Given the chance to highlight victims’ stories, the McAleese committee sided with powerful institutions once more, writes Simon McGarr
THE entire report of the McAleese committee is torn by two rival narratives. On one hand, it is presented with the accounts given by religious orders and State agencies of their actions. On the other, it is confronted by the first-hand, oral, and written evidence of the women who were incarcerated in the Magdalene system.
The thrust of the report is to consistently prefer one form of evidence over the other, prompting the UN Committee Against Torture to ask: “Was survivor testimony given a lesser rank or status in this inquiry than written records of the State and the religious orders?”
The executive summary ends with the following assessment of the first-hand evidence — presented in oral submission and by way of 800 pages of survivor testimony submitted by the Justice for Magdalenes group — by the women who witnessed and experienced these institutions: “Although identifying common patterns in these stories, the committee did not make specific findings on this issue, in light of the small sample of women available.”
For the McAleese committee, evidence from women is always just “stories”.
Compare that to the committee’s treatment of evidence from religious orders: “The committee was wholly satisfied as to the authenticity and reliability of the registers and accompanying electronic records of the religious congregations.”
But, at the same time: “The committee was conscious that there are some gaps in available information, which means that the merged list does not represent all admissions to the Magdalene laundries.”
This is an oblique admission that the statistics provided by the religious orders are based on such incomplete and flawed data that they are essentially meaningless.
As a result of trying to ride both these horses, the report comes up with a nicely citable hard figure of 11,198 Magdalene cases, before later admitting that figure is based on fragmentary evidence.
In chapter two, the committee concedes it went outside its brief to present the argument made by the religious orders as to the profit the laundries did (or, it is claimed, did not) make. It says it did so because it was in the public interest. It does not explain how it came to this assessment of the public interest.
However, the committee decided its brief — or the public interest — did not oblige it to decide who was liable for anything. It described the first-hand evidence of the women who had been in the Magdalene institutions as merely “input to the process”.
This distance was maintained throughout. Only one member of the 10-strong committee, Martin McAleese, ever met with any women who worked in the Magdalene institutions.
Take the famous photograph of the women from Seán McDermott Street Laundry being marched under police guard.
The committee, recognising the power of the image, specifically contacted a priest and a Garda visible in the photograph and report their explanation that the police just happened to be marching in the same May parade “in veneration of Our Lady and for no other reason” at the same time.
However, there is no reference to any attempt by the report’s authors to find any of the women pictured and ask them what their experience was, and their voices remain silenced.
Similarly, chapter 12 contains 150 paragraphs of evidence about the working conditions experienced in these institutions from the government, the religious orders, retired inspectors, and, in one case, the manager of a laundry. A single paragraph (paragraph 152) makes reference to a recollection from one of the women themselves.
It is unfortunate that the report’s authors chose not to include anything more of the women’s evidence when they had 800 pages of survivor testimony which they simply left out.
They also showed no sign of attempting to reconcile conflicting evidence from the religious orders and the State.
This all leads to the final two chapters of the report. Chapter 19, nearly 1,000 pages in, says it intends to address the living and working conditions of the women who lived in the laundries.
However, right from the chapter’s introduction, the report’s authors refuse to say that what the women say is true — “The committee did not make specific findings in relation to this issue” — and drew on only a fraction of the evidence available to them, while giving the State and religious officials space to contradict and excuse the women’s account of their treatment.
Contrast this with chapter 20, where the McAleese report authors explicitly go beyond their terms of reference in order to set out figures prepared by an accountant, hired by the religious orders and working with such records as they provide him with — records which are presented in such a way as to render them impossible to assess — in order to deny that the laundries made a profit.
However, perhaps the best comment on how seriously we should treat those figures is given in an anecdote from the archives recounted in chapter 14 B.
We learn that, in June 1973, the Department of Health offered to pay money to the Seán McDermott Street Laundry to make up any loss it made. All it had to do was to open its accounts. Strangely, it appears this offer was never taken up. The department records “it appears from your minutes it is difficult to isolate an appropriate figure”.
Offered free money if it could prove it was running at a loss, the order preferred to keep matters to itself.
After the McAleese report was published, the State told the UN Committee Against Torture that the report’s authors had “established the facts”. Having read the report and considered that assertion, the UN asked Ireland a simple question in November 2013: “Please explain why the State party considers it has obtained all the relevant evidence and facts?”
For anyone reading the McAleese report, that question still stands unanswered.
Simon McGarr is a solicitor with McGarr solicitors in Dublin
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