JUSTICE Minister Alan Shatter is under pressure to announce an inquiry into the detention and abuse of women at the Magdalene Laundries after the UN criticised the state’s failure to protect the women and called for a thorough investigation and compensation scheme.
The remarks by the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT), which has released a damning report on Ireland, follow similar observations last year by the Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC), which said a statutory investigation should take place.
Estimates put the number of women and girls who passed through the laundries from 1922 to 1996 at 30,000 but the religious orders involved — the Sisters of Mercy, Good Shepherd Sisters, Sisters of Charity and Sisters of Our Lady of Charity — have refused to open their archives.
Originally set up to help prostitutes and women who had babies outside of marriage, the laundries became a dumping ground for unwed mothers and girls whose behaviour was considered promiscuous.
Once referred there, the women were virtually prisoners, had their babies taken away, were abused and forced to work without pay. Many became institutionalised and could never leave. Some remain with the religious orders to this day.
The issue is expected to be raised at today’s Cabinet meeting but it is understood legal advice is pending from the Attorney General on the IHRC statement. Ministers want to make further efforts to establish the scale of the abuses and the extent of state liability before deciding on a formal inquiry.
Human rights lawyer Maeve O’Rourke, who represented campaign group Justice for Magdalenes at a UNCAT hearing last month, said Government inaction on the UN’s call would be a major failing.
“The international spotlight is on Ireland and we can keep it there by bringing this issue to other UN committees if necessary, because what happened in the laundries breached a whole raft of UN conventions.”
The head of the organisation representing religious congregations urged the orders involved to be “as open as possible”.
Sr Marianne O’Connor, the director of the Conference of Religious of Ireland, said: “In some cases, records don’t exist and there are also sensitivities around women who are still in residence with the orders. But, in so far as it is possible, records should be made available.”
The orders were unavailable for comment yesterday.
Meanwhile, the Vatican has completed the first phase of its investigation into the response of Irish church authorities to the clerical sex abuse scandals. A statement said the results would be published early next year.
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