UN torture watchdog criticises Ireland on Magdalene Laundries

Minister Shatter has said he will examine the recommendations closely.

The United Nations watchdog on torture has criticised Ireland’s prison conditions and accused the state of failing to protect women confined to Catholic Church workhouses.

In its first Irish review, the UN Committee Against Torture also called on the Government for prompt investigations and prosecutions over the damning Ryan Report into child sexual abuse in church-run industrial schools and orphanages.

It claimed 11 cases have been selected for prosecution with eight of those rejected.

In a wide-ranging assessment, the body detailed a raft of recommendations on issues as diverse as alleged state co-operation with extraordinary rendition, abortion, treatment of refugees and corporal punishment in the home.

Justice Minister Alan Shatter and other Cabinet ministers are to examine the committee’s conclusions and will formally reply to the UN watchdog’s findings.

In one of the most damning criticisms the committee said the state had failed to protect young girls and women confined without their consent to so-called Magdalene Laundries between 1922 and 1996.

It said the authorities failed to regulate or inspect the institutions where it was alleged women suffered physical and emotional abuse and other mistreatment.

The watchdog called for an independent statutory investigation into allegations of “cruel, inhuman or degrading” treatment of women.

The international body also called for those who meted out the abuse in the Catholic Church reformatory workhouses to be prosecuted and victims given the right to compensation.

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 for women who had a child outside marriage.

The last laundry, at Sean McDermott Street in Dublin, closed in 1996.

The Irish Human Rights Commission has claimed their treatment at the hands of nuns appeared to be harsh and reputedly involved long working hours, with girls allegedly denied education.

The Justice for Magdalenes (JFM) support group has demanded the state give survivors a formal apology and establish an immediate statutory inquiry into the alleged abuse in the wake of the committee’s findings.

Human rights expert Maeve O’Rourke, who presented JFM’s submission to the committee during its two days of public hearings last month, said she was hopeful the Irish Government will honour its obligations to those who have suffered.

“Having suffered torture or ill-treatment, in which the state directly participated and which it knowingly failed to prevent, the women have the ongoing right to an investigation, an apology, redress and treatment with dignity,” she said.

The UN committee also gave a damning critique of the state’s prisons, claiming it was deeply concerned over reports of overcrowding and the practice of slopping out in some jails, which it branded inhuman and degrading.

The UN committee recommended the Government adopt specific timeframes for building new prison facilities and urged the state to strengthen its efforts to eradicate slopping out.

“While noting the efforts by the State party to provide all cells with in-cell sanitation, the committee is deeply concerned at the continuing practice of ’slopping out’ in some of the prisons in the state party, which amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment,” it stated.

The watchdog also raised concerns about the level of violence in the state's jails, particularly noting allegations by prisoners from the traveller community in Cork prison that they are being intimidated by other inmates.

The committee urged authorities to tackle the problems leading to violence such as drugs and feuding gangs and address the issue of intimidation of travellers.

UN anti-torture experts also questioned the slow pace of the criminal investigation into the findings of the Ryan Report into clerical child sexual abuse at church-run schools and orphanages.

The nine-year state investigation revealed in May 2009 a catalogue of disturbing and chronic sexual, physical and emotional torture inflicted on disadvantaged, neglected and abandoned youngsters by both religious and lay staff.

The committee said it was concerned that despite the evidence, 11 cases have been forwarded for prosecution with eight rejected.

“The committee is also gravely concerned that despite the findings of the Ryan Report that ’physical and emotional abuse and neglect were features of the institutions and that sexual abuse occurred in many of them, particularly boys’ institutions’, there has been no follow up by the state party,” the body said.

It urged the Government to reveal how and when it proposes to implement all of the recommendations of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse investigation, and said it should probe all cases of abuse and prosecute if appropriate. It also called for victims to have redress and a right to compensation.

The committee urged the Government to provide information on measures taken to investigate the state’s alleged involvement in rendition programmes through the use of the country’s airports and airspace.

On abortion the committee recommended the state clarify the scope of legal abortion through statutory law, in the wake of the European Court of Human Rights ruling that Irish abortion laws violated the rights of one of three women who sought terminations in Britain.

The Government was also urged to strengthen its efforts to prevent violence against women and enhance its support and funding of refuge and support services provided to victims of domestic violence. An outright ban on corporal punishment, including in the home, was also recommended.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties said the state must live up to its obligations by implementing the committee’s recommendations.

Deirdre Duffy, ICCL research and policy officer, said: “As the Ryan and Murphy reports show us, Ireland is slowly waking from a culture of impunity.

“The UN committee’s recommendations have today underlined that tackling impunity requires a two-prong approach of prevention and redress.”


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