its defense cannot set a more compassionate example, and instead throw victims under the bus again and again. Instead of railing against ‘Church-blaming,’ why not show some respect, remorse and compassion and visit a Magdalene gravesite? That would speak volumes.

  • Mari Tatlow Steed

    Have you ever had a robust discussion with anyone who has researched the history of these institutions or worked firsthand with survivors? Or is it just the PP or bishop you consult?

  • Feldon

    It is no good simply crying “whitewash” when factual investigation does not bear out deeply-held preconceptions. In the Introduction to his report, Senator McAleese indicates that it gives “as comprehensive a picture as possible of the operation of the laundries”. He speaks respectfully of the sufferings of those who considered that theyt were badly treated”

  • Feldon

    (to continue, an e-mishap befell me) …that they were badly treated in the laundries and would plainly not have discouraged any woman who came forward alleging “rape, abuse and torture”. No one is throwing victims “under the bus again” but let us not throw factual investigation there either. If there is more to be said, present the information systematically, as McAleese does.