Monday, February 18, 2013

Ireland's Magdalene Laundry scandal

If you need another lesson about theocracy, about the dangers of mixing church and state, here's another scandal involving the Catholic Church, long a power in Ireland:
After more than seven decades of exploitation and a 10-year struggle for justice, Ireland on Tuesday admitted its role in the enslavement of thousands of women and girls in the notorious Magdalene Laundry system, but stopped short of issuing a formal apology from the government.

A long-awaited report headed by Senator Martin McAleese said there was "significant state involvement" in how the laundries were run – a reversal of the official state line for years, which insisted the institutions were privately controlled and run by nuns. ...

Labelled the "Maggies", the women and girls were stripped of their names and dumped in Irish Catholic church-run laundries where nuns treated them as slaves, simply because they were unmarried mothers, orphans or regarded as somehow morally wayward.

Over 74 years, 10,000 women were put to work in de facto detention, mostly in laundries run by nuns. At least 988 of the women who were buried in laundry grounds are thought to have spent most of their lives inside the institutions. ...

Among the key findings were:

• Over a quarter of the women, at least 2,500, who were held in the Magdalene Laundries for whom records survived were sent in directly by the state.

• The state gave lucrative laundry contracts to these institutions, without complying with Fair Wage Clauses and in the absence of any compliance with Social Insurance obligations.

• The GardaĆ­ pursued and returned girls and women who escaped from the Magdalene institutions.

As the article indicates, this only covers the 74 years between the founding of the Irish state in 1922 and 1996, when the last of these laundries finally closed, but "they have a much longer history." Yes, the Catholic Church has been enslaving women for a long, long time.

They could do it then because they had the power to do things like this. These days, they're losing that power, even in Ireland. In fact, they're even losing the power to keep such things a secret. And so, we're uncovering scandal after scandal - child rapes, enslaving women, stealing and selling newborn babies, castrating male rape victims, etc.

The amount of harm a religion can do - will do - is directly related to how much power it has. And power corrupts, even when your god is telling you what to do. No, especially when you think your god is telling you what to do!

Here's testimony from one of the victims of the Magdalene Laundry:
"I was 12 years of age and my father had died, my mother had remarried and my home situation was abusive.

"They told me I would have a great education and I went off to New Ross from my primary school, actually in a laundry van. When I arrived there they took my books from me that my mother had bought. That was the last I saw of them; that was the last time I had a decent education. From then on it was laundry every day, where it was horrible, where you were not allowed to talk to anyone. All it was there in the laundry was work, work, work.

"There was physical abuse where they would dig you in the side with a thick cross off the rosary beads, where you got a thump on the side of the head and where there would be constant putting you down, shouting, verbal abuse. You got the cross in the side of the ribs if you slowed down on your way around the laundry.

"[The nuns] ate very well while we were on dripping, tea, bread. I remember another torture – one when we were all hungry – we could smell the likes of roast beef and cooked chicken wafting from where the nuns were eating. That was like another insult."

It's not as bad as it could have been, no doubt, but her story is from the 1960s, not back in Charles Dickens' day. As it happens, this was a girl just a year younger than me. And I've always been a reader, so taking my books away would have been horrible.

But while I kept my books and got a good education, she got nothing but abuse. I particularly like how nuns would use the cross, their holy symbol, as a weapon...

Well, it's easy to pick on the Catholic Church, but the real problem is that the Catholic Church had the power to do such things. For centuries, they burned heretics alive. They tortured Jews and Muslims and suspected 'witches' and... well, anyone they wanted.

Then came the Reformation and they started losing power. Oh, make no mistake, Protestants eagerly killed heretics, too. They were at least as eager to burn witches and to force their beliefs on everyone. But the splintering of Christianity meant the slow decline in power of any one sect. Eventually, that led to America's freedom of religion and strict separation of church and state. And our example has led to churches losing even more power, worldwide.

In places like Ireland and Spain, the Catholic Church maintained an overwhelming dominance. And there was no separation of church and state, so the abuses continued to be terrible in those places. But now, they're losing that power, too. They're left with just the power of persuasion, which is the only power religions should have.

Today, we're fighting Muslim fundamentalists who are determined that this doesn't happen to them. They want to keep the power to do whatever they want, and they'll kill anyone who objects. Ironically, the example of Christianity - and the Catholic Church in particular - just makes them more determined to deny freedom of religion.

I don't know how that's going to turn out, but I can't imagine why the example of the Taliban, of Hamas, of al-Qaeda doesn't demonstrate to all of us what's at stake here. But apparently not. Instead, right-wing Christians in the Republican Party seem more determined than ever to bring theocracy to America.

I suppose, after more than 200 years, we've forgotten why we created a secular government, strictly separate from religion, in the first place. But shouldn't the Muslim world be a good reminder for us? Or even these continual scandals from the Catholic Church?


Gregg Garthright said...

Wow, it just gets worse and worse for the Catholic Church, doesn't it? It's hard to believe anyone can still believe in it after all this.

AJ said...

But this is old news in the Catholic Church. I've heard about these laundries ever since I was girl. My grandmother told me about what happens to wayward girls in Ireland. I think the stories were to scare me enough so I wouldn't engage in any sexual activities.

AJ said...

I tried to edit that comment but got fouled up. I didn't mean to start the comment with But.

WCG said...

Ann, what's new is apparently this report about the involvement of the Irish government. The last laundry closed in 1996, and I guess they've been trying to get to the bottom of what happened ever since.