There was a stark contrast yesterday between the horrific stories we have heard over many years from the survivors of the Magdalene laundries and the report that was published yesterday.
The committee found no evidence that unmarried girls had babies there or that many of the girls were prostitutes. It found no evidence of torture or physical abuse. Martin McAleese has gone so far as to say that some of the women had “confused” their negative experiences in the industrial schools with their time at the laundries. The committee also stated that anybody who came to the homes via the State, from social services and the criminal justice system, were not locked up indefinitely but were aware why they were there and when they would leave.
This is entirely at odds with evidence, provided by Justice for Magdalenes and Magdalene Survivors Together, of women sent to laundries by the courts and who remained there for the rest of their lives.
The report instead said it was the girls whose families sent them to the nuns or who came from industrial schools that were “abandoned”, unaware of when they’d ever leave the laundry.
Advocacy groups for survivors welcomed the admission of the State’s involvement in sending and keeping women at the laundries, but many feel only part of the story has been told.
The report notes how 10,012 women spent time at laundries between 1922 and 1996, but there were 14,607 admissions. The report suggests these women may have voluntarily returned to the “refuge” having left. Up to 61% of the women stayed less than a year with the nuns, it states.
The report did not in any way question the religious orders for running a cruel regime which had long psychological effects on thousands of women.
Remarkably, in Mr McAleese’s first reference to the religious orders in the report, he acknowledged they had “experienced profound hurt” in recent years by the way the laundries have been portrayed.
The report sought to provide an explanation for women not being called by name in the laundries but by number — for example, number 30. According to the congregations, this was “to protect privacy”.
The orders have been criticised from many sides for failing to provide records to survivors’ advocacy groups. The committee yesterday defended this, saying the congregations felt “a strong moral responsibility” to “protect the privacy of the women”.
“The ill treatment, physical punishment, and abuse that was prevalent in the industrial school system was not something they experienced in the Magdalene laundries,” Mr McAleese wrote. Instead, he said, it was a “rigid and uncompromising regime of physically demanding work and prayer with many instances of verbal censure”.
However, as James Smith of Justice for Magdalenes pointed out, it was not Mr McAleese’s job to ascertain if the institutions were abusive as this fact has never been in question.
“The Ryan Report acknowledges that they were abusive and exploitative. The then minister for education in 2002, as part of the discussion surrounding the Residential Institutions Redress Act, also outlined that the laundries were abusive. The committee was charged with determining the extent of State involvement,” he said.
There were many elements of the report that surprised survivors and observers. Despite nuns long being recognised as phenomenally astute businesswomen, the laundries weren’t commercially successful, the report says. Another major surprise was the fact that the State had inspected the factories.
The Taoiseach chose not to say sorry yesterday and only one of the religious congregations chose to issue any kind of an apology to the Magdalene survivors. On reading this report and its somewhat benign account of the laundry system, they can claim they have little to apologise for.