Religious orders rebuffed funding request for Magdalene women redress

The Government, seeking redress for the Magdalene women, found a religious community unwilling to contribute, writes Conall Ó Fátharta.

Religious orders rebuffed funding request for Magdalene women redress

The McAleese report into Magdalene laundries was published in early 2013. A State apology by Taoiseach Enda Kenny to the women who worked for no pay in these institutions quickly followed.

Within days of the publication of the report, behind the scenes, the government was writing to the four religious orders that ran the laundries requesting that they contribute money to a redress fund.

What it found was a religious community absolutely unwilling to make any form of financial contribution to the women who went through its laundry doors and who worked for no pay.

In the same month as the apology, the private secretary to the then justice minister Alan Shatter wrote to the orders — the Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge, the Good Shepherd Sisters, and the Sisters of Charity — asking them to make “an appropriate contribution” to the redress scheme.

The tone of the letter was polite, thanking the orders for all their assistance to Martin McAleese for the duration of the inquiry.

However, it was to the point in terms of the government’s view that they should contribute to the cost of paying redress to the women who worked in their laundries.

“The government also considered how the religious congregations who ran these institutions could contribute to the process of healing and reconciliation that is now required,” stated the letter.

“With that in mind, I have been asked by Minister Shatter to invite your congregation to make an appropriate contribution to the ex gratia fund as a reflection of your desire to participate in this process. I am also writing in similar terms to the other congregations involved in the running of these institutions.”

In the meantime, the government had arranged to meet the orders personally to broach the subject of a cash contribution.

On April 11, 2013, Mr Shatter, junior health minister Kathleen Lynch, McAleese committee member Nuala Ní Mhuircheartaigh, and Department of Justice assistant secretary Jimmy Martin met with representatives of the four orders.

The meeting took place at Beechlawn on Grace Park Rd, Drumcondra — the site of the High Park Magdalene laundry.

A note of the meeting records how the question of money was raised with the 11 senior nuns across the four orders who were present.

“There was an informal and constructive discussion on the McAleese report, the follow up, Judge Quirke’s role. It was pointed out to the congregations that the question of them making a contribution to any government fund would have to be addressed at some stage.”

It didn’t take long for the orders to address the issue. All four quickly made it abundantly clear that they would not be contributing any money for the redress fund.

At the end of June, the regional leader of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, Sr Sheila Murphy, wrote to Mr Shatter thanking him for his “availability and courtesy” in the previous months but making it clear that the possibility of a financial contribution by the order was a non-starter.

“We will not be making a direct financial contribution to the ex gratia scheme. However, as outlined previously, we will be facilitating applicants and State agencies who request any required information from us,” she says in the letter.

“Again, I wish to assure you that our ongoing contribution to the care and wellbeing of the residents here at Beechlawn will continue to be our prime focus.”

That same month, Sr Mary Christian, the congregation leader of the Sisters of Charity, also wrote to Mr Shatter thanking him for the “courtesy and consideration shown us by you and your department regarding the Magdalene commission report”, but also making it clear that there would be no question of it contributing to the fund.

“I appreciate the trouble you took to keep us informed, coming to meet us on numerous occasions and providing us with a copy of the report at the first opportunity possible.

“Having considered the report, I wish to confirm that the Sisters of Charity will co-operate with the release of relevant information to any woman who requests same, we are prepared to meet with any past resident of our Magdalene homes who so wishes and will continue to provide services to residents in our care. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to make a monetary contribution to the fund.”

Sr Bernadette McNally, province leader of the Good Shepherd Provincialate, wrote to Mr Martin in June and said it could not afford to pay anything and that this was not likely to change in the future.

“The Good Shepherd Sisters submitted a detailed account of their finances to the Department of Education in September 2009. We indicated that on the basis of the facts presented we were not in a position to make further contributions. Unfortunately, we are still not in a position to make contributions to any redress scheme and our financial circumstances are unlikely to improve in the future.”

The Good Shepherd Sisters ran Magdalene laundries in Limerick, Cork, Waterford, and New Ross.

Sr Margaret Casey, congregational leader of the Sisters of Mercy, emailed Mr Martin on July 1, 2013, confirming the order would assist women seeking their records and care for women in their care but that it would not contribute financially.

“We have continued to provide care towards women who spent time in our care in many different contexts. We will continue to do so in future in quiet ways and in accordance without our mission. We will not contribute financially to the State scheme but will lend our support in other ways outlined above,” she said.

After this first set of refusals, the government felt compelled to write to the orders a second time in July 2013. The tone was much more forthright and the orders were told the government felt the congregations had a “moral obligation to make a reasonable contribution”.

Another letter was written in January 2014 by Mr Shatter’s then private secretary, Christopher Quattrociocchi. This time the government hoped that a recent intervention from the Vatican would sway the congregations from their refusal to contribute financially from the redress fund.

He wrote: “In the Holy See’s written response to the UNCRC, December 2013, it was stated that ‘the Holy See is encouraged by the statement of apology offered by religious orders that were investigated by the State of Ireland.

“The Holy See is also heartened by the openness of the religious sisters to engage in discussions about issues of compensation and their willingness to pay a part of a compensation package developed by State authorities’.

“In light of this statement by the Vatican, the minister is inquiring if you have reconsidered your position with regard to making a financial contribution to the scheme and he would be grateful if you would revert back to him on this issue as soon as possible.”

Both entreaties received equally terse responses from all four orders.

In February, Sr Christian of the Sisters of Charity, responded by simply enclosing the order’s previous refusal to contribute any money, which it stated was “for easy reference”.

“The position of the Sisters of Charity is as stated in that letter,” she said.

The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity responded in August 2013 and April 2014 stating that its decision not to contribute was “arrived at after consideration of the findings of the report of the inter-departmental committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalene laundries, known as the McAleese report, and careful reflection of our current and ongoing responsibilities to those residents who remain in our care”.

Sr Casey of the Sisters of Mercy wrote to Mr Quattrociocchi stating that its position had not changed since the previous time it had written to the department.

“As stated in that letter, the experience of our congregation in seeking to make fair and just contributions towards other State schemes has convinced us of the incompatibility of such schemes with our work as a congregation. I regret to inform you that because of this, and for other reasons, we maintain our stance of not contributing financially to this State redress scheme,” she wrote.

Sr Casey also stated that “both the minister and the government will have been well aware of our intent in advance of the announcement of the scheme”.

Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Mr Shatter said he was “enormously disappointed on a personal level” that the congregations were unwilling to provide any money to the redress scheme.

“My view was, as minister, they should make a contribution towards the scheme. I met with them to discuss that. We had pleasant engagements, nothing harsh was said. They listened with courtesy and then said they wouldn’t be contributing. I did all I could to bring about a voluntary contribution to the scheme but, in the end, they were resolute.”

“I was enormously disappointed on a personal level that they didn’t positively respond. I had hoped that a contribution could be made and I said and did all I could to encourage a positive contribution. I believed there was a genuine possibility that they would.”

However, Mr Shatter praised the orders for their assistance to the McAleese committee in terms of providing access to records.

“The congregations were very helpful and co-operative in providing crucial and essential records with regards to survivors who had been in their residential ins. It’s important to note that this was crucial to the compensation scheme in that it allowed for the validation of claims by survivors seeking redress for their time spent in an institution.

“It was very important that they engaged with this aspect of the scheme and also that they engaged with Senator McAleese. So, it’s important to state that there was substantial co-operation on issues of enormous importance and that work laid the foundation for the scheme.

“It would have been extremely difficult, if not next to impossible, to properly implement the scheme without that,” he said.

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