The determination of a 70-year-old Irish woman to get justice for the abuse she suffered as a child in Magdalene Laundries is likely to have far-reaching implications for survivors of such institutions all over the world.
The UN’s Committee Against Torture has agreed to hear the case of Elizabeth Coppin, concerning her years working in three of Ireland’s Magdalene laundries, two in Cork and one in Waterford.
Her “crime” was to be born to an unmarried, teenage mother, in Co Kerry in 1946.
She was committed to Nazareth House industrial school in Tralee, run by the Sisters of Mercy, when she was barely two years old, under an order to be held there until her 16th birthday.
When she turned 14, the nuns transferred her to St Vincent’s Magdalene Laundry in Peacock Lane, Cork.
In her submission to the UN, Ms Coppin “alleges that she was subjected to arbitrary detention, servitude, and forced labour, without pay, for six days a week in all three of the Magdalene Laundries and that the State party was complicit in her arbitrary detention and mistreatment”.
Justice has been a long time coming.
It is 22 years since Elizabeth walked into a garda station to file a complaint. There is no evidence that it was ever investigated.
A year later, in 1999, she filed a civil action against the Sisters of Mercy, who ran the industrial school, and two other orders — the Religious Sisters of Charity and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd — who ran two of the notorious Magdalene laundries.
Her case was dismissed by the High Court, on the grounds that too much time had passed.
This time, in what amounts to a test case for all survivors of the laundries, the main target of her complaint will not be the nuns, but Ireland itself.
According to the 2013 McAleese Report on the Magdalene Laundries, thousands of inmates of industrial schools, including Ms Coppin, were sent to laundries directly from State care.
Those who escaped were often returned by the gardaí, even those who had never committed any crime.
The report revealed that the State gave lucrative contracts to the 12 Magdalene Laundries across the country.
The laundries first opened in 1922, and the last one did not close until 1996.
Despite official apologies and compensation paid under the Magdalene Restorative Justice Scheme, there has never been an acknowledgment that the detention and brutal treatment of the survivors amounted to torture.
Even if Ms Coppin is not successful in her case, she will have done herself, and the hundreds of other survivors of the Magdalene Laundries, a great service by raising awareness, once again, of the horror of those institutions.
It will also, hopefully, propel the Government to publish the final report into mother-and-baby homes.
The long-awaited report from the Mother and Baby Home Investigation Commission was confirmed to be on schedule as recently as January 7, but now survivors must wait until June 26.
Justice delayed is justice denied.