Ireland ignored the mistreatment of thousands of women who were incarcerated within Catholic nun-operated laundries and must pay the survivors compensation, Prime Minister Enda Kenny said Tuesday in an emotional state apology for the decades of abuses in the so-called Magdalene Laundries.
"By any standards it was a cruel, pitiless Ireland, distinctly lacking in a quality of mercy," Kenny said, as dozens of former Magdalenes watched tearfully from parliament's public gallery overhead.
Kenny told lawmakers his government has appointed a senior judge to recommend an aid program for the approximately 1,000 women still living from the residential workhouses, the last of which closed in 1996. He also pledged government funding for the erection of a national memorial "to remind us all of this dark part of our history."
A government-commissioned report published two weeks ago found that more than 10,000 women were consigned to the laundries after being branded "fallen" women, a euphemism for prostitutes, even though virtually none of them were — and instead were products of poverty, homelessness and dysfunctional families. More than a quarter were directly referred by public officials, such as judges or truancy officers, and all spent months or years in menial labor without access to education. Most did laundry for local hotels, hospitals and prisons, while others scrubbed floors or made rosary beads for the church's profit.
"The Magdalene women might have been told that they were washing away a wrong, or a sin. But we know now — and to our shame — they were only ever scrubbing away our nation's shadow," Kenny said. "I believe I speak for millions of Irish people, all over the world, when I say we put away these women because, for too many years, we put away our conscience."
Kenny's voice faltered with sorrow as he neared the end of his address and addressed the former Magdalenes directly. "As a society, for many years we failed you. We forgot you or, if we thought of you at all, we did so in untrue and offensive stereotypes. This is a national shame, for which I say again: I am deeply sorry and offer my full and heartfelt apologies," he said. Lawmakers and spectators applauded.
Opposition leader Micheal Martin, whose Fianna Fail party in government refused calls to investigate the state's role in the laundries, said Ireland spent decades treating the Magdalene women as shameful outcasts. "They continued to live and work in conditions which were morally unacceptable and should have been stopped," he said.
Tuesday's state apology marks another step in Ireland's two-decade effort to come to grips with the human rights abuses committed in Catholic-run institutions following Ireland's independence from Britain in 1922, when the fledgling state gave church authorities substantial authority over the education of the young and care for the poor.
Over the past decade Ireland has published five investigations into the church's serial cover-up of crimes by pedophile priests in the Dublin Archdiocese and two rural Catholic dioceses; the sexual, physical and psychological abuse of tens of thousands of children consigned to state-funded industrial schools since the 1930s; and now, as a final piece of that puzzle, the Magdalene laundries.
A taxpayer-funded compensation fund established in 2002 has already paid out more than €1 billion ($1.3 billion) to more than 13,000 former residents of the industrial schools, but the previous Fianna Fail government refused to extend that aid to former Magdalenes, arguing that the laundries were private businesses beyond the state's control or responsibility.
This month's approximately 1,000-page report disproved that claim, finding that 26 percent of laundry workers were sent there directly by state authorities, while the approximately dozen laundries all were subject to regular government inspections. Advocates for the women say they should have received pay and retirement pensions but instead lived lives closer to slaves, locked into their rooms at night and often bewildered as to why they were even there.
And Kenny said after meeting groups of former Magdalenes in Dublin and London last week, "I have come to the view that these women deserve more than this formal apology, important though it is. I also want to put in place a process by which we can determine how best to help and support the women in their remaining years."
He said the president of Ireland's Law Reform Commission, Judge John Quirke, has been tasked with producing by May a compensation program for former Magdalenes to include cash payments, and access to free medical care and counseling. "The government will establish a fund to assist the women based on his recommendations," he said.
Pressure groups have called for the government to provide each former laundry resident payments of €50,000 to €100,000 ($67,000 to $135,000) and full state pensions, a difficult bill for an Ireland struggling to reduce a 15 percent unemployment rate, slash deficits and escape from its 2010 international bailout.