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The "asylums" were named for Mary Magdalene, the supposed prostitute who apparently repented her sins and became one of Jesus Christ's closest followers. Such institutions originated in the middle of the 19th century as rehabilitation centers for prostitutes. However, the victims of the Magdalene laundries could not expect to be forgiven as Mary Magdalene was.
The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland and elsewhere operated a network of laundries, run by the Sisters of a range of orders. Many women lived and died in these institutions with little hope of escape. The only way they could be freed was by being claimed by a relative. Often, family members were told that the women had moved away, and would be impossible to find because they had assumed new identities.
In many countries, supposedly fallen women were abused in Magdalene institutions. The worst-known cases were run by the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, where conditions amounted to slavery. Magdalene institutions also existed in England, Scotland, North America and Australia. The Magdalene laundries in Ireland created a purgatory for the women and girls trapped in them (see below).
Irish women "guilty" of having illegitimate children were sometimes forced to live as virtual slaves in the Magdalene asylums. Some ended up there simply because they were considered "in moral danger". By the 20th century, unwed mothers, rape victims and generally "wayward" women were considered eligible inmates.
According to Roman Catholic teaching, virginity is a matter of the mind and the will; those who are forced to have sex unwillingly remain virgins. The Church therefore ignored its own teachings in putting rape victims in these asylums. Because they ignored it, they could benefit from the unpaid forced labour of the unfortunate women throughout their lives.
Women were also sent to them because they were considered too pretty, too ugly, too clever or too silly. Again, according to Roman Catholic teaching, this was the way God made them. It does not seem reasonable to punish women for being the way God made them. Again, the Church profited from ignoring its own teachings.
A wide range of innocent women and girls were sent to Magdalene laundries because someone in authority felt they were sexually active or might become sexually active. A wide range of women and girls who were strong enough to wash clothes were sent to a life of grinding misery in Magdalene laundries, while the Roman Catholic Church profited from their unpaid labour.
One reason women and girls who were considered ugly or silly were sent to the asylums was because, supposedly, they were vulnerable to seduction, and men were vulnerable to temptation by them. Physically or mentally handicapped women and girls were not sent to Magdalene laundries. These women would certainly seem to be as vulnerable to seduction as the unattractive or silly. However, disabled women would not be capable of washing clothes. Since the Church could not profit from their unpaid labour, and would have had to pay to provide for them, they were not institutionalized.
Exploitation of workers
The working day would start at 5 o'clock in the morning and consisted of hand-washing, drying, and ironing clothes from orphanages, churches, and prisons. Bedtime was at 7 o'clock in the evening. This continued six days a week. They were given food and accommodation but received no remuneration for their work. The scrubbing was intended to wash away the women's sins. However, no matter how much the women washed, they were considered dirty and sinful throughout their lives.
Failure of Irish democracy
Ireland joined the European Union in 1973, and should have abided by the European Convention on Human Rights. The Irish government was democratic, but even democracies can sometimes oppress minorities. In the case of Ireland, up to the 1960s and even beyond, the wall of separation between Church and State was very low, thin, and porous, and it can be argued that the Roman Catholic Church effectively controlled Irish society and culture. The devout were offended by the very idea of opposing or criticizing Catholic priests and the Church hierarchy, believing that they depended on them for sacraments which they were taught were necessary for salvation. Those who wished to fix or draw attention to the Church's abuses faced the very real possibility of becoming pariahs in Irish society, and thus were often too afraid to speak up. As a result, in some ways the Church was more powerful than the State in Ireland.
Abuse of victims
The Magdalene victims suffered oppressive work conditions and they sometimes had their heads shaved or were made to fast.
Babies died of malnutrition though the convents that were charged with their care received generous state funding. Older children died of preventable infections. There are suspicions about at least three other large "mother and baby homes", where 56% of children died though the national average was 15%. How widespread child neglect was is unknown as of 2014. One of the most famous cases is that of the Mother and Baby Home for unwed mothers in Tuam, Galway, which was run by the Bon Secours order. In 2016 and 2017, after some years of inquiry, excavation began on the site and the bodies of several hundred infants and young children, some buried in a septic tank, were found. Exact details are still unclear but over 800 corpses were found. The order now owns a private healthcare company, to add to the horror.
Denial, publicity, and closure
In 1998, an order of nuns in Dublin sold part of their convent to a real estate developer. The remains of 133 women were discovered, buried in unmarked graves on the property, and the scandal became local and national news in 1999.
The nature of these institutions was exposed in an RTE (state-run Irish television) series by reporter Mary Raftery in 1999. Despite convening a government inquiry commission, attempts to obtain compensation for the victims of the system have proved frustrating.
The last Magdalene laundry was officially closed in 1996. The Church has made no reparations to the women who were incarcerated, most of whom, rendered incapable of fending for themselves in society, now live in government and private institutions.
In November 2002, the movie The Magdalene Sisters was released to critical acclaim and even the Vatican was concerned enough to call down damnation on the film. Earlier that year, there was also a British mini-series, Sinners.
Magdalene asylums in Australia
The system in Australia was less severe in some ways. Girls there could be as young as 14, but they were released when they reached the age of 18 at the latest. In Australia the nuns did not use violence themselves. Rewards like the chance to play games or to watch films were sometimes given, and sometimes withheld as a means of control. The girls were less closely supervised than those in Ireland and sometimes did violence and other bad things to each other.
Other variations on the principle
Hephzibah House (US Protestant version)
Not wanting to be outdone by the European wingnuts, Ron and Patti Williams created Hephzibah House in 1971, initially for homeless or addicted women. But soon, young women seen as not "godly" enough by their patriarchal families were sent to be re-educated through labor.
In addition to the 'usual' physical and spiritual abuse, from survivor testimonies, it appears that the place took a strange interest in the girls' bodily intake and output. Drinks and food were strictly monitored, as were urine and excrement, which led to a very strict toilet timetable. Survivors also mentioned that menstruation among the
inmates women was either rare or completely absent with one survivor speculating that hormones were mixed into the milk to stop the women from menstruating. However, another survivor mentioned that menstruation was monitored and that she noted down a fake menstruation cycle (despite having stopped menstruating) out of fear of punishment, while other survivors mentioned stress, and such punishments as being put on half rations, which is another possible explanation of some cases as food deprivation to the point of starvation will stop women from menstruating (at the same time some of the victims women were forced to eat overly large portions of unsavoury food).
Unsurprisingly, the Interwebz also has someone defending Hephzibah House and claiming that all the allegations of abuse are just libellous inventions. Or they play the good old poisoning the well/ad hominem/victim blaming game.
In 2011, the UN Committee Against Torture called on the Irish government to instigate an official inquiry into the Magdalene laundries. The resulting report showed that around 10,000 women had passed through the laundries in the Irish Republic between 1922 and 1996. In February 2013, Prime Minister Enda Kenny apologised for the suffering of women in the laundries, although this was not a formal apology on behalf of the government.
- Child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church Another example where Catholic clergy chose vulnerable victims.
- The Magdalene Story (archived by the Wayback Machine, here is the earliest version from 1999)
- Wounds Still Fresh For Thousands of Women Enslaved by the Catholic Church --- ABC News, January 26, 2003 (archived by the Wayback Machine)
- The Magdalene Laundry --- CBS News, August 3, 2003 (archived by the Wayback Machine)
- Internet Movie Database on The Magdalene Sisters
- "In God's Name" --- Guardian Unlimited
- Raftery and O'Sullivan, Suffer the Little Children: The Inside Story of Ireland's Industrial Schools, Continuum International Publishing Group, hardcover, 424 pages, ISBN 0826413374
- Lily Arthur, an Australian victim, tells her story
- See the Wikipedia article on rehabilitation.
- See the Wikipedia article on Religious order (Catholic).
- See the Wikipedia article on Personal identity.
- Susan Lohan, Tuam mother-and-baby home is a scandal of church and state. Irish Examimer, 5 June 2014.
- Dan Barry, The Lost Children of Tuam. The New York Times, 28 October 2017.
- Washington Post: Ireland Still Coming to Terms With Legacy of Schools' Abuse
- Sources differ over the date. All but one source says 1996, however.
- Hephzibah Girls — a blog documenting the abuses at Hephzibah House
- Hephzibah Girls: Survivor Statements
- A general impression can be gathered by a search for "food" on the Hephzibah Girls blog.
- See for instance The Potty Dance, Hephzibah Girls, Friday, February 1, 2013
- A general impression can be gathered by a search for "period" on the Hephzibah Girls blog.
- Karen Glover: Survivor, Hephzibah Girls, Wednesday, April 1, 2009.
- Andrianna McCree: Survivor!, Hephzibah Girls, Wednesday, April 1, 2009
- Connie White, Hephzibah Girls, Monday, March 5, 2012
- Renee Showers (Bowles): Survivor!, Hephzibah Girls, Saturday, April 4, 2009
- Monica Atkinson: Survivor, Hephzibah Girls, Tuesday, November 11, 2008
- Marissa Joungblood: Survivor!, Hephzibah Girls, Wednesday, April 1, 2009
- The aptly named Hephzibah House Defended blog, which charmingly refers to those upset about the tales of Hephzibah House as "Hephzibah Haters" (yup, it's also capitalised in the original) - truly a great example of the blog's slogan "Approaching the Issue of Hephzibah House from Reason and Fact, Rather than Emotion and Innuendo"
- Tim Dunkin on RenewAmerica decided that "the people attacking Hephzibah House" must have made it up because
One of them is a practicing witch who follows occult practices, as well as having being involved in belly dancing and was a "sex worker" in her younger days. Another writes pornographic books (both homosexual and heterosexual), and even utilizes sexual innuendo in her comments on the "fundamental" forums that she posts to (comments which are, by the way, approved and laughed at by others on these "good Christian" forums). Another is an out and out drunkard. Yet another one is a lesbian who tried to run over some members of Hephzibah House's governing church with her car while there "protesting" with her "wife." Another couple (a former student and her husband) claim to be "good fundamental Baptists" but have openly stated that they have no problem with engaging in close fellowship with these others or having them influencing their children. Aiding and abetting the activities of these folks is a rabid atheist who has frankly stated that he wants to attack and destroy Christian ministries.
- "Irish PM: Magdalene laundries product of harsh Ireland", BBC News, 5 February 2013.