Four years on, questions continue to be asked of report into Magdalene Laundries

An academic who had access to one diocesan archive reports accounts of physical abuse and medical neglect and argues that the files are not accurately reflected in the McAleese Report into the Laundries, writes Conall Ó Fátharta.

Four years on, questions continue to be asked of report into Magdalene Laundries

MORE than four years after its publication in February 2013, the McAleese Report on the Magdalene Laundries continues to generate headlines, but for all the wrong reasons.

It has been criticised by survivors, advocacy groups, the human rights community, and the United Nations.

The reaction of the Government to it has been rather odd. It continues to cite the report as the essential narrative of the Magdalene Laundries, a narrative which states that the “ill-treatment, physical punishment, and abuse” prevalent in the industrial school system was not something the women experienced in the Magdalene Laundries. Yet, it is surprised that, based on a reading of the McAleese Report, religious orders have refused to contribute any money to the redress bill.

Despite the report confirming what was known for years — that the State was involved in all aspects of the Magdalene Laundries — and despite the then taoiseach, Enda Kenny, admitting the same and apologising to the women, the Government is now claiming, repeatedly, that the report made “no finding” in relation to State liability with regard to Magdalene Laundries.

In July, an examination of Ireland’s second periodic review, by the UN Committee Against Torture (UNCAT), raised more issues relating to the McAleese Report and its findings.

UNCAT’s vice-chair, Felice Gaer, said the body had received information from an individual who had access to the Galway diocesan archive and who had discovered “significant material” demonstrating the extensive involvement of the bishop of Galway in the operations and financial dealings of the Sisters of Mercy Galway Magdalene — one of two laundries for which, according to the McAleese Report, no records survive. Also found was a list of 107 women who were in the Galway Magdalene Laundry in December 1952.

“This individual also brought Senator McAleese’s office’s attention to the existence of these files. He provided the senator with a summary of the materials, but says they were not accurately reflected in the McAleese Report. The files reportedly document physical abuse, and the Galway Magdalene’s practice of calling the Irish police to prevent family members from removing women from the institutions,” said Ms Gaer.

The individual in question was Prof James Smith, of Boston College, who was granted permission to access the archive in May 2012.

Prof Smith is a member of the Justice For Magdalenes Research Group and the author of an award-winning book: Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment.

Professor James Smith, of Boston College
Professor James Smith, of Boston College

Prof Smith found the material in the course of research he was undertaking on Church and State discussions related to adoption and government provisions for unmarried mothers and their children. He subsequently informed the McAleese committee about the existence of the material, going so far as to compile a list of the relevant files, and a 10-page summary of their contents, for committee chair, Dr Martin McAleese, on May 10, 2012.

The material contained accounts detailing significant physical abuse and medical neglect, as well as financial records for the institution.

Although the Department of Justice declined to say who from the McAleese committee visited the archive and on what date, the minutes of the committee’s meeting of June 10, obtained by the Irish Examiner, show the material had been examined in the intervening four weeks.

The minutes indicate the material was deemed “useful”. Minutes from the committee’s next meeting, on June 26, indicate that Mr McAleese had “analysed” the financial records. They also note that the Sisters of Mercy “would also be asked for input” and that he and committee member, Nuala Ní Mhuircheartaigh, had met with the order’s solicitors and “this issue had been discussed”.

As part of an agreement he signed to gain access to the archive, Prof Smith had agreed not to publish or reproduce any of the material he viewed without the permission of the Galway Diocesan archive. He says he has abided by these conditions.

Following the publication of the McAleese Report, in February 2013, Prof Smith again sought permission to publish the material he had viewed, as he felt it was not adequately reflected in the final report.

He was informed that he should submit the article to the Galway Diocesan Trustees, for approval, prior to permission being granted for publication.

Prof Smith was also assisting an elderly Magdalene survivor in a personal capacity, as the Department of Justice’s Magdalene Implementation team was having difficulty determining her duration of stay at the Galway Magdalene Laundry, for the purpose of paying her lump-sum compensation. The woman had said she escaped the laundry in early December 1951, but there was no way to document this as fact.

On May 14, 2014, Prof Smith informed the department of the list of 107 women and said that while the list did not confirm her date of exit, it did confirm she was not resident in the Laundry in December 1952.

Prof Smith said he wanted to help the survivor, but that he had also signed an archival users agreement with the diocese of Galway not to “quote from, refer to, or reproduce’ material from the archive without permission”. The department responded by asking Prof Smith to ask the diocese for permission to share the document, but the academic informed it that it should apply directly to the diocese for a copy.

Two weeks later, on May 27, Prof Smith received a letter from the Galway diocesan archive advising him that he had “retained personal data” and that “it is now incumbent upon you, if the information is in fact true, to destroy, erase, or return such data to the data controller”. He was then informed that the archive was now “embargoed”.

“Also, please note that permission has not been given by the diocese, or its agents, to you to publish, or otherwise reproduce, the material.

“In all circumstances, please be advised that the xxx Archive is now embargoed until such time as it is definitively, absolutely, entirely, totally and objectively established that ‘personal data’ within the Data Protection Act no longer arises,” read the letter.

Prof Smith first informed UNCAT of the existence of the material in the Galway diocesan archive, in November 2013, as the body was preparing its List of Issues Prior to Reporting (LOIPR), in advance of Ireland’s second periodic review — which occurred in July this year.

In an email to UNCAT’s vice-chair, Felice Gaer, he outlined what was held in the archive — namely, financial records, a copy of the rules of the institution, letters of complaint about physical abuse, a list of names for the women in the Galway Magdalene Laundry in 1952, and letters from family members and their solicitors attempting to gain release of their sisters/daughters.

He also outlined that he had informed the McAleese committee of the archive’s existence and had outlined his interaction with the archive, with a view to publishing material he had seen.

Prof Smith then expressed his concern that the McAleese report “fails to adequately reflect, and, indeed, mis-characterises, the material in the Galway Diocesan Archive”.

“I do, however, think that the Galway archive, when examined carefully (and fully), undermines a number of findings of the McAleese Report. It also demonstrates a lack of care and/or insufficient resources/expertise in evaluating such materials.

“This calls the McAleese Report into question on a number of rather serious fronts,” wrote Prof Smith.

An unidentified Magdalene Laundry from the Frances Finnegan book, ‘Do Penance or Perish’.
An unidentified Magdalene Laundry from the Frances Finnegan book, ‘Do Penance or Perish’.

IN particular, Prof Smith points Ms Gaer to the financial records held in the archive, which, he claims, “contradict” the McAleese Report’s assertion on profitability.

“Ultimately, the committee did not conduct a thorough review of all the files, because, if he did, he would have discovered two additional years of records, which he fails to report, and he would have uncovered annual accountant reports that demonstrate profit margins greater than what the McAleese Report contends,” he wrote.

Prof Smith then details what summary reports for the Sisters of Mercy Galway Reserve account reveal, in terms of the profitability of the institution.

“And, crucially, he would have uncovered annual reports for the Sisters of Mercy Galway Reserve Account, which document how the Magdalen Laundry transferred significant monies into the Reserve Account every year, from 1957 through 1968, well in excess of (by the factor of three or four times as much) what was spent in any given year on provisions, clothing, and health care for the ‘penitents’ in the institution.

“Indeed, the financial accounts for Galway reveal that profitability only ever considered income from laundry receipts, and ignored additional income, related to the charitable status of the institution (namely, bequests, donations, dividends from investments, rents from 12 properties bequested to the institution, annual appeals, etc),” he wrote.

The McAleese Report dedicated an entire chapter to the financial viability of the laundries. Although it was not required to do this, the committee decided that, “in the public interest”, it would conduct an analysis of the available financial records.

“In summary, the analysis of the available financial records suggested that, in general, the Magdalen Laundries operated on a subsistence or close to break-even basis, rather than on a commercial or highly profitable basis and would have found it difficult to survive financially without other sources of income — donations, bequests, and financial support from the State,” the report found.

Prof Smith also outlined that the archive contained correspondence detailing physical abuse and medical neglect. He pointed to multiple letters written by the reverend mother, in the 1940s and 1950s, to the bishop, justifying the use of disciplinary practices and defending decisions not to release women into the care of their family. The archive also contains evidence of the gardaí being called to remove family members from the door of Galway Magdalene Laundry.

Prof Smith states that of the 107 women listed in the institution in December 1952, 19 are listed on the headstone in the Magdalene graveyard in Galway — a percentage, he claims that is “at odds” with the McAleese Report’s statistics.

“...the fact remains that there is a hand-written letter from a survivor, dated in 1955, asserting physical abuse and medical neglect, and a letter from a priest in England confirming the survivor’s allegation of abuse.

“There are multiple letters written by the reverend mother of the institution, in the 1940s, justifying to the bishop the disciplinary practices of the institution and defending decisions not to release women to their families (and, indeed, calling the Irish police to help remove family members from the door of the institution). The only term used to refer to women throughout the archive is ‘penitent’,” wrote Prof Smith.

This information fed directly into UNCAT’s questioning of the Government during Ireland’s second periodic review, in July, where Ms Gaer expressed concern that the McAleese committee may not have fully investigated all of the archives available to it.

That same month, and at her request, Prof Smith wrote again to Ms Gaer, expressing his concern about how the archives were characterised in the McAleese Report.

He also stressed the wider significance of the archive, in that it shows the Bishop of Galway was, “without question”, directly involved in how the Galway Magdalene Laundry operated — a revelation which would place the Catholic Church, and not simply the religious orders running the institutions, and the State, on the hook, in terms of the redress bill for survivors.

“In conclusion, and from my perspective, the Diocese of Galway archives establish — without question — the extensive involvement of the Bishop of Galway in the day-to-day life of the Sisters of Mercy Galway Magdalen. Moreover, it establishes that the bishop exerted significant control over the financial dealings of the Galway Magdalen, including control over bank accounts, transfers of funds, investment portfolios, property sales, purchasing, etc. The fact that such an extensive archive of material exists in the Diocese of Galway’s archives underscores the extent and nature of the relationship... the question of redress for the Magdalen Laundries is one confined to the State and the four religious congregations.

“The Galway Diocesan Archive — and potentially other diocesan archives — puts the Bishop of Galway — and potentially other members of Ireland’s Catholic hierarchy, and therefore the Catholic Church proper — squarely on the hook!,” he wrote.

The Irish Examiner put a series of questions to the Department of Justice on Prof’s Smith’s claims and the McAleese committee’s treatment of the Galway diocesan archive. It declined to answer any of them, stating that the committee “no longer exists and is, therefore, not in a position to respond to specific queries”. “The report of the Inter-Departmental Committee refers to the fact that the four relevant religious congregations maintained archives were opened fully, and without restriction, to the committee and that the archives of each diocese in which a Magdalen Laundry was located were also searched in the course of the committee’s work,” said a statement.

THE Galway diocesan archive stated that Prof Smith agreed not to publish, or otherwise reproduce, material “without the written permission from the Diocesan Archive” and that he was requested to furnish any material in order that permission might be considered.

“Neither the individual or his solicitor have furnished such material. Representations were received that personal data under Section 1 of the Data Protection Act, 1988 - 2003, sourced within the Diocesan Archive, was retained and an individual was advised of the requirements and duties imposed under Sections 2 & 5 of the said Act.

“The bequest donating the Browne Archive specified an embargo of 70 years from the death of Bishop Browne. However, in the interests of academic endeavours, it was believed that the making of a declaration, as described in 2, above, would enable the archive to be viewed, while simultaneously respecting the embargo.

“However, because of recent experiences involving data protection issues, the legal advice instruction states: “The Browne Archive shall be embargoed, until such time as it is definitively, absolutely, entirely, totally and objectively established that ‘personal data’ within the Data Protection Act no longer exists,” said a statement.

In its recommendations published in August, UNCAT called on the Irish State to “promote greater access of victims, and their representatives, to relevant information concerning the Magdalene Laundries, held in private and public archives”, and that it must provide additional information on these measures, when it next reports to the committee.

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