The fallout from the McAleese Report is sure to continue, says Conall Ó Fátharta
A week that promised so much for the survivors of Magdalene Laundries ended up delivering little.
Despite the McAleese report finally rubber-stamping a fact that has been known for years — that the State was involved in all aspects of the Magdalene Laundries — no State apology has been forthcoming.
The Government and Taoiseach Enda Kenny parsed and prevaricated, clinging to the razor-thin argument that just 26% of women in the laundries were sent by the State.
The key point here is: Regardless of how women came to be there, the fact the State monitored, inspected, and had State contracts with the laundries make it responsible for all the women who worked for no pay in these institutions.
However, the more unsettling aspect of the McAleese report is the rewriting of a narrative that has long been accepted through testimony — that these were places where women suffered physical abuse. It is noteworthy that this was not the job of Martin McAleese.
What he presented in this regard is wildly at odds with what was established in the Ryan report, in more than 700 pages of survivor testimony presented to his committee — which is rapidly being treated as the historical narrative of what went on in these institutions.
As he gave no public briefing, it has not been possible to question Mr McAleese on these findings.
On Prime Time earlier this week, an angry Maeve O’Rourke, a human rights lawyer and member of the Justice for Magdalenes group, said Mr McAleese’s claim that little physical abuse occurred in the laundries was “an outrage”.
“It has been accepted for a long time that these were abusive institutions and the idea that they were not physically abusive — the thing that is coming out from this report — I think is an outrage. Martin McAleese did not refute that the women earned no money and that they were locked in,” she said.
“He spoke of the vast majority of women and girls never knowing when they would get out, if ever, and if they would ever see their families again. That was not refuted. If unpaid labour behind locked doors is not physical abuse, then I do not know what is.”
From the beginning, the attitude to the religious congregations is quite clear. The very first reference to the orders in the entire report is in the 12th paragraph, where Mr McAleese speaks of the “profound hurt” experienced by the Sisters in the way the laundries have been portrayed.
It is also worth noting that the orders themselves could have countered the allegations made against them in the past decade. They chose not to.
Meanwhile, the attitude to survivors from the start of the report speaks of the “confusion” they feel about that period of their lives.
Mr McAleese says most women said the “ill-treatment, physical punishment, and abuse that was prevalent in the industrial school system was not something they experienced in the Magdalene Laundries”, while the accounts of physical abuse are few and far between and very tame by comparison to testimony seen in the Ryan report or in the Justice for Magdalenes submission.
It is worth noting that a total of 118 women spoke to the committee. Of these, 58 are still in the care of the religious orders, indicating they have spent much of their lives institutionalised.
To supply a narrative outlining virtually no physical abuse, where half of the women interviewed remain in the care of the order, is hardly satisfactory.
Furthermore, unlike the Ryan report, the McAleese report made no public call for survivors to come forward and give testimony.
The Ryan report dedicates an entire chapter to abuse in Magdalene Laundries and is categoric in its opinion that physical abuse was routine.
More concerning is the suggestion that the committee discounted initial testimony of physical abuse from some women, as they said that under closer questioning it emerged that the women were “confusing” their time in industrial schools with time at the laundries.
Claire McGettrick of JFM outlines some concerns. “Initially, the committee didn’t even want to speak to women in person, but we fought for that. The women gave their testimony verbally and then we were given very little notice of a second meeting where we were to look at the format of the initial testimony.
“Instead, the women were brought in, one by one, for a meeting with the commission where they asked repeated questions. Their overall impression was that they were being checked to ensure that their memories were correct.
“The women came out of those meetings very quiet and subdued. None of them, none of us, had been expecting for them to be questioned like that.”
When you read the report, it is clear this was the case, as it confirms: “Subsequent meetings afforded the committee an opportunity to seek clarifications on areas of particular interest... Information provided by many of the women... included a clear distinction between some of the practices in industrial and reformatory schools and the Magdalene Laundries, in particular in relation to practices of physical punishment and abuse.”
Much of the comment has been on the final rubber-stamping of what was already well known: That the State was involved with the Magdalene Laundries. That much is now certain.
However, in recent days, survivors have expressed their outrage at Mr McAleese’s claim that they were not places where physical abuse was suffered.
It is likely that the fallout from this claim has some distance to run.
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