Last week, the nation of Ireland released a report detailing the abusive practices that occurred at its so-called Magdalene laundries (known outside of Ireland as Magdalene asylums) as well as how the state supported this institution. The 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters provides a dramatic account of the worst abuses.
In the film, three women are sent to a Magdalene laundry that sustains itself by providing laundry services performed by so-called “fallen women” (usually prostitutes trying to get off the streets or unwed mothers). However, the home is essentially a prison run by corrupt nuns who psychologically and physically abuse the women who are sent there, some of whom are "guilty" only of being too pretty or being a victim of rape. The women are kept under lock and key and are forced to perform grueling labor in complete silence. Failure to comply can result in violent punishment such as bloody forced haircuts with straight razors.
The film is compelling and despite my best efforts to be objective I let it emotionally manipulate me. As the film concluded I had this burning hatred for nuns, which was completely irrational since it was based on the actions of a few fictional villainous nuns. This shows that in the presence of evil our emotions can overwhelm our reason, and we must take great care to not let that happen.
While the 2013 Irish report says that sexual abuse did not occur, it does vindicate the film’s descriptions of psychological abuse. The report did not include details of physical abuse, which angry Magdalene survivors vehemently claim happened.
So how should Catholics respond to the horrendous details of the so-called Magdalene asylums?
Compassion and Clarity
We should approach victim testimony and factual accounts with an open mind, compassionate hearts, and without fear that the truth will somehow refute our faith. How could it? Would this horrific abuse prove there wasn’t a God who created the universe? Would it prove Jesus of Nazareth did not rise from the dead? Would it prove Jesus did not entrust the Church to Peter and build it upon the foundation of the Apostles (Ephesians 2:20)?
Some critics might respond that God would never entrust his Church to such corrupt, sinful people, but this betrays God’s history of using broken people to accomplish his will. God uses people such as the deceiver Isaac, the unfaithful Moses, the adulterer David, the coward Peter, and the murderer Paul. It should come as no surprise that sin will enter into the Church, because the Church is comprised of sinners who need healing. It’s the devil’s primary mission to destroy God’s house. He will fail, but that doesn’t mean he won’t achieve some short-term victories when people freely cooperate with his temptations.
A critic may argue that religion and its view of women is harmful, and that is what is to blame in the Magdalene asylum scandal. However, the Magdalene laundries began with good intentions and were places of refuge for women who wanted to escape a life of prostitution. Many women voluntarily came to live in these homes, sometimes repeatedly over the course of their lives, in order to escape what author Lu Ann De Cunzo called "disease, the prison or almshouse, unhappy family situations, abusive men and dire economic circumstances."
Second, while the idea of consigning someone to an asylum may appall us, historically it was a common procedure in America and Europe for the state to consign anyone who was deemed socially dysfunctional to asylums. It was not some backward or medieval idea found only in the minds of Catholic clergy. Furthermore, some claim that we still continue to operate asylums for the mentally ill today in the form of the U.S. prison system. While I by no means defend the involuntary and abusive nature of asylums, this should keep us from engaging in what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.”
Third, the prisonlike behavior in the Magdalene asylums is not a Catholic behavior nor a phenomenon associated with religion; it is part of the human condition. In 1971, psychology students at Stanford University conducted the historic Stanford prison experiment. The original goal was for students to role play being guards and inmates in a fabricated prison for two weeks. The experiment was canceled after only six days because the students portraying the guards became utterly sadistic as they abused and dehumanized the “inmates.” If such cruelty can arise in one week within a scientific study, it’s not surprising to see that, in the absence of safeguards, Magdalene asylums slowly turned into unjust prisons, which also occurred in secular insane asylums within the United States.
As Catholics, we should express sorrow for women who were abused at the hands of nuns or members of the Church. However, we should not apologize for efforts to provide refuges for prostitutes nor say that sex outside of marriage is not a sin. We should instead support organizations that achieve the original goal of the Magdalene asylums: providing a safe and faithful environment where women can be treated with dignity. For example, Maggie’s Place is a collection of maternity homes that provide a warm, faith-filled, and healthy environment for poor or homeless pregnant women to give birth and raise their children.
What makes us angry about the Magdalene laundries is that the operators failed to treat these women as persons made in God’s image, persons who should be loved and never abused or falsely imprisoned. Far from disproving the Church’s divine claims, evil and injustice prove we are broken people who need grace dispensed in the sacraments to come back into full communion with God’s family.