Statements on the Magdalen Laundries report

Wednesday, 27th February 2013

I also welcome the publication of the report. I begin by asking that the Department of Justice and Equality ensures that copies of the report are provided to those survivors who do not have Internet access, including some who provided testimony to the committee and who have yet to receive a copy. I wish to pay tribute to the Minister of State’s own personal conviction and courage on these issues.

This report established, categorically, what survivors and their advocacy groups have told us for years, namely, that the State was directly involved and consequently, complicit, in the Magdalen laundry system. I very much welcome the State’s inclusion of all surviving women in the apology, thereby avoiding any distinction being made between survivors who were sent into the laundry system by their families and those incarcerated there at the behest of the State. This is a very important non-distinction which embraces the fact that the laundry system itself was inherently abusive, rather than the abuse stemming from the women’s and girl’s mode of entry. In this regard, however, I must express my disappointment that the report found little evidence of physical abuse, which seems contrary to the evidence handed to the committee by the Justice for Magdalene’s group, comprising 12 files of supporting evidence, including 795 pages of harrowing survivor’s testimonies from girls who were assaulted by nuns, often with keys, belts and other implements, as well as from independent witnesses who attested to the truth of these stories. In the Ryan report, volume 3, chapter 18, and in various documentaries and survivor testimony, it has been widely accepted that these institutions were inherently abusive. If gruelling and relentless unpaid labour behind locked doors is not physical abuse, I do not know what is. The report, in my opinion, should have been dedicated to the survivors of the Magdalen laundry system and all those who did not survive its brutal regime.

Whatever side of the political divide one is on, as Senator Power very clearly articulated earlier, the capacity of Deputy Enda Kenny, as Opposition leader, for example, in response to the Ryan report, and as Taoiseach in response to the Cloyne report, to speak with compassion and sincerity on subjects of the greatest sensitivity is beyond reproach. This was further exemplified when he made his considered official statement and apology on behalf of the Irish State on the evening of 19 February for what is, undoubtedly, our national shame. There has been much discussion following the Taoiseach’s formal apology about whether it was good enough, sincere enough or moving enough. I can only speak personally when I say that I was profoundly moved by the Taoiseach’s words. However, the apology was not for me. It was given on my behalf, but it was for the survivors and their families. The litmus test is them and I am heartened by reports from survivor advocacy groups and the survivor’s reactions to the news teams, directly after the Dáil address, that the Taoiseach’s sincere and heartfelt words were deeply meaningful to the survivors, who feared that day would never come.

We need to learn from our past, and several times in the Seanad I have quoted the Amnesty International report, In Plain Sight, which responded to the Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloynes reports. In the report, which is still very relevant, Colm O’Gorman, a former Senator and executive director of Amnesty International Ireland, stated:

[T]he focus cannot be purely on the past, as if this history has no relevance for our society now. We must consider the degree to which this history reveals vital truths about the nature of our society today. The past only becomes history once we have addressed it, learnt from it and made the changes necessary to ensure that we do not repeat mistakes and wrongdoing.

Since having been appointed a Senator I have found myself questioning how much we have learned as a society and a State, when the culture of secrecy, collusion, cover-up and lack of accountability which surrounded institutional and clerical sexual abuse can still be seen in contemporary contexts, such as with regard to the survivors of symphysiotomy and the treatment of asylum seekers, particularly children, in the State-run direct provision centres which we have debated in the House. This is the Ryan report of the future if we do not deal with it.

Having now established categorically there was State involvement and oversight in the Magdalen laundries system it is also important to establish whether in more recent times the State and its relevant Departments knowingly made efforts to deny this fact or minimise its involvement. I speak, for example, of our testimony before the United Nations Committee against Torture in 2011. There are also outstanding issues involving unnamed graves at the Bohermore cemetery in Galway and unexplained and unregistered deaths in High Park in Glasnevin. On this point, this opportunity should not be allowed to pass without commending the late Mary Raftery on her efforts to bring the issue of the unexplained and unregistered deaths to the fore in her 2003 article in The Irish Times entitled “Restoring dignity to Magdalenes”. In it she raised allegations of the most serious order, including that the then Department of the Environment had issued additional exhumation licences for unidentified and unregistered human remains without a full investigation of the circumstances. That such an investigation did not take place at the time and still has not taken place beggars belief. Where was the accountability then and where is it now?

I have been very disappointed by the radio silence so far of the four congregations at the centre of the McAleese report. Where is the accountability and where is the media and public scrutiny of the wholly inadequate apologies they have issued? I have read their apologies very carefully. One congregation used the word “refuge” to describe the laundries eight times in seven sentences. We have established these institutions were anything but refuges. Other congregations acknowledge that the limitation of care during the time women spent with them was wrong and upsetting. I welcome the calls by the Tánaiste, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, and by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, for the religious congregations to contribute to the compensation scheme. I would very much like to see the congregations offer contributions in acknowledgement of their direct role in the abuses suffered by women rather than coming forward on foot of pressure by the State.

The system of redress must be prompt, open, transparent, fair and non-adversarial. I welcome the appointment of Mr. Justice John Quirke to head up the three-month review to recommend criteria for providing support, payments and services to the women. Senator Power asked a number of questions about statutory footing and independent appeals and I will write to the Minister, Deputy Shatter, on these issues. I call on the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, to give full and frank consideration to the restorative justice and reparation scheme for Magdalen laundries survivors proposed by the Justice for Magdalenes survivor advocacy group.

It is good that the report has been published and it very clearly proves State involvement, but it does not mean the book is closed. It has opened a new chapter, and what belongs in this new chapter is up to us. We must support the women and the organisations supporting them. We can stand together on this and show we have learned from the mistakes of the past.

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