Finally righting a wrong in the fight for the women who worked in Magdalene laundries

The fight for women who worked in Magdalene laundries but had been excluded from redress has finally been recognised in a report that criticises the Department of Justice’s handling of the scheme, writes Conall Ó Fátharta.

Ombudsman, Information Commissioner, and Commissioner for Environmental Information of Ireland Peter Tyndall at The Ombudsman offices.

The ombudsman’s investigation into how the Department of Justiceadministered the Magdalene laundries redress scheme took almost a year.

His report, published last week, was scathing of thedepartment and vindicates much of what campaigners and survivors have beensaying for four years.

It revealed a deeply flawed administration process which wrongly denied women access to redress.

The investigation was launched in December 2016 of last yearafter a nine-month period of engagement with the department on the issue failed to lead to any common ground.

It arose as a result of27 complaints relatingprimarily to admission to the scheme and the assessment of the duration of stay by the department.

Many of these related to women who worked in one of the 12 laundries listed under the scheme but were admitted and resident in training centres and/or industrial schools attached to thelaundries. As they were not“directly admitted” to one of the 12 laundries, the department ruled these women were not entitled to redress.

The report found that the phrase “admitted to and worked in” was used by Mr Justice Quirke who designed the scheme, the Government and the department without anyone ever defining what it was intended to mean.

However, the ombudsman found that the department chose to interpret this phrase in the most narrow sense and operated on the basis that only women who could demonstrate through available records that they had been officially recorded as admitted to one of the 12 named institutions were eligible.

Not only that, the ombudsman found that the department operated the scheme using criteria which wasn’t known to any of the women applying to be included.

“In simple terms, are restorative justice scheme was announced based on recommendations contained in a publicly available report that used imprecise terms which were capable of being interpreted in different ways.

“It appears however that the department administering the scheme was operating to additional criteria that were not known or made explicit as part of either an information campaign or the application process. It was only at the end of the process that an applicant was informed of the criterion by which they were excluded,” stated the report.

The department has argued, and continues to argue, that to include any of the training centres and/or industrial schools would be adding new institutions to the scheme and would require a decision of Government.

It also strenuously argues that these units are distinct and separate from the laundries in terms of their operation. The department has also pointed out that some of these institutions were included in the Residential Institutions Redress Board (RIRB)and would raise the problem of women being compensated twice.

However, the ombudsman disagreed with the department’s arguments on all the above points.

“I have consistently maintained that I am not seeking to add new institutions to the scheme. Instead, and as outlined above, my office has had sight of a significant amount of evidence which shows that these units and the Magdalen Laundries were inextricably linked and should be considered to be one and the same institutions.

“It is also clear that the department would have been aware from an early stage of these close links — the information contained in the completed preliminary expression of interest forms alone would have signalled this,” states the ombudsman.

Indeed the report goes on to accuse the department of failing to seek to obtain or consider this evidence — all of which was available to it. If it did obtain the evidence, it gave it “cursory consideration”. In short, the word of the religious on the matter was enough.

“Instead, it appears to have relied on general information provided by the congregations some of which was requested and obtained after the decision to exclude was made — for example, the department received a profile of High Park on 22 November 2013 but the decision to exclude An Grianán had been made a number of months earlier, while a detailed profile on Gracepark Training Centre was requested by the department in July 2017 and only for the purposes of this investigation,” states the report.

Indeed, when the women themselves revealed this close relationship between the units and the laundries in their applications, the department “frequently failed to follow up”.

The ombudsman’s investigation also found “a serious inconsistency” in how eligibility criteria was applied to certain applications.

For example, some women were admitted to the scheme who were recorded as admitted to one particular institution closely linked to one of the 12 laundries, while women recorded as admitted to a different institution also linked to one of the 12 laundries were refused access.

“This was despite the almost identical profile, characteristics and relationship with the associated laundry both institutions shared,” notes the report.

The investigation also highlighted a “curious and questionable” footnote to the list of 12 institutions covered under the redress scheme.

The note was introduced in December 2013 – by which time 600 applications had already been received by the department and some decided upon.

It stated that institutions listed in the Schedule to the Residential InstitutionsRedress Act 2002 were not covered under the Magdalene redress scheme and therefore operated as a “blanket exclusion” regardless of whether the applicants affected worked in a laundry, whether the award from the RIRB included a sum for work performed in the laundry or indeed whether the applicants even made a claim to the RIRB at all.

“The footnote provision permitting the exclusion of institutions covered by the RIRB does not stem from the recommendations of MrJustice Quirke or indeed any government decision.

“It was a purely administrative arrangement inserted into the scheme some months after the scheme was established. However, it nevertheless had the effect of significantly reducing the number of applicants who were admitted to the scheme,” notes the report.

The decision to exclude women who worked in a laundry access to the scheme on the basis that they were resident in an institution covered by the RIRB was “manifestly unfair, the ombudsman said.

Indeed, the ombudsman uncovered evidence a number of applicants had been entitled to a RIRBpayment but had not applied to that scheme. Despite this scheme being closed since 2005, the department informed these women they were not accepted to the Magdalene redress scheme as they should have applied to the RIRB.

Gloucester street magdalene laundry, Dublin.

The report highlights one of the decision letters from the department to a complainant to the ombudsman which “quite neatly encapsulates the obvious unfairness of this and leaves little room for common sense or compassion”.

“St Finbar’s Industrial School was provided for under the Residential Institutions Redress Act 2002…It is my understanding that the RIRB is closed for new applications but in any event, that would be the appropriate forum to consider your application”, states the decision letter.

The ombudsman does acknowledge that the scheme was difficult to administer and posed challenges for the department.

However, these were not “unanticipated” and should and could have been properly planned and accounted for.

Instead, the investigation found that the department relied on the records and sometimes just the word of the religious orders when deciding on applications.

The evidence of the survivors of the institutions mattered less, if indeed, at all.

The section of the report which deals with how individual applications were assessed is worth quoting at length.

“It is the manner in which the history of the individual applicant and the available information was interrogated and followed up on by the department that is at issue. It was ad hoc and at times incomplete, with gaps, questions, or inconsistencies left unanswered.

“There was an over-reliance on the records of the congregations and it is not apparent what weight if any was afforded to the testimony of the women and/or their relatives. Interviews with applicants were a last resort and were only undertaken late in the day and in a small number of cases which were not resolved one way or the other.

“In other words, an applicant could be excluded on the basis of a record showing she was not admitted to one of the 12 named institutions and she was not interviewed as part of the process.”

“In the majority of the individual files examined as part of the investigation (those from whom I had received a complaint), the checking of records with the relevant congregation consisted of simply asking if there was a record of a named individual admitted to XY institution.

“The actual records or extracts were not sought or obtained from the congregation in many instances.

A response that there was or was not a record and the detail was accepted. A further check with the congregation sometimes entailed simply asking them to confirm. Queries tended to be quite limited as were the responses.”

However, it wasn’t just decisions relating to women who have been refused access to the scheme that the ombudsman took issue with. He also raised the delay in making redress payments to women who have already been accepted to the scheme but lack capacity to make their own decisions.

The investigation found that these women have been left for four years without any money being paid or indeed any steps being taken to put in place a mechanism where it could be paid to them.

There are 18 women in this position, there were some 40 back in 2013. Nine of these women spent more than a decade in a Magdalene laundry and are entitled to the maximum redress payment of €100,000.

This issue has been raised by Justice for Magdalenes Research for years and was highlighted to the ombudsman by the group.

A significant number of these women remain in the care of the congregations.

“They may not have been able to be in the Dáil the evening the Taoiseach delivered his apology and may never have had an opportunity to tell their story.

“They matter no less for this,” states the report.

The report recommends that, where there is evidence that a woman worked in one of the listed laundries but was officially recorded as having been “admitted to” a training centre or industrial school located in the same building, attached to or located on the grounds of one of the laundries, the department “should fully reconsider their application with a view to admitting them to the scheme”.

Magdalene laundary rememberance plaque

It has been asked to commence these reviews “immediately”, provide an estimate of the numbers involved and the anticipated timeframe for completion. A report should be provided to the ombudsman within three months at the latest.

It has also been asked to review all cases where there has been a dispute over the length of stay.

Ultimately, the Ombudsman concludes that the Magdalene redress scheme was an “opportunity lost”.

However, this underplays the scathing nature of the criticisms levelled at the department.

The ombudsman ultimately concludes that a scheme intended to aid healing and reconciliation did the opposite — it caused hurt and pain.

“Unfortunately, a scheme intended to bring healing and reconciliation has, for some, served instead to cause further distress. This needs to be put right. The women who worked in the laundries covered by the scheme should be admitted to it.

“All evidence about whether, and for how long, women were working in the laundries should be pursued and taken into account. Those who have already been deemed eligible but who do not have the capacity to engage with the scheme should receive their payments as a matter of urgency.”

It has taken four years for these conclusions to be placed in a report. However, groups like Justice For Magdalenes Research have been shouting and screaming about the failings of the redress scheme for years.

Not only were they not listened to, they were accused by some of spreading “misinformation”.

These women have spent years seeking something very simple — redress that they were promised by the State. No more and no less.

TheOmbudsman Peter Tyndall is right: “They have waited long enough”.

All in a name: Karen’s wait for justice refused over admission procedure

Karen Busher was just 14 when she was taken off the street and put to work in the High Park Magdalene Laundry.

She worked there for around 18 months. She did the same work as the older women.

Yet, four years on from former taoiseach Enda Kenny’s apology, the Department of Justice has refused her redress.

It acknowledges that she worked in the laundry but, because she was admitted to the An Grianán training

unit — housed in the same building — she cannot access the scheme.

The department has stated An Grianán was a separate institution to the High Park Magdalene Laundry and was previously covered under the Residential Institutions Redress Board (RIRB) scheme.

Karen’s case is one that the ombudsman has asked the Department of Justice to reconsider. It states that An Grianán and High Park were one and the same institution and that the RIRB compensated Karen for a different wrong suffered.

Not only that, the ombudsman has said the decision to excluded institutions covered under the RIRB was not recommended by Mr Justice Quirke who set up the Magdalene scheme and was a “purely administrative arrangement” inserted into the scheme months after it was set up.

For Karen, the decision to refuse her redress came as a shock. Her experience with the RIRB scheme was “horrendous” but the reasoning for denying her access to the Magdalene scheme was insulting — that she hadn’t been admitted to a Magdalene Laundry.

“I was absolutely shocked that I was refused on the grounds that I wasn’t in the laundry. I just thought: ‘What the hell?’ I was in the same building. It wasn’t separate. The laundry was in the same building that we were in.

“It was accessed down the stairs. We didn’t have to go outside. It was the same nuns. Everything was the same. The women slept in a room next to us. We worked in the same laundry, side by side, and were shown how to do the work by them.

“If I wasn’t admitted to a laundry, then why the hell was I working in it? The only thing different about it was it was given a different name. I could not believe it,” she said.

When she contacted the Department of Justice, the logic used to explain why she was not entitled to anything for the time she worked in the laundry was even more bizarre.

“My conversation with the women in the Department of Justice was: ‘Are you for real? It was clear as day that I worked in the laundry’. Then after a while they came back and were saying: ‘We do realise and recognise that, yes, you did work in the laundry but you can’t have access to the scheme because you weren’t admitted to the laundry.

“I just thought: ‘Oh my God, are they really saying this’. It’s a name, it’s literally a name. And I have to fight to prove it? That’s how ridiculous it all is.”

Karen’s journey to this point began when she was ordered into the back of a car by a nun and a social care woman in 1972.

Her mother had had a brain haemorrhage some years earlier and her father was struggling to cope with five children to look after and a job to hold down.

“I was walking back from a pal’s house and they pulled up and they said: ‘Right, you get in the car’.

“There was me, my sister and my friend and they took me in the car but didn’t take them.

“I was taken up to the house and I don’t even remember packing a bag or anything.

“I was then driven across Dublin from Deans Grange Road to Drumcondra

[location of High Park Magdalene Laundry and An Grianán] which I had never been in.

“I didn’t know where I was going. I was then driven into this convent with a big

driveway up to it — a big gated, walled convent. I was introduced to Sr Columba who was at that time in charge of An Grianán.

Karen Busher.

“I was brought into this common room with these other teenage girls and was introduced around but still, no one was telling me what was going on, why I am there, how long I am going to be there, what the purpose of all this is.

“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. As a 14-year-old, you just accept it. You don’t think to ask I suppose. That was it really.

“In all the years, no one has ever, ever explained why I was there.”

Karen’s days took on a simple routine in the 18 months or so that followed.

After breakfast, she and the other girls attended class until lunchtime. Unlike her normal schooling, which she had been removed from, in An Grianán, there was no curriculum.

She was taught basic secretarial skills like typing, how to correctly lay out a letter and how to apply for a job. After lunch, all the girls worked in the Laundry.

“We used to do the uniforms for Mountjoy Prison, you know all the denim stuff. That had to be pressed on the big industrial presses and things like that. They used to be boil-washed in these huge big metal washing machines and spun dry.

“You had to move them from the washing machines to the spin dryers. We used to do silly things like write notes and put them in the pockets of the uniforms along the lines of: ‘We are prisoners here as well’ you know’.”

Karen has no date for when she left An Grianán. She knows she was in paid employment some 18 months later.

Over 40 years later, she is still waiting for justice.

‘It shouldn’t have come to this, frankly’

It has been just over a week since Ombudsman Peter Tyndall published his scathing report into how the Department of Justice has administered the Magdalene Laundries redress scheme.

Yet, he is not yet satisfied. He won’t be satisfied until all his recommendations are accepted by the department and all the women entitled to redress are allowed to access the scheme.

His report found that survivors suffered a “clear injustice” by a department which used an “overly narrow” interpretation of the scheme to deny a whole cohort of women access to compensation they are entitled to.

The department had refused these women access to redress, claiming they were not resident in one of the 12 institutions covered by the scheme.

Although it did not deny these women worked in laundries, the fact they were not “directly admitted” to one of the 12 institutions but rather through other units attached to or located on the same site as the laundries was used as a reason to refuse them redress.

The department continues to argue that these units were entirely separate institutions and that, as some of them were included in the Residential Institutions Redress Board, this would raise issues of double compensation.

Speaking to the Irish Examiner in the aftermath of the report, the ombudsman said his office spent months trying to come to an agreement with the department but faced an “entrenched and intransigent position”.

“Generally, in our dealing with government departments, you can have a very robust discussion and you can disagree but we normally reach a point where they accept that something needs to be changed and they change it.

“This one was different in that we got such an entrenched and intransigent position — particularly given the public concern about it and the formal apology.

"So you are glad to have been able to do something for these women but we won’t really be happy until the matter is properly concluded with their admission to the scheme.”

The ombudsman’s investigation of the department’s administration of the scheme was launched in December 2016, after a nine-month engagement with the department which failed to bring the sides closer together.

“So up until that point, we would have still preferred our normal course of action in these matters.

“It is to try and find justice for people where we have identified maladministration and not necessarily to go through the formal process of having an investigation and a report.

“If we can obtain justice for people without going through the whole process then we will do so. In this instance, the department was not prepared to move its position further.”

The investigation found the department was overly reliant on evidence supplied by religious congregations “to the exclusion of other evidence” when wrongly refusing some women access to redress. The personal testimony of survivors was only considered “as a last resort”.

Mr Tyndall said the investigation found that, contrary to the claims of the department, the units that many of the women were admitted to and lived in were, in reality “one and the same institution” as the laundries.

Magdalene laundries report.

“They were eating the same dinners, they were going down the same stairs to the laundry. The distinctions between the institutions were artificial. The women should have been admitted. That was our conclusion.”

Mr Tyndall also hit out at the department’s and the minister’s assertion that some women would receive double compensation — stating that it is “simply not true”.

“It’s adding insult to injury. That’s the point. It’s worth nailing this again because ministers still repeat it, presumably on foot of briefing from the department. The fact is that the Residential Redress Scheme was to address a different wrong. So even if you had access to both, you wouldn’t be twice compensated for the same injustice.

“That’s the first point. The second point is that that scheme is closed and many of these women didn’t access it. So to say they would be getting double payment simply is not true. Many of them didn’t get any payment,” he said.

While he praised the level of assistance and access granted by the department, its reliance on the evidence, and sometimes just the word, of the congregations was a key failure.

“For example, in some of the disputed evidence about length of time working in a laundry, the argument was made that someone had a continuous employment history but when we looked at the records, it was clear that they didn’t.

“There were gaps in the employment history so it was more likely that what that woman had said was correct rather than the assumption that had been made. I think it was a lack of thoroughness rather than any malice or anything else,” he said.

The UN Committee Against Torture has now been notified of the ombudsman’s findings and recommendations. However, according to Mr Tyndall, a solution should have been found long before now.

“It shouldn’t have come to this, frankly. At some point, the will should have been there to set aside a position that was increasingly unsustainable and do the right thing”.

Institutions were ‘one and the same’

Central to the ombudsman investigation was evidence uncovered by the Irish Examiner in June 2015 — namely that the information that An Grianán training centre and High Park Magdalene laundry in Drumcondra in Dublin were “one and the same thing” was uncovered by the HSE in 2012.

So how did information relating to An Grianán led to a full formal investigation into the Magdalene redress scheme?

It all started with the determination of two former residents of An Grianán deciding to go to the High Court to fight a decision by the Department of Justice to exclude them from the scheme.

In June, the High Court ruled that the women were denied fair procedures in how that decision was reached.

They were denied access to the redress scheme by the Department of Justice because they had been admitted to An Grianán and not to the laundry directly.

The view of the department — and which was publicly stated on numerous occasions by then justice minister Frances Fitzgerald — is that An Grianán was a separate entity to the High Park laundry which served a different purpose.

The Government also repeatedly defended the exclusion of the training centre from the scheme by stating it was included in the Residential Institutions Redress Board scheme (RIRB).

All women admitted to An Grianán were entitled to full compensation for the entire duration of their stay under that scheme and therefore they would be compensated twice.

After the Department of Justice refused the women on appeal in June and October 2015, proceedings were lodged.

Separately, in June 2015, the ombudsman upheld a decision by the Department of Justice to refuse three other women who were in An Grianán access to the scheme.

“While the fact that you worked in the laundry attached to St Mary’s Refuge is not in dispute, I do not see anywhere in the file where there is any dispute regarding the fact that you were admitted to An Grianán and not St Mary’s Refuge.”

“Therefore, as you were not admitted to one of the 12 listed institutions, I do not see a basis for concluding that there was maladministration in the team’s decision not to approve your application on the basis that you did not qualify for funding under the scheme,” he said.

The ombudsman’s decision came on June 2, 2015 — just two days before the Irish Examiner revealed that evidence that An Grianán training centre and the High Park Magdalene laundry were “one and the same thing” was uncovered by the HSE in 2012.

Draft minutes of a meeting held by the McAleese committee investigating the Magdalene Laundries on the same day the HSE evidence was uncovered indicate that, as An Grianán was previously included in the RIRB scheme, it would not be examined.

The three women sought a judicial review of the ombudsman’s decision and in December 2015, as part of a settlement, the ombudsman agreed to re-examine the cases.

By April 2016, the Ombudsman has completely changed its position on the matter and had formed the view that An Grianán residents should be eligible for the Magdalene redress scheme.

Documents obtained by the Irish Examiner in June of this year then revealed an extraordinary nine-month dispute between the ombudsman and the Department of Justice over the latter’s interpretation of An Grianán and the redress scheme itself.

Magdalene laundries memorial plaque.

It was to culminate with the ombudsman stating, in December of last year, that it had no choice but to launch an investigation into whether the scheme has been administered fairly. The results of that investigation were published two weeks ago.

The row kicked off on April 18, 2016, when a senior investigator at the Office of the Ombudsman, Tom Morgan, wrote to assistant secretary at the Department of Justice and Equality Jimmy Martin stating that the latter’s decision to refuse a Ms McG access to the scheme “should be reviewed”.

He stated this should be done as the department’s assertion that An Grianán was a “specific and separate” institution from High Park laundry that had been dealt with by the Residential Institutions Redress Board was “not supported by the evidence”.

“Having considered the facts of this case again, we cannot agree with this contention and do not believe it is supported by the evidence. From the information available, it appears that any division between An Grianán and St Mary’s laundry can only be considered quite artificial and did not reflect the reality of everyday life there,” states the letter.

Mr Morgan stated that while alterations were carried out in 1971 partitioning off a second floor of the laundry, this was “not enough to show that separate entity was created”.

He also refers to the HSE evidence uncovered by the Irish Examiner in support of this view.

Mr Morgan also points out that while the woman (Ms McG) received an award from the RIRB, such women are not excluded from the Magdalene redress scheme.

A lengthy response was issued by Mr Martin at the department on May 4, in which he accepts that, as An Grianán was not a separate entity until 1971, Ms McG would be admitted to the scheme.

However, he argued that there was “strong evidence” that they were separate institutions after this point by the very fact that it was eligible for the RIRB and those in the laundry were not. He also states that An Grianán was a certified place of detention for remand and probation and was an approved residential children’s home by the Department of Health.

Mr Martin also states that the HSE memo stating that An Grianán and High Park laundry were “one and the same thing” did not “in any way constitute acceptance by the HSE that St Mary’s and An Grianán were one and the same”.

He also took issue with the ombudsman’s views that women who received a payment under the RIRB could access the scheme pointing out that the terms of reference make it clear that institutions covered under the RIRB are not included in the redress scheme and that it would take a decision of government to alter this.

This began a series of lengthy correspondence between the ombudsman and the department with neither side willing to budge from its position.

In June 10, Mr Morgan informed Mr Martin that the ombudsman had conducted a review of 30 complaints from women that had applied to the scheme and decided that 13 “warrant further consideration”.

By July 15, the ombudsman’s annoyance with the Department of Justice’s position becomes clear and the first mention of a possible investigation of the scheme is raised.

Mr Morgan points out that no decision of Government is required as all of the women under review by the ombudsman had worked in one of the 12 listed institutions by dint of the fact they all worked in the High Park laundry.

However, the threat of an investigation did little to sway the department and it asked for any evidence of maladministration to be forwarded on.

On September 30, Mr Morgan replied outlining a case where the ombudsman felt it was “unclear” why the department relied on a specific date of discharge for a Ms R when the evidence pointed towards another date.

He said the case amounted to “prima facie evidence” that the decision to refuse Ms R’s application for the whole of the period she worked in a laundry“may have been taken on irrelevant grounds, based on erroneous or incomplete information, improperly discriminatory and otherwise contrary to fair or sound administration”.

By November 3, Mr Martin informs the ombudsman’s office that it had sought the advice of the attorney general on the matter and simply wished to “reiterate” what had previously been argued in relation to the status of An Grianán.

Mr Martin also states that it is the view of the department that the ombudsman is acting outside of its remit, as including residents of An Grianán to the redress scheme amounts to adding an institution to the scheme.

The ombudsman launched an investigation into the scheme the following month.

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