N. Ireland struggles to confront Catholic Church’s enslavement of 1000s of women

NOTE FROM JOHN ARAVOSIS: Below is a follow-up to a story we reported on last month about the Catholic-church-run Magdalene laundries that imprisoned up to 30,000 Irish women as slave labor over the past century. This update is authored by Paresh Dave, a journalism student at USC who recently traveled to Ireland and Northern Ireland for 10 days under a grant from the Luce Foundation.
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BELFAST — A damning report concluded last month that the Irish government breached its duty of care to thousands of women who were abused over a 74-year-period in church-run asylums known as Magdelene laundries. In response, the head of the Irish government apologized to victims and laid out a compensation package.

In Northern Ireland, however, there is no forthcoming apology or redress for Magdelene survivors.

Northern_Ireland_in_the_UK_and_Europe

Map of Northern Ireland (in dark green), the UK (light green) and Europe via Alphathon/Wikipedia

Northern Ireland’s investigation into institutional abuse just kicked off in January — 216 complaints have been filed through March 10. But the inquiry covers only people younger than 18 who were abused in at least 35 places, such as live-in trade schools, between 1922 and 1995. Established by the government, these institutions were generally run by religious orders.

In contrast to the Republic of Ireland, left out in the infant Northern investigation are victims of abuse at local churches and the infamous Magdalene laundries.

Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland program director, said too few of the Magdalene victims came forward as the investigation was originally being organized, so there wasn’t enough political will to include them. Amnesty is pushing lawmakers to now include them.

Patrick Corrigan, the program director for Amnesty International Northern Ireland, discusses his hope that the Northern Ireland Assembly investigates abuse at Magdelene Laundries. (©Megan O'Neill)

Patrick Corrigan, the program director for Amnesty International Northern Ireland, discusses his hope that the Northern Ireland Assembly investigates abuse at Magdelene Laundries. (©Megan O’Neill)

A Northern Ireland Assembly committee heard last Wednesday that it certainly can expand the investigation, if government leaders decide to.

In an interview following the hearing, Amnesty’s Corrigan said Northern Ireland is playing catch up with its southern neighbor.

“The victims in the south have pushed the door open,” he said. “Victims in the north are now asking, ‘Why is my government not responding?'”

Corrigan called for a meeting last month with the two partisan leaders who head the Northern Irish government, but hasn’t heard back from either.

At Wednesday’s hearing, the chairman of the committee that oversees those two leaders suggested there’s potential for action by summer on whether a new inquiry should be started, or the existing one amended.

As part of a month-long campaign to get victims to come forward, the commission overseeing the Northern Ireland institutional abuse investigation placed ads on bus shelters nationwide. (©Paresh Dave)

As part of a month-long campaign to get victims to come forward, the commission overseeing the Northern Ireland institutional abuse investigation placed ads on bus shelters nationwide. (©Paresh Dave)

Corrigan said it would be cost-efficient to expand the existing Historical Institutional Abuse inquiry to include the potentially several thousand Magdelene victims. The goal of the investigation is to determine whether the state failed in its duty toward children in its care, and if so, what should be done about that now.

Dealing with people who were abused at local churches is more difficult. Corrigan said that, unlike with the Magdalene laundries, it’s hard to make a case that the Northern Irish government had a watchdog role inside churches. Because of the strong ties between the Irish government and the Roman Catholic Church, the situation was different in the south.

Yet with a new abuse story emerging nearly every week, many observers now see the likelihood for a more comprehensive investigation in Northern Ireland.

“We don’t know the full story about the abuse crisis in the North,” said William Crawley, a BBC presenter based in Belfast, during an interview. “But we will before the calm hits.”

A report isn’t likely to come out until January 2016.

Girls and women working in Catholic Church's Magdalen Laundry in Ireland in the early 20th century. Public domain photo in the US, via Wikipedia. (PD-US-1923-ABROAD)

Girls and women working in Catholic Church’s Magdalene Laundry in Ireland in the early 20th century.
Public domain photo in the US, via Wikipedia. (PD-US-1923-ABROAD)


Paresh Dave is a senior studying journalism, web development and business law at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. His work has been published by the Sacramento Bee, San Francisco Chronicle, GlobalPost.com, IrishCentral.com, Southern California Public Radio and American Public Media.

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