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Dear Cabinet: Magdalene Survivors Need Justice Now

Irish Times, May 02, 2011

The Magdalene Sisters Film
"A scene from Peter Mullans film The Magdalene Sisters. "No representative of Irish society has apologised to these institutional abuse survivors."

OPEN LETTER: The Cabinet is to discuss the legacy of the Magdalene laundries. It is time for an official apology for the abuse meted out there

DEAR MEMBERS of the Cabinet,

On behalf of the Justice for Magdalenes advocacy group, we are writing to solicit your support for survivors of Ireland’s Magdalene laundries. The Cabinet, we understand, is expected to take up this matter.

Almost six months ago, the Irish Human Rights Commission published its assessment of our application for an inquiry, in which we documented human rights violations in the laundry institutions. The assessment recommended that the State “establish a statutory mechanism to investigate the matters advanced by Justice for Magdalenes, and, in appropriate cases, to grant redress where warranted”.

The assessment details the State’s historical failure to adequately protect women and girls from abusive conditions, specifically from wrongful and unlawful detention, inhuman and degrading treatment, and forced labour and servitude. It also recognises the importance of restorative justice for aging and elderly women.

On November 11th, 2010, the then taoiseach Brian Cowen referred the commission’s assessment for review by the attorney general. On March 23rd, 2011, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter announced he was considering “a draft submission for the Government” on the matter. The Cabinet will now decide what happens. We ask you to consider the following.

No representative of Irish society has apologised to these institutional abuse survivors. The laundries were not included in the Residential Institutional Redress Act, 2002. These women were excluded from the Residential Institutions Redress Board. They are the nation’s disappeared, abandoned and shunned in the present as in the past.

For almost two years, Justice for Magdalenes worked with various government departments in advocating for survivors’ needs. In September 2009, the then minister for education, Batt O’Keeffe, rejected our group’s initial proposal for a distinct redress scheme. He asserted that the State “did not refer individuals, nor was it complicit in referring individuals to the laundries”. The previous government argued that the laundries were privately owned and operated and so did not come within the responsibility of the State.

Justice for Magdalenes rejects this position. It is now a matter of public record that the courts entered into arrangements whereby women given a suspended sentence were sent to a Magdalene laundry rather than prison. Likewise, members of the judiciary placed women “on probation” and “on remand” at these same institutions.

The department of education knew in 1970 that there were at least “70 girls between the age of 13 and 19 years confined in this way who should properly be dealt with under the reformatory schools system”. Meanwhile, the department of health was paying a capitation grant for young “problem” girls sent to these convent institutions in the 1980s. As late as 1982, the department of defence met the religious congregations to discuss the insertion of a “fair wage clause” in laundry contracts, contracts that were issued without such a clause since at least 1941.

At no time did the State license, regulate or inspect the Magdalene laundries, which always operated on a for-profit basis. Consequently, survivors do not receive a pension for their compulsory yet unpaid work in harsh conditions. After 1953 there was a statutory obligation governing employers’ withholding of pension contributions. The nuns made no contributions for the workers in the laundries. The State did not enforce the law.

The women do not receive healthcare or education to assist them in overcoming the physical and psychological effects of abuse and exploitation suffered in the laundries. Compounding their trauma, many of the women continue to feel a deep sense of stigma and shame.

They experience the Government’s unwillingness to take meaningful political action as the pursuit of the policy “deny ’til they die”.

Justice for Magdalenes submitted a revised Restorative Justice and Reparations Scheme to Alan Shatter on March 29th. This reflects the group’s ongoing dialogue and consultation with individual survivors in Ireland, the US and the UK.

In addition to an apology, the women are seeking a lump sum compensation scheme, a statutory pension reflecting their years of work in the laundry institutions, and complete access to their records. They are not interested in an extension of the current redress scheme, which would involve a stressful adversarial legal process incompatible with their age and vulnerable position in life.

Justice for Magdalenes is also seeking support for its campaign in the international human rights arena. We recently made a formal submission to the United Nations Committee Against Torture, which, on May 23rd and 24th, is due to examine Ireland for the first time on the extent to which it is meeting its human rights obligations.

Justice for Magdalenes’s submission draws attention to the continuing degrading treatment suffered by the women, and to Ireland’s legal duties to promptly and impartially investigate allegations of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and to ensure redress for the victims of such treatment.

Justice for Magdalenes asks for the State’s assistance in bringing the church and the religious orders to the table. We continue to reach out to the four religious congregations that operated the laundries, and to members of the Irish hierarchy. The orders refuse to meet with us; they do not answer our correspondence. We did meet Cardinal Seán Brady in June 2010, and he characterised Justice for Magdalenes’s presentation as “fair and balanced”. Moreover, he recommended that we approach Cori, the Conference of Religious of Ireland, as a way to facilitate dialogue with the congregations. However, Cori refused our request for a meeting, on October 1st, 2010.

The State and Catholic Church both need to acknowledge that the women who spent time in the nation’s Magdalene laundries are survivors of institutional abuse, that they were not at fault, but instead had a grave injustice perpetrated upon them. An apology is a significant signal that the Republic of Ireland is prepared to right past injustices.

Your decision on these matters will have real and meaningful consequences. We urge you to lead us all as citizens on the path towards fairness and equality, and to right a historical wrong that remains otherwise a dishonour to the nation.


James Smith, associate professor, English & Irish studies, Boston College;

Mari Steed, director, Justice For Magdalene co-ordinating committee;

Claire McGettrick, Angela Murphy and Judy Campbell, Justice For Magdalene committees;

Katherine O’Donnell, women’s studies, School of Social Justice, UCD;

Maeve O’Rourke, Harvard Law School 2010 global human rights Fellow;

Cllr Sally Mulready, chairwoman, Irish Women Survivors Network, London;

Mary McAuliffe, women’s studies, School of Social Justice, UCD;

Sandra McAvoy, women’s studies, UCC;

Paddy Doyle, author of The God Squad ;

Tom Kitt, former co-chairman of Oireachtas ad-hoc committee/Magdalene laundries;

Michael Kennedy, former co-chairman of Oireachtas ad-hoc committee/Magdalene laundries.