400 calls to TV helpline after Magdalene documentary


More than 400 men and women have called a Channel 4 telephone helpline since the screening of a documentary about physical and sexual abuse in the Magdalene asylums in Ireland in the 1940s. A third of the callers described similar experiences of abuse in Catholic institutions in Ireland and Britain.

The programme, Witness: Sex in a Cold Climate, was shown on Monday night and described the harrowing experiences of four Irish women who were sent to Magdalene asylums because they were unmarried mothers or, in one woman's case, as a "punishment" after she was assaulted by a member of her family. All the women were forced to shave their heads and many were beaten by nuns and subjected to sexual assaults by visiting priests.

Afterwards, Channel 4 set up 41 helplines and during 2 1/2 hours on Monday night and four hours on Tuesday afternoon, 405 people contacted the support team to describe their experiences of abuse or to seek information about missing relatives.

"Many of the callers said they had been beaten and abused when they were in Magdalene institutions and Catholic boarding schools in Ireland and Britain. There was a lot of bitterness and a lot of the callers were very angry," said Ms Paula Snyder, support services organiser for viewers at Channel 4. "Even some of the most experienced advisers who have worked on helplines after programmes on child abuse said that it was the most upsetting thing they had done."

Some 76 per cent of the calls came from women across Britain and Ireland and one in four of the calls came from men. Many of them had found the courage to speak about their experiences for the first time and one woman revealed that she had been raped in a Magdalene asylum in Ireland 60 years ago and had never been able to form a "normal" relationship. Another said her experience in the asylum had left her feeling unable to hug her children.

A third of the callers were seeking help to find mothers or aunts who had been sent to the Magdalene asylums and had since lost contact with their families. Some were orphans who suspected that they had been given up for adoption after their mothers were sent to Magdalene asylums and had been refused birth certificates by the nuns.

The callers were referred to adoption agencies, pyscho-sexual counselling and rape crisis centres or the Magdalene Memorial Committee which has been set up in response to the abuse at the asylums.

Child abuse, such as that uncovered at the Goldenbridge orphanage, Dublin, and now in the Magdalene asylums, leaves the abused and their families with the lasting problem of how to cope with "everyday" life. In dealing with the variety of problems faced by the callers, Ms Snyder said the aim was simply to let them talk. "Some of the callers may have taken a while to pluck up the courage to speak. They were saying that it didn't just happen to those women, it happened to me too."