It would be a grave miscalculation for the four religious congregations that owned and operated the Magdalene laundries to persist in their refusal to contribute to a compensation fund for former inmates. Religious sisters have retained a high level of approval and support within society, even as their male counterparts forfeited public confidence because of a succession of scandals and their responses to them. A legalistic reaction to moral and ethical responsibilities could, however, erode their status as caring and nurturing organisations.
There is always time to revisit extreme positions. The sooner it happens, the less damage it is likely to cause. Previous governments rejected responsibility for what went on in Magdalene laundries. They refused compensation to inmates and denied them access to the Residential Redress Board. It was only when Martin McAleese formally identified State involvement in the incarceration of about one-quarter of inmates that the situation changed. A compensation fund that may cost the taxpayer in excess of €38 million has recently been put in place. It seems reasonable that the congregations that ran the laundries, where young women were incarcerated, denied education and psychologically damaged, should offer some monetary compensation.
Denial and the protection of financial assets have been the primary responses by the Catholic church, not just in Ireland but throughout the world, as it faced claims of sexual abuse. For the Irish community of nuns to follow their male counterparts down that path of denial, based on crude financial assessment, would be a serious mistake. Irish people expect better of them. A pattern, whereby male religious orders are declining to meet their financial responsibilities, has emerged. Compensation for the sexual, physical and psychological abuse of children in residential institutions may cost in excess of €1.36 billion.
Following the Murphy and Ryan reports, the Government suggested the 18 congregations involved should share that cost on a 50:50 basis. Last year, there was a shortfall of €200m. Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn said he had no wish to bankrupt the congregations and acknowledged their contributions to society. But he said they had to face up to their responsibilities. A similar approach, involving moral and ethical persuasion, has been adopted on this occasion. Minister for Justice Alan Shatter was right to reject a demand by former Magdalene inmates to strip the congregations of their charitable status. Such action would suggest victimisation. Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore have, however, emphasised the ethical obligations of the sisters and asked them to reconsider their position. Their response is likely to have a profound impact on public opinion.