To the women who worked in the Magdalene laundries and the thousands of children taken from them against their will—this is the time to reflect on their lives.
Between 1758 and 1996 at least 30,000 innocent girls were enslaved in 300 asylums located throughout Europe, Australia, and North America. Investigations by the United Nations Committee Against Torture uncovered significant state collusion in the enslaving of thousands of women into the asylums and prison like Magdalene institutions, and exposed a horrific number of human-rights violations that took place in the laundries.
Originally viewed as the solution to society’s moral decline, the Magdalene asylums were supported by the state and operated by the Catholic church. The giant Magdalene laundry business, run primarily by Sisters of Mercy, forced orphans, flirtatious young girls, fallen women, and girls convicted of petty crimes into asylums as a source of free labor. Mothers of illegitimate children were automatically incarcerated and their babies taken from them. The Magdalene asylums were powerful institutions that effectively controlled the lives of women from all social classes. In their struggle to survive, the women suffered physically, spiritually and emotionally from the cruel treatments that methodically crippled their sanity. They were starved, denied their rights and freedom, and forced to work endlessly without compensation. They were intentionally shamed, demeaned, dehumanized and treated with inhumane cruelty characterized as violent, punitive and sexually abusive. Records of the girls who were executed, silenced, and violently tortured were concealed and kept secret from the public.
Women in Australia claim they were forced to work in unhygienic living conditions and served inedible food remarkably similar to austere prisoner-of-war camps. Women in the United States claim physical, psychological, sexual and emotional abuse suffered during incarceration. In 2002 allegations about the conditions in the convent operated laundries in Ireland were made into an award-winning movie “Magdalene Sisters” by Peter Mullan. In 2013 the award winning film “Philomena” starring Judi Dench tells the true story by Martin Sixsmith of a birth mother’s search for her son taken from her by an unrepentant nun who justifies her actions as penance for the sin of fornication. On February 19, 2013 the government of Ireland apologized unreservedly for all the hurt that was done to the innocent women of the Magdalene laundries.
As we reflect with moral distaste on the ignoble actions of the authorities, the unconscionable crimes that were committed, the demeaning and sordid lives the women were forced to endure, and the nightmarish separation from their babies taken from them against their will—we ponder an appropriate justice for the surviving women and children of the Magdalene asylums.
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