‘… Absence of direct information about the living and working conditions within the Magdalene Laundries has been largely replaced by historical (pre-State) experience and fictional writings or representations. It is also likely that assumptions have been made regarding these institutions based on the evidence of the grievous abuse suffered by male and female children in Industrial and Reformatory Schools in Ireland throughout the twentieth century’. The McAleese Report.  

Peter Mullen’s 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters is about the legacy of abuse in state run institutions, depicting life in the Magdalene Asylums or ‘Laundries’ in 1960s Ireland. Anyone without prior knowledge of the Magdalene Laundries scandal would indeed be scandalised after having seen the film or read about it.

The media reception in the US among mainstream critics testifies to this. Their response to a film about another Catholic Church related scandal was understandably hostile. In 2003 Chicago Sun Times critic Roger Ebert voiced the concerns of a shocked public in his review of the film. ‘Here is a movie about barbaric practices against women, who were locked up without trial and sentenced to forced, unpaid labor for such crimes as flirting with boys, becoming pregnant out of wedlock, or being raped’, says Ebert, astounded that ‘these inhuman punishments did not take place in Afghanistan under the Taliban, but in Ireland under the Sisters of Mercy. And they are not ancient history.’ Similarly, Steven D. Greydanus of The Decent Film Guide asked, ‘Did these horrors really happen?’

Stephen Holden, in the New York Times, compared the conditions of the laundries (as portrayed in the film) to those of a women’s prison. ‘Even though the setting isn’t a penal institution but a convent, Peter Mullen’s grim, powerful film fits snugly into a long line of heartsick dramas in which innocent people endure the degradation of prison. The inmates, all female, are the victims of a stringently moralistic brand of Irish Catholicism, now on the wane, that used to punish unmarried young women (many in their teens) for premarital sex’.

As Holden observes, there was significant precedent for this perception in the public square of Irish-run institutions.

However, Mullen’s film, which portrays conditions in the laundries and the treatment of the young women who lived there by the nuns who ran them in the worst possible light, has been undermined by the recent publication of The McAleese Report. Published by the Irish Government’s Department of Justice and Equality, the McAleese Report is the fruit of an inter-departmental committee chaired by Senator Martin McAleese, to ‘establish the facts of state involvement with the Magdalene Laundries’.

The report states unequivocally that the prevailing mindset about the Catholic Church’s involvement in these institutions, and what went on in the institutions themselves, was misguided and ill-informed. In an article for the London Telegraph’s news blog titled ‘Catholic-bashers have embellished the truth about abuse in Catholic institutions. It’s time to put the record straight’, Brendan O’Neill observes that the publication of the McAleese Report ‘…has led even The Irish Times, which never turns down an opportunity to wring its hands over Catholic wickedness, to say: “There is no escaping the fact that the [McAleese] report jars with popular perceptions.”’

Do The Magdalene Sisters and media fuelled assumptions about the laundries ring true? Or is it simply another excuse for ‘Catholic-bashers’, as O’Neill calls certain elements of the media in Ireland and elsewhere, to carry on bashing?

‘The authors of the McAleese Report, having like the rest of us imbibed the popular image of the Magdalene laundries as nun-run concentration camps,’ says O’Neill, ‘seem to have been taken aback by ‘the number of women who spoke positively about the nuns’. O’Neill admitted in his article that he resented being branded a ‘pedant’ by Humanist Life magazine because he was ‘committed to historical accuracy rather than to the grander goal of making the Catholic Church appear as rotten and warped as possible, regardless of the facts’.

O’Neill went on to say that ‘even atheists like me, who are genuinely interested in truth and justice should definitely be concerned that films and news reports may have left the public with the mistaken belief that women in Magdalene laundries were stripped and beaten and that thousands of Irish and American children were raped by priests’.

Outraged at the purported abuses of so many innocent and vulnerable young women in these Catholic-run institutions, many Catholics in Ireland were naturally shocked and struggled to digest this most unpalatable of assumed truths, forced by the media down the throats of a nation already at sea with ongoing child sex abuse scandals. Doubtless the intentions of some journalists are upright and honest. Perhaps they hoped to draw further attention to the bitter sense of injustice which still rankles among disillusioned faithful in Ireland and boils the blood of countless onlookers elsewhere.

Mullen’s film has hardly furthered the cause for understanding among those who lack closure on a difficult time in their lives, as well as a confused and frustrated public who seem, in light of the report’s findings, to have been short-changed by a culture of media hounds habitually baying for Catholic blood. Although Mullen’s film does not hide the fact that, in spite of their time in the now infamous Magdalene laundries, some of the women remain devout Catholics, this is not a detail congruous with the popularly publicised perception of the reported abuses.

It is a detail, however, which nevertheless poses another more significant question in relation to the laundries and the media’s coverage of the abuse reported there. In relation to yet another scandal attributed to the Catholic Church, how does the commonly espoused fiction stand up to the now public knowledge of the facts? Could it be that in faithfulness to what O’Neill calls ‘their fashionable and irrational new religion of anti-Catholicism’, critics of the Catholic Church have sought to sweep under the already lumpy media perpetuated carpet of popular opinion, unfashionable and incongruous details, and even stone cold facts, which fly in the face of the public perception of these instances?

It is important to remember that these and other reported abuses surrounding the Catholic Church in Ireland, and the media circus that loves to put them all under the same tent and charge for a quick peek, are peculiar neither to Ireland nor to the Catholic Church.

With regard to the Irish government’s involvement in the Magdalene laundries, which the McAleese Report was commissioned to investigate, it is a widely held belief by many in the media that if the Irish government was not directly involved in the reported abuses, it sanctioned them and helped to create an environment in which institutionalisation was commonplace.

The fact that many women were placed in institutions, often for unclear reasons, was, as David Quinn remarked for the Independent, ‘testament to the often harsh climate of the times’. It is worth pointing out that the Irish Government’s own report to the United Nations committee on their investigation into the abuse in Irish state run institutions, broken down by year and reason for admission, clearly show that the overwhelming majority of women who were admitted to the Magdalene laundries were there voluntarily or ‘self’ admitted.

Furthermore, The McAleese Report found ‘not a single incident of sexual abuse by a nun in a Magdalene laundry. Not one’. The vast majority of those interviewed for the McAleese report about abuses said they were never physically punished while in the laundries.

 One woman said, ‘It has shocked me to read in papers that we were beat and our heads shaved and that we were badly treated by the nuns… I was not touched by any nun and I never saw anyone touched.’ These are important testimonies which help to put the reported actual abuses into context while bursting the swollen media bubble of scandal and intrigue. A small number of incidents of corporal punishment were reported to McAleese and consisted of the kind of punishment, being caned on the legs or knuckles being rapped, that were carried out by many normal schools as recently as the 1980s.

Admittedly, real and lasting damage was done to some of the women who entered the Magdalene laundries, many of whom are no less devout and practising Catholics to this day. There is no getting around this fact. As David Quinn points out in his attempt to ensure the integrity of the available data on the laundries, ‘before proceeding any further, let’s be clear about one thing: abuses without doubt happened in these institutions and the women who were abused deserve justice’.

In light of the revelations of the McAleese Report, it can now be hoped by victims and onlookers of the historical and ongoing reporting of the Magdalene abuses, that the long overdue justice due the women actually abused, can finally be sought on the basis of fairer and untainted evidence.

Ronan Wright blogs about films from Belfast at Filmplicity.

Ronan Wright is a graduate in Film Studies from The Queen’s University of Belfast. As well as contributing to MercatorNet as a film critic since March 2011 he has run Filmplicity, a Belfast-based film...