Not Merely a Shameful Past: The Case for State Responsibility in the Magdalene Laundries

Not Merely a Shameful Past: The Case for State Responsibility in the Magdalene Laundries

“In April 2017, the Human Rights Committee had reiterated its concerns about the Irish performance  regarding the accountability for Church-related institutional abuses, and had recommended that Ireland  conducted an independent and thorough investigation and prosecuted and punished the perpetrators of  abuse and ill-treatment at the Magdalene Laundries.” 

Committee against Torture considers report of Ireland, 28 July 2017

Victims of Magdalene Laundries have been denied their human right to redress. The Irish State has an obligation to remedy historic wrongs by conducting a thorough investigation of past human rights abuses which occurred under their jurisdiction and adopting a comprehensive framework for redress.

History of the Magdalene Laundries

Magdalene Laundries operated in Ireland for much of the 20th century. From the inception of the Irish Free State in 1922, until the last laundry closed in 1996, they served as for-profit, de-facto prisons, labor camps, and adoption agencies, all in one. Run by the Catholic Church in Ireland, it is estimated that over 10,000 women and girls were subjected to Magdalene Laundries and their systematic human rights abuses.

Initially, the laundries were intended to serve as a refuge for sex workers—they later evolved into an asylum for ‘fallen women’. Some of these women and girls were sent to Magdalene Laundries for engaging in sexual contact outside of marriage. Some were sent by the Courts as an alternative to prison. And some were placed merely because they were deemed ‘at risk’. Victim testimony outlines brutal, involuntary imprisonment where the women and girls were forced to work, unpaid, for ten hours a day, six days a week. They were also denied food, education, and sanitary living environments. As notorious as these institutions were in Irish society, State-led investigation into the human rights abuses experienced in the Magdalene Laundries was not conducted until 2013.

In Violation of International Law: The Responsibility of the Irish State

For years, it has been the position of the Irish government that the laundries existed as privately owned and operated institutions and were therefore outside of its realm of responsibility. Not only is this position in contravention of human rights accords to which Ireland is legally bound, it is outright inaccurate to depict the laundries as having existed entirely separate from the State. As a signatory of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), Ireland is legally obliged to prevent the systematic abuse of its citizens. Despite much of the harm being perpetrated by the Church rather than the State directly, it was implicated in the funding, monitoring, and oversight of the institutions in which these abhorrent human rights abuses occurred. Additionally, the Irish State actively engaged with and benefited from the laundries’ unpaid labor. Even if the State is not solely responsible for the abuse, the victims’ rights were violated under its authority. To quote Justice for Magdalene:

“…through (a) the State‘s direct placement of girls and women in the Magdalene Laundries and (b) its failure to protect the girls and women from conditions and treatment of which it was aware or ought to have been aware because of its judicial and commercial dealings with the Magdalene Laundries, the Irish State violated numerous human rights of the girls and women in the laundries…”

Furthermore, victims’ right to redress was violated by the State’s refusal to adequately investigate, apologize, and provide reparations for the victims. 

The Case Against the Irish Government

In a 2010 ruling, the Irish Human Rights Commission recommended a statutory investigation into the human rights abuses in the laundries, and where State responsibility was established, the adoption of a framework of redress for the survivors. The Irish government agreed to ‘review and evaluate’ IHRC’s recommendations. But as of 2011 no further action had been taken. In 2011, Elizabeth Coppin pursued a case against Ireland to the UN Committee Against Torture (UNCAT).  Ms. Coppin alleged that the abuse she experienced in the Magdalene Laundries violated the universal human right not to be tortured. UNCAT concluded in 2011– and again in 2017–that Ireland had failed to conduct thorough investigations of the alleged abuse, and/or take steps to prosecute those at fault. To that end, UNCAT recommended that further investigations be initiated, and a compensation scheme be devised to redress victims of the laundries. These judgments were echoed by the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC). In the years following, few victims have been able to access financial compensation from the State. Of the estimated 10,000+ victims, only approximately 800 survivors have been awarded financial compensation. As for the investigations, the McAleese Report was published in 2013, prompting then Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny to issue an apology to victims. Despite the investigation, apology, and promise of redress, the Irish response was insufficient and failed to meet the standards of international law. In its 2017 report, UNCAT outlined its concerns surrounding the incomplete nature of the McAleese report. One large concern was that all Church records used in the report were destroyed or returned. And even after finding indisputable proof of alarming human rights abuses, the report resulted in no criminal prosecutions. 

While the State has been willing to acknowledge the horror and shame surrounding the history of the Magdalene Laundries, there has been no adequate investigation into the abuses and human rights violations that occurred. Nor have there been any attempts at prosecuting those who committed these abuses. Not only were these women’s rights violated during their involuntary detainment, but their right to redress continues to be denied by the Irish State. Despite its proclaimed commitment to human rights conventions, the Irish State has swept its own violations under the proverbial rug.

After decades of feigning ignorance and shameful regret, it is time for the Irish government to take responsibility for its historic wrongdoings. A good first step would be convening a citizen’s assembly to consider how the Irish public feels the State ought to address Magdalene survivors. The overall framework for redress should include thorough and comprehensive investigations conducted by an independent body. Once complete, the State must hold accountable all responsible parties identified by these investigations.  And with most of the individual malefactors having since died, addressing the Catholic Church itself will be an essential element of any meaningful approach to justice. Ultimately, a substantive redress scheme–matching the severity of the suffering experienced– must be adopted to allocate compensation to survivors and their families. With the Irish government’s budget surplus, there has never been a better time to provide justice for victims of State-sanctioned abuse.

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