…an estimated 30,000 women were sent to church-run laundries, where they were abused and worked for years with no pay.
Although it has been over a decade since their story came to light, the women are still waiting for an apology, and possibly compensation.
The story of the Magdalene women was uncovered in 1993 when a religious order in Dublin cashed in on the booming Irish property market and sold a portion of its land to a developer. The bodies of 155 women who had died in the laundry were exhumed from unmarked graves and the media began to ask questions. The story went made international headlines with the release of Peter Mullan’s 2002 film “The Magdalene Sisters.”
Until recently, the Catholic Church was the ultimate moral authority in Ireland, and it promoted strict rules on sex. In this climate, the shame of giving birth to an illegitimate child was so great that many unmarried mothers were rejected by their families. They were taken out of “decent society” and put into Magdalene laundries by members of the clergy, government institutions and their own families.
The Magdalene laundries were a network of profit-making workhouses run by four religious communities — the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Charity, the Good Shepherd Sisters and the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity. Named after the Bible’s redeemed prostitute Mary Magdalene, they were initially used to reform prostitutes. By the 1940s, however, most of the residents, or “penitents” as they were called, were young women who had sex outside of marriage (in some cases victims of rape), unmarried mothers, women deemed flirtatious and the mentally disabled.
Magdalene women worked long hours, typically seven days a week, without pay. There have been accounts of the harsh conditions the women endured, including allegations of mental, physical and, in some cases, sexual abuse. Many lived and died behind convent walls until the last laundry closed in 1996. Today’s Magdalene women are in their 70s or 80s.
The Irish courts routinely sent women who were handed down a suspended sentence for petty crimes to the laundries, which operated as a kind of parallel detention system.
Public records show the government also awarded lucrative contracts to the nuns for its army and hospital laundry without ever insisting on fair wages for the “workers,” nor did it inspect conditions inside.
Testimony from Magdalene women claim that state employees like the Irish police force and social workers brought women to the laundries and returned those who had escaped.