Girl Slaves of Catholic Magdalene Asylums to Receive Compensation, but Not from the Church

Twenty years ago, shock washed over Ireland. After the Catholic Church sold a parcel of a North Dublin convent’s grounds to a commercial developer, and the construction dig began, 155 bodies were discovered in unmarked graves. The place had been a Magdalene asylum for “wayward girls.” Apparently, inmates who met an early end had been buried in secret — many without a death certificate, without notification of parents or other family, and all without the dignity of even the simplest grave marker.

Initially conceived as rehabilitation centers for prostitutes, the Magdalene asylums — also known as the Magdalene Laundries for the “women’s work” slave labor expected of the residents — eventually grew into houses of horror. The girls, some not even teens, were forced to work seven days a week without pay. The short-term treatment intended by the founders eventually gave way to long-term incarceration. Though conditions varied from one asylum to the next, a strict code of silence was in place for most of the day throughout the Magdalene system. Long prayer sessions were mandatory.

Worse, for over a hundred years, beatings and sexual abuse are thought to have been endemic.

And you didn’t have to be a sex worker to “qualify” to be saved by God’s representatives on Earth. By the 1870s, asylum candidates

… extended beyond prostitutes to unmarried mothers, mentally retarded women and abused girls. Even young girls who were considered too promiscuous and flirtatious, or too beautiful, were sent to an asylum by their families.

Others reportedly ended up in a Magdalene asylum for being “slow learners.” They might never receive a lick of non-religious education again. The nuns were known to forge “school reports” and send those to the girls’ relatives, to conceal that their charges had been turned into slave laborers.

Recalls one former resident:

“We never saw daylight or heard music, and it was normal for girls to fall ill and never be seen again. Sometimes, we used massive industrial irons to press sheets for local hotels. They were raging hot and you had to concentrate hard to make sure your hands didn’t get caught. The steam nearly took your skin off. In the end we got used to getting burned — it was part of everyday life.”

If it didn’t take much to be sent to one of these hellholes, getting out wasn’t so easy.

Without a family member on the outside who could vouch for them, many incarcerated individuals stayed in the asylums for the rest of their lives, many taking religious vows.

Given Ireland’s historically conservative sexual values, Magdalene asylums were a generally accepted social institution until well into the second half of the twentieth century. They disappeared with changes in sexual mores — or, as [historian Frances] Finnegan suggests, as they ceased to be profitable: “Possibly the advent of the washing machine has been as instrumental in closing these laundries as have changing attitudes.”

Those 155 bodies? After they were discovered, in early 1993, they were cremated quickly, and reburied in a mass grave. That raised a lot of suspicion. Why weren’t forensic investigators allowed to work the scene? What were the Church and the civil authorities hiding?

The latter, at least, are now offering an apology to all the Magdalene survivors — as well as a financial olive branch. That’s because the Irish state was complicit in the scandal, having botched its oversight and having profited from the girls who worked the laundries washing and repairing prison uniforms and the like.

Ireland will pay several hundred former residents of Catholic-run Magdalene laundries at least 34.5 million euros ($45 million) to compensate them for their years of unpaid labor and public shame, the government announced Wednesday following a decade-long campaign by former residents of the workhouses.

Justice Minister Alan Shatter apologized to the women — an estimated 770 survivors out of more than 10,000 who lived in the dozen facilities from the 1920s to 1996 — that it had taken so long for them to receive compensation. The move marked the latest step in a two-decade effort by Ireland to investigate and redress the human rights abuses in Catholic institutions.

The women will also qualify for state-funded pensions and free medical care.

Not all of them think that’s enough contrition — or enough money. Maureen Sullivan, who co-founded Magdalene Survivors Together, says that justice is still not being served.

“I was 12 years of age — I was a child. My education was taken from me, my identity was taken from me. We [had] no outside communication, our letters were checked. … We had no play time. All that was taken from us and none of that has been taken into consideration, and I think that’s what we’re annoyed about.”

Ireland’s Catholic Church, meanwhile, continues to wash its hands of the affair.

The Irish government has at last made a serious gesture. The Church could show it has a conscience after all by doing the same.

P.S. If you want a haunt-your-dreams glimpse of what life was like in the Magdalene Laundries, get your hands on a copy of The Magdalene Sisters, the critically acclaimed movie by Peter Mullan. Highly recommended.

(Images via the Sun)

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder of Moral Compass, a now dormant site that poked fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards. He joined Friendly Atheist in 2013.


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