Catholic League President: Brutal Treatment of Women at Ireland’s Infamous Magdalene Laundries Is “All A Lie”

By Anna Merlan | 16 July 2013
Village Voice

Imagine if you were abducted and held prisoner against your will: if your possessions were taken, your hair was cut; you were forced to wear a uniform and answer to a new name.

So, what’s perpetually aggrieved Catholic League president Bill Donohue mad about this week? Is it gay people? Is it the “bizarre” notion of gay people getting married? Is it all those gay priests sneaking into the Catholic Church (who are the real problem over there, in Donohue’s mind anyway, rather than all that child abuse)?

The man has a bit of a theme, is what we’re saying. But Donohue switched gears yesterday, taking time away from his busy schedule of gay-hating and light art criticism to declare, bizarrely, that Ireland’s infamous Magdalene Laundries were “a myth” and “a lie.”

In case you’re not up on your Irish history, the Magadalene Laundries were workhouses where women and girls were incarcerated, starting from the late 18th century and continuing till the middle of the 20th. Inhabitants of the laundries were referred to as “penitents.” Contrary to popular belief, one that was helped along by a Hollywood movie about the laundries, they weren’t solely meant for unmarried pregnant women or prostitutes; some of their inhabitants were also neglected children, some as young as nine or 10, referred by social service agencies. Women with minor criminal convictions were also sent to the laundries. And some of their inhabitants were simply desperately poor and voluntarily committed themselves. (You can see a few surviving photos of a typical laundry and its inhabitants here.)

Most women, though, had approximately zero say in going to these institutions; once they arrived, their lives were characterized by brutally hard work, rigid restrictions, spartan living conditions, humiliation, hunger, cold, and in some cases, an early grave. The survivors advocacy group Justice for Magdalenes writes, “These women were denied freedom of movement, they were never paid for their labour, and they were denied their given names and identities.”

The interior of the now-derelict Sisters of Our Lady of Charity Magdalene Laundry, in Dublin, Ireland, on Feb. 5, 2013. An expert panel has found that Ireland should be legally responsible for workhouses run by Catholic nuns that once kept thousands of women and teenage girls against their will in unpaid, forced labor. (Photo: Julien Behal / AP)

These types of institutions were found throughout England and parts of the United States too, but Ireland really led the pack; between 1922, when the Irish state was founded, and1966 1996, when the last laundry closed, an estimated 10,000 women passed through their doors.

Although some of these women were sent away by their families, a recent report from the Irish Parliament that about a quarter of the laundry residents were sent there by the state. Last month, the Irish government agreed to pay up to 58 million euros in restitution to laundry survivors.

In case you’re wondering where Donohue’s stake lies in all of this: the laundries were run by Catholic nuns. Four different orders operated laundries, including The Mercy Sisters, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, the Sisters of Charity, and the Good Shepherd Sisters. (All of those orders, by the way, recently declined to help pay restitution to the survivors.)

It’s a dark chapter in history for Ireland, for women, and for the Catholic Church. But in a “special report” released yesterday, titled “Myths of the Magdalene Laundries,” Donohue argues, basically, that the laundries really weren’t all that bad, and even if they were, it wasn’t the nuns’ fault.

“[T]here was no holocaust, and there was no gulag,” he writes. “No one was murdered. No one was imprisoned, nor forced against her will to stay. There was no slave labor. Not a single woman was sexually abused by a nun. Not one. It’s all a lie.”

It’s true that the nuns don’t appear to have wantonly sexually abused or murdered the women incarcerated in the laundries. But the claim that there was no physical abuse whatsoever is, to put it mildly, controversial. As evidence, Donohue points to one place: a report by Martin McAleese, the chairman of a committee set up by the Irish government to investigate the laundries. The McAleese report found that most women weren’t physically or sexually abused in the laundries; some women even recounted positive experiences there.

But the McAleese report has been criticized by the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT), which was concerned that the investigation wasn’t particularly thorough or independent. As they wrote in a letter to the UN’s Irish representative: “[T]he committee has received information from several sources highlighting that the McAleese Report, despite its length and detail, did not conduct a fully independent investigation into allegations of arbitrary detention, forced labour or ill-treatment.”

But the report is enough for Donohue, who also writes: “Even by today’s standards in the West, these conditions are hardly draconian; in the past they were considered pedestrian. And consider the timeline: fully 82 percent of the incidents reported took place before 1970.” Beatings were just in vogue back then, he adds: “Keep in mind that corporal punishment was not uncommon in many homes (and in many parts of the world), never mind in facilities that housed troubled persons.”

“Troubled persons” like nine-year-old girls and poor women, that is.

Donohue will allow that the working conditions in the laundries were “harsh,” and that they included “standing for long hours, constantly washing laundry in cold water, and using heavy irons for many hours.” But doing all that for years on end, unpaid, unable to leave, doesn’t strike him as slave labor.

“Drudgery? Yes,” he writes. “But if this is ‘torture,’ then it is safe to say that millions have suffered this fate without ever knowing they did.”

In the end, Donohue sees any criticism of the laundries as evidence of vicious, widespread anti-Catholic prejudice. He writes: “The horror stories associated with the Magdalene Laundries cannot withstand scrutiny, but they will continue to have a life of their own. That’s the way prejudice works. Unwarranted negative attitudes, especially when employed about a familiar whipping boy, are hard to shake.”

It takes a special sort of mind to look at reports of forced labor and see “unwarranted negative attitudes.” But clearly Donohue’s got what it takes.

Slave Labour: Magdalene Laundries disgraced Irish Catholic women

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8 COMMENTS

  1. The Magdelene Laundries were a form of slavery. They weren't 'incarcerated' there was no trial, there were no charges, they were flasely imprisoned and used as slaves and, like slaves, were buried in unmarked graves. The Catholic church treats women like garbage. Time to acknowledge reality.

  2. They can say & report what they think & believe, but these laundries did exist, and women & children were used & abused by the so called Christians. The women were brainwashed, threatened, and treatment that you can only imagine. for what? one cheap labour, control, money, and religious people who were frustrated, and said it was in the name of god, & religion.

  3. My name is Patricia Noel I was placed in a good Shepherd convent in the USA in Baltimore Maryland in the early 50s when I was 12 years old, I am now 78 years of age. I lost both of my parents when I was seven and made a ward of the state. Before I was put into the convent I had lived my life in homes foster homes and institutions. Most of them were pretty bad places. I had no idea how bad things could get until I was put in the House of Good Shepherd's in the care of the Good Shepherd nuns which to this day I consider monsters. I have never had any dealings with nuns in any other order then Good Shepherd nuns, so I can only speak of what I saw with my own eyes first hand with these monsters, I saw you girls punished in the most sadistic ways. I was a non-catholic, I was forced to take religion and study the catechism and forced to go to mass and forced to say their prayers and forced to get down on my knees before them and put my head down and beg for their forgiveness. And when I retaliated and threw a pencil at the nun The monsters held me down and shaved all my hair off. I hate them till this day. I could go on and on about what happened in that ungodly place. But it makes me very emotional and sick when I talk are even think about it. I will finish by saying this no matter what religion you are do not trust those monsters with you children never no never I repeat do not trust those monsters with your children !!!!!
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  4. Bill Donohue is a disgusting pig. I had the utter dishonor of experiencing this sorry excuse for a human being up close and personal over two months ago and I still cannot wash the smell of his nastiness off of me. Yes Bill Donohue first tried to get me arrested for hate crimes against him. See he is tricky. His Catholic League website where he posts his crap cannot be commented on, he makes sure of that. Same with the Facebook site he runs for the Catholic League. So the ONLY option to confront this excuser for pedophiles and abusers, is via phone. Thing is, this piece of work will NOT answer his phone so you have to leave a message. So I left him messages that told him off from the perspective of a survivor of priest rape, mind, soul and heart torture. I told him off and I told him he would suffer an eternity just like in my nightmares of being gang raped in hell by priests, bishops, etc and the demons of hell.

    Well they charged me with three counts of harrassment and yes I got found guilty by a judge in a district court, but we immediately appealed it to a jury trial. Next up a jury trial of the State v Frank LaFerriere for three counts of harrassment against Bill Donohue for his attacks against us priest abuse survivors. Well I cannot wait this time….we may just have a special guest testifying in my behalf that Bill Pig Face Donohue does NOT want in the courtroom.

    Oh and the added bonus? Bill just got hit with a defamation lawsuit by a priest abuse survivor he defamed and knowingly lied about. So Karma is a bitch Bill and you are gonna find that out.

  5. Bill Donohue may be right that there were few instances of actual reported physical or sexual abuse perpetrated by nuns but this completely misses the point. God is merciful. There is no mercy in ripping new born babies away from their mothers and locking them up in an institution to work without pay. People like him do the the Church a great disservice by trying to whitewash the indefensible. I was beaten regularly by a Catholic mother who was educated by nuns so I know first hand that the abused became the abuser. The Church needs to be honest about its vile past and have the humility and courage to admit its own wrongdoing. More importantly it needs to root out apologists such as Bill Donohue because people including the many priests and nuns who have covered up for the crimes of the Church are equally as culpable as the actual perpetrators. Like any institution the Church is comprised of humans and wherever human beings operate especially where power is at the centre, there is corruption. This is not and cannot be defended as being in the name of religion or of God. I will hold the Catholic Church in utter contempt until it seeks it own forgiveness from the many people whose lives it has destroyed.

  6. There is so much that I could add to the statement that I have made about The House of Good Shepherds in Baltimore. More or less, we have been called liars. I'll be 80 years old in June. And I would be more than willing to go before any nun, cardinal, bishop, priest or the Pope of Rome and state my case! And tell them what I saw and what I experienced in a Catholic convent! I didn't experience one minute act of kindness from any nun in that place! I still dream of the horrors! As God is my judge, I am telling the truth!

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