“Tough” but not “brutal”

The news this week is littered with the Irish Taoiseach’s apology for the state role in the operations of the Magdalene Laundries, which he described as a “national shame”. In a nutshell, the Magdalene Laundries (named for Mary Magdalene, the reformed prostitute of the bible) were originally set up in the 1700s to give former prostitutes a place to work. In their early years they may have functioned as intended, but by the early 1920s their function was far less pleasant.

Around ten thousand women were sent to the laundries between 1922 and 1996, over 2,000 of them by the state. The reasons for their time as unpaid labour in the laundries were varied – being an unmarried mother, or a child born out of wedlock, or mentally or physically disabled, or the victim of abuse, or a myriad others. The Taoiseach initially referred to the survivors as ‘fallen women’ in the weeks prior to his formal apology. It speaks volumes about the attitude of their society to these women.

So, a landmark apology, delayed but given formally to women who suffered. But it was the Catholic church involved, and the Catholic media cannot let it slide, lest they be accused of ignoring current events involving the Church. This is  the comment of a well-known British Catholic writer and broadcaster. And it is enough to make the blood boil.

“The Magdalene laundries were used as reformatories where girls were sent without due process. But they were not brutal: anti-Catholics have lied about them” 

“The laundries were tough places, undoubtedly. But there was no sexual abuse and no physical punishment”, the subtitle reads. The title is inauspicious; the subtitle, cruel and deliberately obtuse.

The article goes on to concede that verbal and psychological abuse were prevalent in the Laundries, but claims that there was no widespread physical or sexual abuse. He may even be right on that count. But that is not the point.

By claiming that the lack of physical and sexual abuse made the Laundries “tough” but not “brutal places” is disingenuous. It suggests that survivors of psychological and verbal abuse are lesser than those who survived physical and sexual abuse. This is minimising the experience of a huge slice of the population of abuse survivors, and it’s unacceptable. The experience of these women is no less abuse because they weren’t beaten or raped. It’s still abuse, and the perpetrators are still abusers. To suggest that it’s just ‘tough’, not ‘brutal’ is sickening.

The writer then tries to claim that we shouldn’t be looking into the abuse that occurred in these places (after all, it wasn’t ‘real’ abuse!) but whether they should have existed in the first place. This attempt to deflect attention from the wrongs that the church has yet again perpetrated against those entrusted to its care is transparent, and ridiculous. Of course the damn things shouldn’t have existed! But they did, and the religious orders that ran them were abusers. Plain and simple. You can’t (and shouldn’t try) obfuscate that point.

Disempowering ten thousand women because they weren’t beaten is sick. It’s wrong. And the Church, yet again, needs to stand up and try to make right the wrongs they committed, as the Irish Government is attempting to do. They won’t, of course. They never do.

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