Making amends to Magdalene women

Sat, Jun 29, 2013, 01:00

The Government should be praised for the humane manner in which it has dealt with the survivors of Magdalene laundries. From an inherited position where the State had denied all responsibility and refused them access to the Residential Institutions Redress Board, an official inquiry was established that confirmed State involvement and provision has now been made for financial compensation and medical care. For many, the most important aspects have involved the removal of social stigma and an apology by Taoiseach Enda Kenny for the manner in which they were treated.

Lump-sum payments to the six-hundred-or-so former inmates are likely to cost the State between €35million and €58 million. In addition, provision will be made for the payment of pensions and the delivery of medical care. Those concessions will provide necessary reassurance for many elderly women.

The compensation offered, ranging from a minimum of €11,500 to a maximum of €100,000, has been criticised as inadequate by a minority of women on the grounds that it does not reflect the psychological and emotional damage caused to them. Payments, however, are not dependent on proof of hardship, injury or abuse and no hierarchy of suffering will be created. Critically, compensation will be paid to all inmates of Magdalene laundries even though State agencies were involved with only one-quarter of those committed.

A disappointing aspect of this review of what the Taoiseach described as “a cruel and pitiless Ireland of moral subservience” from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s has been the failure of religious congregations to apologise for what happened. They expressed “profound regret” that some women had found their experiences to be “deeply wounding”. But no apology or admission of fault was forthcoming. The laundries might, as Martin McAleese found, be “cold places, with a rigid and uncompromising regime of physically demanding work and prayer” but the intention, the congregations insisted, had been to provide “refuge and a safe haven” for women in trouble. So what had they to apologise for?

This ethical dislocation between the benign intentions of an organisation and its responsibility for unacceptable outcomes continues to inform attitudes. A number of congregations have advised the Government they will not contribute to the redress scheme. Minister for Justice Alan Shatter expressed disappointment at this response, while the reaction of former Magdalene inmates was more critical. If these painful and shameful events from a cruel, authoritarian past are to be dealt with comprehensively, they will require not just financial contributions from the religious congregations concerned but unambiguous apologies. In that way, everyone can move forward.