So, what’s perpetually aggrieved Catholic League president Bill Donohue mad about this week? Is it gay people? Is it the “bizarre” notion of gay people getting married? Is it all those gay priests sneaking into the Catholic Church (who are the real problem over there, in Donohue’s mind anyway, rather than all that child abuse)?
The man has a bit of a theme, is what we’re saying. But Donohue switched gears yesterday, taking time away from his busy schedule of gay-hating and light art criticism to declare, bizarrely, that Ireland’s infamous Magdalene Laundries were “a myth” and “a lie.”
In case you’re not up on your Irish history, the Magadalene Laundries were workhouses where women and girls were incarcerated, starting from the late 18th century and continuing till the middle of the 20th. Inhabitants of the laundries were referred to as “penitents.” Contrary to popular belief, one that was helped along by a Hollywood movie about the laundries, they weren’t solely meant for unmarried pregnant women or prostitutes; some of their inhabitants were also neglected children, some as young as nine or 10, referred by social service agencies. Women with minor criminal convictions were also sent to the laundries. And some of their inhabitants were simply desperately poor and voluntarily committed themselves. (You can see a few surviving photos of a typical laundry and its inhabitants here.)
Most women, though, had approximately zero say in going to these institutions; once they arrived, their lives were characterized by brutally hard work, rigid restrictions, spartan living conditions, humiliation, hunger, cold, and in some cases, an early grave. The survivors advocacy group Justice for Magdalenes writes, “These women were denied freedom of movement, they were never paid for their labour, and they were denied their given names and identities.”
These types of institutions were found throughout England and parts of the United States too, but Ireland really led the pack; between 1922, when the Irish state was founded, and 1966 1996, when the last laundry closed, an estimated 10,000 women passed through their doors.
Although some of these women were sent away by their families, a recent report from the Irish Parliament that about a quarter of the laundry residents were sent there by the state. Last month, the Irish government agreed to pay up to 58 million euros in restitution to laundry survivors..
In case you’re wondering where Donohue’s stake lies in all of this: the laundries were run by Catholic nuns. Four different orders operated laundries, including The Mercy Sisters, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, the Sisters of Charity, and the Good Shepherd Sisters. (All of those orders, by the way, recently declined to help pay restitution to the survivors.)
It’s a dark chapter in history for Ireland, for women, and for the Catholic Church. But in a “special report” released yesterday, titled “Myths of the Magdalene Laundries,” Donohue argues, basically, that the laundries really weren’t all that bad, and even if they were, it wasn’t the nuns’ fault.
“[T]here was no holocaust, and there was no gulag,” he writes. “No one was murdered. No one was imprisoned, nor forced against her will to stay. There was no slave labor. Not a single woman was sexually abused by a nun. Not one. It’s all a lie.”
It’s true that the nuns don’t appear to have wantonly sexually abused or murdered the women incarcerated in the laundries. But the claim that there was no physical abuse whatsoever is, to put it mildly, controversial. As evidence, Donohue points to one place: a report by Martin McAleese, the chairman of a committee set up by the Irish government to investigate the laundries. The McAleese report found that most women weren’t physically or sexually abused in the laundries; some women even recounted positive experiences there.
But the McAleese report has been criticized by the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT), which was concerned that the investigation wasn’t particularly thorough or independent. As they wrote in a letter to the UN’s Irish representative: “[T]he committee has received information from several sources highlighting that the McAleese Report, despite its length and detail, did not conduct a fully independent investigation into allegations of arbitrary detention, forced labour or ill-treatment.”
But the report is enough for Donohue, who also writes: “Even by today’s standards in the West, these conditions are hardly draconian; in the past they were considered pedestrian. And consider the timeline: fully 82 percent of the incidents reported took place before 1970.” Beatings were just in vogue back then, he adds: “Keep in mind that corporal punishment was not uncommon in many homes (and in many parts of the world), never mind in facilities that housed troubled persons.”
“Troubled persons” like nine-year-old girls and poor women, that is.
Donohue will allow that the working conditions in the laundries were “harsh,” and that they included “standing for long hours, constantly washing laundry in cold water, and using heavy irons for many hours.” But doing all that for years on end, unpaid, unable to leave, doesn’t strike him as slave labor.
“Drudgery? Yes,” he writes. “But if this is ‘torture,’ then it is safe to say that millions have suffered this fate without ever knowing they did.”
In the end, Donohue sees any criticism of the laundries as evidence of vicious, widespread anti-Catholic prejudice. He writes: “The horror stories associated with the Magdalene Laundries cannot withstand scrutiny, but they will continue to have a life of their own. That’s the way prejudice works. Unwarranted negative attitudes, especially when employed about a familiar whipping boy, are hard to shake.”
It takes a special sort of mind to look at reports of forced labor and see “unwarranted negative attitudes.” But clearly Donohue’s got what it takes.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 16, 2013