A moral obligation

The Government’s recent tough talk that religious orders should pay compensation to Magdalene survivors is at odds with its stance on the McAleese report, writes Conall Ó Fátharta

IT HAS been instructive in recent days to hear Justice Minister Alan Shatter lay down the gauntlet to the religious orders who ran the Magdalene Laundries.

Mr Shatter spoke of how the Government, the public, and the survivors expect that the Mercy Sisters, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, the Sisters of Charity, and the Good Shepherd Sisters should cough up and contribute towards the compensation scheme.

It was remarkably tough talking from a Government that lauded the McAleese report and which Taoiseach Enda Kenny himself praised as a “document of truth”.

The report, published last February, gave a remarkably benign account of the laundry system and presented a picture wildly at odds with the horror stories of the Magdalene Laundries which we have read for decades.

Instead, Martin McAleese’s report found that “the ill treatment, physical punishment, and abuse that was prevalent in the industrial school system was not something they experienced in the Magdalene Laundries”. Instead, it was a “rigid and uncompromising regime of physically demanding work and prayer with many instances of verbal censure”.

Mr McAleese even went on to say that some women had “confused” their negative experiences in the industrial schools with their time at the laundries.

The report stated that anybody who came to the homes via the State, from social services and the criminal justice system, were not locked up indef-initely but were aware why they were there and when they would leave.

If this is the view the Government accepts, one wonders why it feels these orders now have a “moral obligation” to compensate the women incarcerated in the institutions.

Given Mr McAleese’s account, the decision of the four religious orders to refuse to pay any money towards a compensations scheme should have come as no surprise. The religious orders can simply point to the Government-approved McAleese narrative and feel they have no obligation to pay towards the fund.

Mr Shatter, who has been forthright in stating that the orders have an ethical obligation to offer money towards the scheme, had been effusive in his support of the McAleese report.

In fact, he has been determined to defend its credibility from all comers, including the UN Committee Against Torture, which criticised the report as “incomplete” and lacking “many elements of a prompt, independent, and thorough investigation”.

Speaking in the Dáil, Mr Shatter brushed off any suggestions that the McAleese report was not the most definitive and accurate account of what occurred in the Magdalene Laundries.

“The Irish Government is satisfied that the McAleese report is an independent, comprehensive, factual account of these institutions,” he said. “It also showed that many of the preconceptions about these institutions were not supported by the facts.”

If that is the case, then Mr Shatter concurs that they were not abusiveinstitutions in the main. It therefore seems strange that he should now expect the orders to pay compensation to these women. However, he clearly does.

“There will be great disappointment within Cabinet if the congregations fail to make a contribution. I think, perhaps, the taxpayers of Ireland would expect that they make a contribution,” he said.

The unpalatable fact for the Government is that the very report they gleefully welcomed is now being used against them by the religious orders who feel it largely vindicated their view that they were offering refuge for women in difficult circumstances.

This view can be — and is — being argued vehemently, but by hitching itself to the McAleese wagon, the Government now has no option but to ride it out.

Of course, the criticisms of the McAleese report came thick and fast upon its publication. In a very strongly worded criticism of the McAleese report last month, vice chair of the UN Committee Against Torture, Felice Gaer, said the inquiry was not independent and failed adequately to examine allegations of physical abuse, forced labour, and arbitrary detention.

She also called on the Government to ensure that “that there is a full inquiry into all complaints of abuse”.

These criticisms and those of groups like Justice For Magdalenes (JFM) have all been swiftly batted back or ignored by the Government.

That serious physical abuse took place in Magdalene Laundries had already been established as fact and was presumed to not have been at issue when the inter-departmental committee was set up to inquire into State involvement.

The Ryan report dedicated an entire chapter to abuse in Magdalene Laundries and is clear in its opinion that physical abuse was routine. This is not to mention the swathes of testimony women have given down through the years.

From the beginning of Martin McAleese’s report, the attitude to the religious congregations is clear. The very first reference to the orders in the entire report is in the 12th paragraph, where Mr McAleese speaks of the “profound hurt” experienced by the Sisters in the way the laundries have been portrayed. Meanwhile, the attitude to survivors in the report speaks of the “confusion” they feel about that period of their lives.

It is worth noting that 118 women spoke to the committee. Of these, 58 are still in the care of the religious orders, indicating they have spent much of their lives institutionalised.

To supply a narrative outlining virtually no physical abuse, where half of the women interviewed remain in the care of the order, is questionable to say the least.

Furthermore, JFM alone submitted around 800 pages of survivor test-imony, obtained under strict academic, ethical guidelines and which it offered to have sworn. This testimony from more than 20 women is packed with accounts of serious and prolonged physical abuse. Not a single line of these testimonies appears in the report.

The headline statistics in the McAleese report are also worthy of a closer look. One statistic in particular, which is cited by politicians, is that 61% of the women in Magdalene Laundries were there for a year or under.

However, less cited is that the report elsewhere states that the duration of stay is known for only 6,151 of 14,607 admissions — just 42%.

Indeed the 14,607 women listed as being resident in Magdalene Laundries does not include the Galway and Dún Laoghaire laundries as well as 762 “legacy cases”. The executive sum-mary states that the route of entry is known for 8,025 admissions — just 54.9% of all 14,607 known admissions, including repeat admissions.

On the face of it, it seems the Government has little options available to it to force the religious orders to play ball by contributing to the Quirke compensations scheme.

However, in his report, Mr Justice John Quirke provided them with an insight into the key fear held by the four orders. He points out that religious orders, in their role of “service providers”, fear that by making payments to Magdalene women, they will lose state funding they receive for providing care to these women.

If the four orders, which earned almost €300m in property deals during the boom, refuse to contribute to a scheme to assist a small number of elderly women who washed clothes for them for decades without pay, then why should the State fund their services?

The next time the religious orders mention they are caring for the women now in their care, people should remember that the taxpayer is funding the religious to provide this care.

More on this topic

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Waterford Institute of Technology launches online resource on Magdalene Laundry historyWaterford Institute of Technology launches online resource on Magdalene Laundry history

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