Irish state 'played a part' in 70-year abuse of women

Government's role in harsh workhouses run by Roman Catholic church was 'significant', reports Omar Karmi from London

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LONDON //A government panel in Ireland has found "significant" state involvement with workhouses run by the Roman Catholic church that have been singled out for mistreating tens of thousands of women over a period of 70 years.

The panel's report yesterday prompted an immediate but qualified apology from Enda Kenny, the Irish prime minister, who said he was "sorry for the conditions" in which those women had lived.

But during an initial debate in the Irish parliament, he stopped short of offering a full official apology, as had been called for by campaigners, and cautioned against "glib" comments about a report that he said should be studied and would be debated again in two weeks.

Since 2001, the Irish government has conceded that women were abused in the Magdalene laundries but held that, since they were privately run, there was no state responsibility.

In 2011, however, under international pressure, a government committee was charged with investigating the extent of the Irish state's involvement in the laundries, which were run by four religious orders from the early 1920s until 1996.

The 1,000-page McAleese report - named after senator Martin McAleese, who chaired the committee - found that more than a quarter of about 14,000 women the report could confirm had passed through the laundries had done so after state intervention. None were paid for their work.

The panel's report found the state awarded government contracts to the Magdalene laundries without including basic employment rights, thus helping to further a system of "forced labour" contravening its legal obligations.

An estimated 30,000 women worked in the laundries, enduring 12-hour work days of washing and ironing in a working environment described as harsh.

The McAleese report followed a 10-year campaign for justice and compensation by a group of laundry survivors, their relatives and human rights lawyers and activists who formed the Justice for Magdalenes group.

Some of the witness testimony gathered by the group - in a 3,500-page dossier campaigners submitted to Mr McAleese - suggested not only that work was undertaken for government institutions such as the army or state hospitals, but also that the state actively sent women and girls to the laundries as a way of dealing with a variety of societal problems, including sexual abuse at home or by priests.

The Justice for Magdalenes group is pressing for official apologies from the Irish state and the Catholic Church, as well as a compensation for the victims.

Such recommendations fell outside the terms of reference for the committee.

But Mary Lou McDonald, a member of the Irish parliament for Sinn Fein, yesterday said the committee's findings should prompt an official apology from the Irish state which, she said, had "failed these women comprehensively".

The laundries first came to wider public attention in 2003 after a convent sold off part of its land and the remains of 155 people in unmarked graves were exhumed.

The laundries - named after the reformed Biblical prostitute, Mary Magdalene - were originally envisaged as temporary homes for "fallen" women. Records suggest the first such homes first opened in Ireland in 1765.

But they later expanded to include women considered promiscuous, orphaned girls, unmarried mothers, women with mental or learning difficulties and those with no means of subsistence or without a family able or willing to support them.

Exact figures for how many worked at the laundries are hard to come by, with records lost or incomplete. In addition, survivors have said they were stripped of their names and assigned either a letter or a number.

The report found that 15 per cent of those who ended up in the workhouses lived there for more than five years. Police were used to catch and return women who fled. But the committee found no evidence of sexual abuse.

It was also estimated that about 2,000 children born to women who worked at the laundries were given to wealthy families, mostly in North America, for a fee.

There were 10 Magdalene laundries in Ireland following independence in 1922.

They were run by four Roman Catholic orders of nuns: the Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Charity, Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge, and the Good Shepherd Sisters.

The four orders co-operated with the McAleese committee, but have not commented in detail other than, in 2011, calling the laundries "a sad, complex and dark story of Irish society that extends over 150 years".

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