The campaign on behalf of women incarcerated in laundries by Ireland's religious orders has welcomed the announcement this week by the Irish government of an official inquiry into its involvement in their abuse throughout the twentieth century.
Irish Senator Dr. Martin McAleese is to chair an Inter-Departmental Committee looking into the State's relationship with the Magdalene laundries that will report within three months. The Justice for Magdalenes campaign is calling for an official apology and for reparations to be paid to the survivors.
Although they had existed from the eighteenth century, the role of the laundries, operated by four orders of nuns throughout Ireland up until 1996, expanded in the post-Independence 26 County state as the Catholic hierarchy exerted its grip. It is thought that around thirty thousand Irish women were detained in the laundries, many of them unmarried mothers but also victims of sexual abuse and teenagers who were considered "flirtatious" by teachers and priests.
The campaign for justice for women held in the laundries was sparked by the discovery in 1993 of a mass grave containing the unidentified remains of 155 former inmates in the grounds of a Dublin convent one of the orders had sold to a property developer. It was the dwindling profits of the once lucrative laundries that led to their eventual closure rather than any humanitarian intervention by the Irish State or Church. The Residential Institutions Redress Act passed by the Dáil in 2002 covered those who had suffered abuse in industrial schools and other state institutions but not those confined in the Magdalene laundries on the grounds that the latter were run by the Church rather than the State, despite the Irish government's role in sending and returning young women to them (not to mention awarding them state contracts).
Inevitably most of the women detained in the laundries are now dead and the remaining survivors are elderly, many in ill health and poor. Justice for them is long overdue.