When they sent me to the sisters
For the way men looked at me
Branded as a jezebel
I knew I was not bound for heaven
I’d be cast in shame
into the Magdalene laundries.
-Joni Mitchell, The Magdalene Laundries
/span>Irish Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse released a long-awaited report today. The report, in five volumes of 2,500 pages, took a decade of investigation to produce, and catalogues 70 years of systemic child abuse by Catholic religious orders, of at least 35,000 victims.
The Irish State colluded with the religious authorities to cover up child abuse that was “endemic” in Catholic-run schools and care homes for 70 years, a devastating report concluded today.
The Child Abuse Commission catalogued sexual, physical and emotional abuse inflicted on 35,000 disadvantaged, neglected and abandoned children by both religious and lay staff over the last 70 years.
Among the religious orders whose work was investigated were the Sisters of Mercy, responsible for the largest number of children’s institutions, the Christian Brothers, which ran schools for boys aged 10 to 16, the Presentation Sisters and the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge. Several are expected to be explicitly criticized by the inquiry, headed by Justice Sean Ryan.
The first head of the Commission, Ms Justice Mary Laffoy resigned in protest at a lack of co-operation by the Irish department of education. It was set up in 1999 when the allegations first surfaced.
1999 may have been when Ireland finally started to address the situation but allegations had “surfaced” long before that. People had heard these stories for years.The last Magdalene laundry wasn’t shut down till 1996. Yes, 1996. My ex lived in Ireland for a couple of years in the late 1980s. I first heard about the laundries and industrial schools from her. I remember being incredulous, naively asking why, if it was so well-known, no one “did anything” about it. She just shrugged, “It’s Ireland. It’s the Church.”
Many of the institutions housed abandoned or neglected children, but courts also sent those guilty of truancy and petty crime. Some also housed disabled children. Unmarried mothers were also sent to institutions known as Magdalene Laundries, many by their own families, where they were forced into hard physical work, usually washing and ironing clothes, and lived in spartan, prison-like conditions.
“Those places were the Irish gulags for women. When you went inside their doors you left behind your dignity, identity and humanity. We were locked up, had no outside contacts and got no wages, although we worked 10 hours a day, six days a week, 52 weeks a year. What else is that but slavery? And to think that they were doing all this in the name of a loving God! I used to tell God I hated him.”
“Those places” were the Magdalene laundries: convents throughout Ireland that contained huge washing workhouses run by nuns, which were originally set up in the early 19th century as a refuge for prostitutes. A hundred years later they had become prisons to which Irish Catholic girls and young women “in moral danger” could be sent by their parish priest – the term covered anyone from single mothers (who had often become pregnant as a result of rape or incest) to girls who were simply high-spirited or “bold.”
Many never saw their families or the outside world again but lived their entire lives behind walls until they were buried in unmarked communal graves. They, in their tens of thousands, are “the disappeared” of Ireland.