In recent months it has become apparent that there are cabals within Ireland that elude ordinary justice. To our doubtful list of high flying bankers and out of control property dealers we must now apparently add nuns.
The United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) has this week blasted four Irish religious orders for their refusal to contribute to a restorative justice fund for survivors of the Magdalene laundries they had once run.
It’s the second time since 2011 that UNCAT has singled out Ireland and the Magdalene laundries as an issue requiring urgent action, a fact made all the more remarkable since it can only nominate four follow up recommendations globally within a given year.
That means the legacy of the Magdalene laundries is of sufficient gravity to merit heightened scrutiny from the United Nations.
The congregations named by the UN committee are the Irish Sisters of Charity, the Good Shepherd Sisters, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity and the Sisters of Mercy.
To date only the Irish government has contributed to the Magdalene restitution fund, which it estimates will eventually cost the Irish taxpayer between 35 and 65 million euro.
Irish Prime minister Enda Kenny has said the four religious orders have a moral and ethical obligation to contribute to the fund, but instead of compensating the victims the four groups have said they are helping in other ways, in particular by continuing to provide residential care for about 130 former laundry workers.
That counter claim makes some critics scoff. “These women worked without pay,” Professor James M. Smith, author of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment, told IrishCentral this week.
“There was an obligation to continue care for the women who had provided free labor. All of the women are in receipt of pensions from the Irish state, and all of those pensions are in control of the religious orders who are providing care for them.”
A previous UNCAT report in 2011 found the Irish state had failed the women who had been confined in Magdalene Laundries and had recommended prompt independent investigations. The McAleese report and the Quirk followed and both recommended the government and the four religious orders put in place a system of restorative justice.
A scheme to afford lump sum compensation to the women including health benefits and the provision of pensions and other benefits was recommended. But after the announcement that the fund was being set up by the government the four Irish religious organizations opted out.
This spring the Irish Minister for Justice Alan Shatter asked the orders to reconsider their decision but two of the four orders (The Sisters of Mercy and The Sisters of Charity) again confirmed they would not be making contributions and the other two orders (Our Lady of Charity and The Good Shepherd Sisters) simply did not respond.
“There can be no restorative justice absent an apology and absent a financial contribution,” said Smith. “UNCAT has again underscored that the Vatican itself at the very highest level of the Catholic Church has also failed in its responsibility to affect accountability on behalf of the four orders.”
Taking note of the repeated refusals by the orders to participate in any form of recommended restitution, the UN committee has given the Vatican one year to demonstrate their commitment to the recommendations made in their latest UN report.
Smith is not optimistic, however. “To date none of the women have received a single pension payment. A total of 230 women received lump sum compensation out of a total of 773 applications. No women in Ireland or abroad have received health care benefits because the legislation has not been enacted in Irish parliament. The women are elderly now and not benefitting. Four women have died that I know of.”
The four religious orders that ran the Magdalene laundries reportedly made almost $415 million in property deals during the Irish economic boom.
Previous independent reports have found both the religious orders and the Irish state failed the Magdalene women, as did the socially conservative look-the-other-way society that helped incarcerate them without a word.
But the church in particular benefited financially from their decades of unpaid labor critics contend, so the blanket refusal by the nuns orders to compensate the women is particularly egregious they say. Not only are they not paying the women they once exploited, they are being paid by the Irish state to look after the 130 women still in their care.
Critics ask how can a church that teaches others to atone for their sins so blithely ignore their own?