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Closure Is Elusive for 'Magdalenes'

BC faculty member James Smith says compensation for former inmates is a big step, but doesn't entirely resolve Irish scandal

Assoc. Prof. James Smith (English) researched the Magdalene Laundries scandal and became an advocate for the survivors. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: July 2, 2013

Last week’s announcement by the Irish government that it will compensate survivors of Ireland’s notorious Magdalene Laundries seemed to conclude one of the country’s most controversial and wrenching scandals.

But a Boston College faculty member who researched the scandal and later became an advocate for the “Magdalenes” says real closure is likely to prove elusive for the women who endured abuse and exploitation in the Catholic Church-run asylums — and that the tragedy’s larger lessons may likewise be lost.

“The compensation scheme offers much that will make a significant impact on the lives of these women and their families,” said Associate Professor of English James Smith. “That is very, very important and should not be discounted. However, this is not, and cannot be, closure — that can only come when the truth is revealed about both the government’s and the Church’s role in the scandal.”

Under the terms of the compensation plan announced on June 26, Magdalene survivors would receive tax-free ex-gratia payments — the amount determined by the how much time the individual was confined — state-funded retirement pensions and free medical care at state facilities. In addition, a dedicated Department of Justice unit will ensure survivors’ easy access to services and supports.  

The announcement was the climax of a two-year investigation into the Magdalene Laundries, where more than 10,000 girls and women were housed from 1922 to 1996. The inmates were often categorized as “fallen” — considered to be prostitutes or exhibiting inappropriate sexual-related behavior — when in fact, as researchers and advocates including Smith have shown, most were victims of poverty, homelessness and dysfunctional families in a state lacking the facilities to care for them.

“Some of the Magdalenes were women fleeing abusive husbands, or young girls — some not even in their teens — regarded as ‘rebellious’ or ‘immoral,’” noted Smith.  “For whatever reason, they were regarded as having no place in Irish society.”

Smith went from researcher to advocate when one of the estimated 770 surviving Magdalene inmates contacted him after the publication of his 2007 book Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment. He joined the advisory board of Justice For Magdalenes (JFM) — created to promote justice and equality for former Magdalene women and provide support for their reintegration into society — and helped state the women’s case to the Irish Parliament, government officials, the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT), Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) and other the media.

He also helped supply materials to the government’s Inter-departmental Committee of Investigation established in 2011 and co-authored JFM’s response to the compensation report when it was released last week [the organization, now known as “JFM Research,” has ceased its advocacy campaign but will remain active for now, Smith said].

Although JFM Research said the compensation plan was a means to addressing “the women’s experiences of arbitrary detention, compulsory or forced labor, and cruel, degrading treatment or punishment,” the organization pointed out that the government had not followed recommendations — by UNCAT and IHRC, among others — to launch a “prompt, thorough and independent investigation.”

Smith, interviewed on campus late last week, affirmed the need for greater scrutiny into the Magdalene scandal. Although there has been considerable focus on the Catholic Church’s role, he explained, less attention has been given to the government’s complicity in the matter — even though more than a quarter of women were committed to the laundries by public officials, who failed to ensure their basic human rights were protected.

Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s official apology in February to Magdalene survivors was an important, but not definitive, step in acknowledging human rights failures, said Smith, who expressed concern about language in the Inter-departmental Committee report published in February that seemed to play down the extent of harm women suffered.

“Unless we understand fully what happened and why, it is impossible for Ireland to move beyond this chapter in our history,” said Smith, “or to ensure there is no repetition of abuse committed against today’s vulnerable and marginalized citizens. That is what makes the Magdalene story a universal one: the fact that powerful authorities committed injustices against people who were powerless to fight back.”

Smith noted that he has remained in touch with Magdalene survivors, including after last week’s announcement. While some of the women have taken a high-profile stance on redressing their wrongs, others have preferred to stay out of the public eye, he said. Most will likely take the offer of compensation, added Smith, but he said the government must be conscientious about reaching out to those Magdalene survivors who emigrated from Ireland or may be otherwise difficult to contact.

One woman’s poignant response to the government’s report provides some insight into the survivors’ views on their struggles, Smith said.

“Her comment was, ‘At the very least, I can give myself a decent burial.’ For her and many others, their most immediate concern is not being a burden on their families or anyone else — they want a little money that will enable them to live out the rest of their lives in some comfort, and to die with dignity.”