UN to hear about ‘denial’ over Magdalene laundries

Government’s refusal to accept liability violates survivors’ dignity

The continuing "denial" by Government that the State has any liability for the Magdalene laundries continues to violate survivors' dignity, compounding their "torture", the United Nations will be told on Monday.

In a submission to the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT), the Justice for Magdalenes (JFM) group said there had never been "an independent, thorough and effective investigation" into the experiences of women and girls in the laundries and no person or institution held accountable. It said Government had failed to deliver on key commitments made to survivors, including on the provision of services and rights, and to consult with them on a memorial.

Ireland comes before the UN Committee in Geneva at the end of the month for questioning on compliance with the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

More than 10,000 women and girls spent time in Church-run Magdalene laundries from the early 20th century, until the last was closed in 1996. Most were sent and held against their will, usually for the “crime” of being unmarried and pregnant, where they worked in laundries without pay. Many State-run bodies, hospitals and hotels had contracts with Magdalene laundries.

Legal liability

Though an interdepartmental committee, headed by Senator Martin McAleese, found substantial State involvement in the Magdalene system in its 2013 report, the State has rejected legal liability. Last year it told the UN CAT it knew of “no factual evidence to support allegations of systematic torture or ill-treatment of a criminal nature”.

The JFM group said this “absence of accountability” amounted to “continuing dignity violations, compounding the torture or ill-treatment which the women suffered while incarcerated in Magdalene laundries”.

Among their experiences, as documented by the McAleese report, were involuntary detention, being given no information about why they were held or when they might be released, being stripped of their identities, forced to work constantly and unpaid, denied contact with the outside world, subjected to humiliating and degrading punishments, subjected to routine verbal denigration, denied education, gender-based discrimination, and being buried in unmarked graves sometimes without their deaths being registered.

The State played a role in the laundries in several ways, including that at least 26.5 per cent of admissions were recorded or made by State actors; the State legislated for the use of the laundries as places of detention; and the State had laundry contracts with them, according to the submission.

In May 2013 an “ex gratia” scheme was established to make “restorative” payments to survivors. However, according to the JFM, the women had to sign legal waivers, abandoning all rights of legal action, denying them accountability. It also means, says JFM, religious orders have not had to produce archival evidence about the laundries.

Among the calls in the submission are for an independent evaluation of the State’s response to the Magdalene women; consultation on and funding for a memorial; release of all religious and State records on the laundries; and amendment of the statute of limitations to enable survivors bring civil claims.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times