Blog: Maeve O’ Rourke

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February 18, 2011

Abuse by Church and State: The Hidden Story of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries

Posted by Maeve O'Rourke, LLM '10, Global Human Rights Fellow

As Ireland grapples with the current economic crisis, there is no shortage of soul-searching going on in the country today.  But as Russell Shorto makes clear in a recent article for The New York Times Magazine, the economy is only one aggravating factor in the identity crisis.  The  legacy of child abuse by church officials has also taken a serious toll on Irish society, forcing us to question the state’s close relationship with the Catholic Church, and to look at who we really are and what we want to stand for.

Shorto is quick to commend the Irish government for its reaction to the sex abuse scandal, pointing out that “Ireland is the first country to bring the force of its federal government to bear against the church.”  And indeed, the country has seen several official inquiries, a state apology and a redress scheme for survivors of childhood abuse in state-funded, church-run residential institutions.  But missing from his article—and most of the narratives about abuse by church officials—is another critical part of the Catholic Church’s abuse story: the incarceration and forced labor of as many as tens of thousands of women and girls in Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries.

The government has yet to acknowledge its role in the suffering of these women, whom the Catholic Church deemed unfit for society and warehoused in residential institutions.  Among them were women who had given birth outside marriage; had been sexually abused; were considered “promiscuous” or a burden on their families.  Some were girls, as young as eleven.  Many grew up in the care of the State and the Catholic Church.

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