Rights Commission orders probe into Magdalene laundries

The Government must launch an official inquiry into the treatment of women and girls detained in so-called Magdalene Laundries, it was ruled today.

The Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) said compensation should be paid to former residents where the state is found to have had a hand in their detention at 10 Catholic Church reformatory workhouses.

IHRC commissioner Olive Braiden said the lack of public records meant only a statutory inquiry would uncover the truth.

She said many women were omitted from the Residential Institutions Redress Scheme based on the argument that there was no state responsibility.

However Ms Braiden said it was clear the state and Irish society in general bears responsibility for the way they were treated.

“We are dealing with a small and vulnerable group of women who the Government admitted as far back as 2001 were victims of abuse, but who have received no proper recognition for the hurt they experienced and continue to experience,” said Ms Braiden.

“It is important women in their advancing years are not forgotten.

“The IHRC is publicly calling on the Government to establish the extent of state involvement in the manner in which they were treated and to provide redress as appropriate.”

The Magdalene Laundries were operated by four Catholic religious orders, The Sisters of Mercy, The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, The Sisters of Charity, and The Good Shepherd Sisters. The last laundry, at Sean McDermott Street in Dublin, closed in 1996.

IHRC revealed while some women were detained through the courts, single mothers were often moved in by their family or clergy after their child was adopted and some residents had an intellectual disability.

It said their treatment by nuns appeared to be harsh and reputedly involved long working hours.

Names were often changed to a religious name, they were isolated from society and girls were allegedly denied education.

Last June survivor advocacy group Justice for Magdalenes (JFM) asked the IHRC to assess its case. It argued the treatment of women and girls in the laundries violated their constitutional rights, including rights to bodily integrity, not to be tortured or ill-treated, the right to earn a livelihood, to communicate, the right to individual privacy, travel, to one’s good name and to one’s person.

The IHRC said there was clearly state involvement for those who entered Magdalene Laundries after a court process.

It also said the state might have breached laws on forced or compulsory labour and on ensuring no one is held in servitude.

Maurice Manning, IHRC president, said the state could not abdicate responsibilities over the treatment of women and girls in the Laundries.

“In the absence of access to clear information, serious questions arise in relation to the state’s duties to guard against arbitrary detention, compulsory labour and servitude,” Dr Manning said.

He said the exhumation and cremation of unidentified women and girls from a communal plot attached to a Magdalene Laundry at High Park, Drumcondra, in 1993 also raised serious questions.

“To vindicate the human rights of the women concerned, the Government must immediately establish a statutory inquiry mechanism to gather the evidence necessary to establish the facts behind the treatment of these women,” he added.

The IHRC report said the state still regarded the Laundries as private enterprises with a reformatory role.

Maeve O’Rourke, co-author of JFM’s submission, said there was far too little public information on the Laundries.

“So far, the religious orders have refused to engage,” she said.

“Therefore, the state needs to lead the way. It must convince the church to acknowledge its part in this scandal and to open up its records. The state should also call upon the church to honour its moral obligation to find the money to pay its share of compensation to survivors.”

JFM spokesman Professor James Smith maintained the time to act was now.

“The Government must move beyond its ’deny ’til they die’ policy,” he said.

“Only then will it disprove one Magdalene survivor’s telling observation: ’They’re hoping that in 10 years we’ll all be under the sod and they can relax’.”

In a statement, the Government said it noted the call for an inquiry and compensation if appropriate.

“The Government regrets that relevant departments were not offered an opportunity by the IHRC to contribute to the commission’s considerations of this matter to facilitate a fully balanced evaluation of all the facts,” it said.

“The Government is also conscious that the Magdalene Laundries were run by a number of religious congregations.

“The Government has asked the Attorney General in consultation with relevant departments to consider the IHRC’s report.”

Last year two separate inquiries documented a catalogue of disturbing and chronic sexual, physical and emotional abuse inflicted on disadvantaged, neglected and abandoned youngsters by both religious and lay staff.

The damning Ryan Report revealed the Roman Catholic Church and Irish Government covered up almost four decades of sexual abuse and beatings by priests and nuns against thousands of children in state care.

Within months the Murphy confirmed senior clerics in Dublin had shielded paedophile priests to protect the reputation of the Catholic Church.

Colm O’Gorman, clerical abuse survivor and executive director of Amnesty International Ireland, said the IHRC’s paper clearly establishes the need for a statutory investigation of the human rights violations suffered by women and girls detained in Magdalene Laundries.

“The Justice for the Magdalene’s group’s campaign received a vital endorsement from the State’s own human rights watchdog,” he said.

“It is an important day for those surviving women and their children.

“We hope that our Government will act now to finally and fully address this issue.”

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