Justice For Magdalenes worked with various Government departments in advocating for survivors’ needs. In September 2009, 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 Government’s bottom line remains that the Laundries were privately owned and operated and did not come within the responsibility of the State.
Justice For Magdalenes refutes such assertions. 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, well into the 1980s.
As late as 1982, the Department of Defence met with 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. Again, the State stood on the sidelines while generations of Irish women continued to experience abuse and exploitation.
At no time did the State licence, regulate or inspect the Magdalene laundries, which always operated on a for-profit basis. Consequently, survivors do not receive a pension for the compulsory yet unpaid work they were forced to endure. After 1953 there was a statutory obligation governing employers’ withholding of pension contributions. The nuns made no contributions on behalf of the workers in the Laundries. The Department of Social Protection did not enforce the law.
The women do not receive health care or education to assist them in overcoming the physical and psychological effects of abuse suffered in the Laundries. Many of the women continue to feel constrained and silenced by a deep sense of stigma and shame. They experience the Government’s unwillingness to take meaningful political action as tantamount to pursuing a policy of “deny ’til they die.”
Faced with this lack of political conviction at home, Justice For Magdalenes is now seeking support for its campaign in the global Human Rights arena. Our group recently made a formal submission to the United Nations Committee Against Torture, which is due to examine Ireland, for the first time, on the extent to which it is meeting its human rights obligations, on 23rd and 24th May 2011. JFM’s submission draws attention to Ireland’s legal duties promptly and impartially to investigate allegations of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and to ensure redress for the victims of such treatment.
We have also made a formal submission to the United Nations Universal Periodic Review, as part of the Twelfth Session of the Working Group on the UPR Human Rights Council, due in October 2011. It is our hope that international scrutiny will bring the State to task for its unwillingness and inattention to these disturbing and significant claims.
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. Doing so would represent a significant signal that Ireland, as a democratic Republic, is finally prepared to make right on past injustices.