A Dutch court is to be asked to lift the statute of limitation on a legal action in which 19 women aim to sue the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in the Netherlands for allegedly holding them against their will as forced labour.
The Catholic congregation has previously refused to engage with claimants on the basis that action was time-barred. However, subpoenas have now been served on the order for a hearing in which the judges will be asked to use their discretion to lift the statute and allow the full case to be aired.
The basis of the application will be that the women – all of whom are now in their 70s or 80s – were deliberately traumatised during their incarceration in order to ensure their compliance and, as a result, were psychologically incapable of taking the action for most of their lives.
The Sisters of the Good Shepherd ran homes all over Europe, as well as in Canada and Australia, where women and girls were allegedly forced into lives of abuse after being incarcerated, often with the agreement of their parents or sometimes even child protection organisations, up to the 1970s.
Some of the most notorious abuse took place at the Magdalene laundries in Ireland, for which then taoiseach Enda Kenny issued an apology on behalf of the State in February 2013. A €50 million compensation scheme was set up for survivors among the 30,000 women they had incarcerated.
In the Netherlands, at least 15,000 women were sent to work without pay in the laundries and sewing rooms of five separate houses run by the sisters in Almelo, Zoeterwoude, Tilburg and Velp, between 1860 and 1979.
They were typically orphaned or disabled, unmarried mothers, girls convicted of petty crime or prostitution, and their “work therapy” was usually done for a range of paying clients, including the government, hotels, hospitals, the church and the army.
They were routinely subjected to sexual, physical and mental abuse. There was no education or medical attention. An independent investigation last year found that, even according to the norms of the time, the women had been used as slave labour.
The 19 women taking this action were aged between 11 and 21 during their time with the sisters, and their personalities had been damaged by the experience, according to Prof Paul Schnabel of Utrecht University whose assessment of the plaintiffs forms part of their subpoena.
Seeking recognition would have been more difficult for many of these women than for Holocaust victims, says Schnabel.
"That's because for most of their lives the Catholic Church held an absolutely inviolable position, while they themselves had lost their names, their own clothes, their individuality. Only with revelations a decade or so ago of large-scale child abuse by clergy did this spell begin to be broken."
Human rights lawyer Prakken d'Oliveira confirmed that a summons to the Sisters of the Good Shepherd had been issued on April 6th. Counsel, Liesbeth Zegveld, said the women wanted "recognition of the unlawfulness of their treatment".