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Explainer: How can religious orders refuse to pay compensation to Magdalenes?

Why are the religious orders responsible for running the Magdalene Laundries not obliged to pay financial compensation to survivors?

(AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

Updated at 14.30, Wednesday

THE FOUR RELIGIOUS orders responsible for running the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland have refused to contribute financially to the fund set up for survivors.

Yesterday, the Mercy Sisters, the Sisters of Charity, the Good Shepherd Sisters and the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity informed the Minister for Justice Alan Shatter that it would not pay into the fund, which could cost as much as €58 million.

Why are survivors of the Magdalene Laundries receiving compensation?

The Magdalene Laundries were institutions set up in Ireland with the express aim of housing ‘fallen women’ – namely, women working as prostitutes. However, soon those incarcerated in the laundries (labelled ‘penitents’) were typically women and children who had become pregnant outside of marriage (who were sometimes victims of rape), unmarried mothers, women with mental disabilities, women deemed to be ‘flirtatious’, and those who were simply poor, homeless or orphaned. Children born inside the laundries were either separated from their mothers and placed for adoption or put work.

The laundries were ostensibly set up to ‘rehabilitate’ women who had broken the rigid moral codes of the time, but were effectively a prison for residents, who were forced to undertake hard physical labour and were not permitted to leave by their own free will. Residents also endured oppressive daily regimens that included long hours of prayer and enforced silence. Survivors have spoken of verbal, psychological, physical and sexual abuse.

The women and children that worked in the laundries did not receive any compensation for their work, and by the time the last laundry closed in 1996, it is estimated that 30,000 women and girls had been incarcerated.

Many residents who died while at the institutions were buried in mass or unmarked graves.

The interior of the now derelict Sisters of Our Lady of Charity Magdalene Laundry on Sean McDermott St in Dublin’s north inner city on the day of The Irish Government has apologised to the thousands of women locked up in Catholic-run workhouses known as Magdalene laundries between 1922 and 1996. (Julien Behal/PA Wire)

How does the compensation scheme work?

The Magdalene Commission Report by Justice John Quirke established a scheme for women who lived and worked in the laundries.

Justice Quirke recommended that the women in question should all receive cash payments in the range €11,500 (if their duration of stay was three months or fewer) to €100,000 (duration of stay of 10 years or more). If the cash payment due is above €50,000, Justice Quirke recommends that it should paid in the form of a lump sum of €50,000 plus an annual payment related to the notional remaining lump sum, to be paid weekly.

In total, the scheme could cost as much as €58 million. (Read all the details of the compensation scheme here.)

If the religious orders were involved, why don’t they have to pay?

The recommendations made by Justice Quirke were based on the McAleese Report, an independent inquiry set up to investigate the extent of the State’s involvement in the laundry system. Amongst other findings, the McAleese Report challenged the “common perception has been that the Laundries were highly profitable”, concluding that they were not profit-making enterprises.

Although the Inter-Departmental Committee was not required to examine the available financial records of the Magdalene Laundries, it decided that it was in the public interest to do so. The Committee reported that the laundries had operated on a “subsistence or close to break-even basis” and that they would have “found it difficult to survive financially without other sources of income, such as donations, bequests and financial support from the State”.

As such, the Magdalene Laundries were effectively classed as charitable pursuits rather than industrial enterprises by the report, which they claim exempts them from the redress scheme.

However, Professor John Crown raised serious questions about the assertion that the laundries were not profitable, writing:

It does not seem credible that organisations which had State-funded contracts with other organisations that they owned were not actually generating a profit. Many of the religious orders which ran the laundries also ran the hospitals and had the gift of the contracts for laundry services for hospitals and other institutions, using taxpayers money and at the same time employing staff who were effectively working for free.

A burial plot for victims of the Magdalene Laundries in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. (Julien Behal/PA Wire)

Has the government asked the religious orders to contribute financially?

The Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has appealed to the religious orders to meet what he termed their “moral obligation”, however he emphasised that he could not do anything about their non-compliance with the compensation aspect of the scheme, saying: “I’m not going to pretend there is something I can do”.

Have the religious orders offered to help survivors in any way?

The four religious orders involved in the running of the Magdalene Laundries have offered to help facilitate access to records and validating claims. The orders alsosaid they were already making a ‘contribution’ by caring for more than 100 former residents of the Magdalene Laundries and providing them with continued accommodation and supports.

In response to a question by RTÉ News yesterday, a spokesman for the religious orders said it was not known how much the HSE already contributed to care of the elderly women mentioned.

TheJournal.ie has amended this article to reflect that findings within the McAleese Report are the basis for the religious orders in question declining to contribute financially to the Magdalene compensation fund.

Read more about the Magdalene Laundries>

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