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Editorial: Amends for Ireland’s public sin — the Magdalene Laundries

  • Relatives of victims of the Magdalene Laundries hold a candle lit vigil in solidarity with Justice for Magdalene Survivors and their families outside Leinster House, Dublin,Ireland, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013. The women expect to witness an apology by the Irish Prime Minister Enda  Kenny on behalf of the people of Ireland for ignoring them and their treatment at the 10 laundries in the Republic between 1922 and 1996. The women will also hear details of how the State intends to assist them financially and in other ways as restitution. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

    Relatives of victims of the Magdalene Laundries hold a candle lit vigil in solidarity with Justice for Magdalene Survivors and their families outside Leinster House, Dublin,Ireland, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013. The women expect to witness an apology by the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny on behalf of the people of Ireland for ignoring them and their treatment at the 10 laundries in the Republic between 1922 and 1996. The women will also hear details of how the State intends to assist them financially and in other ways as restitution. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison) Purchase photo reprints »

  • A woman hold a poster as relatives of victims of the Magdalene Laundries hold a candle lit vigil in solidarity with Justice for Magdalene Survivors and their families outside Leinster House, Dublin,Ireland, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013. The women expect to witness an apology by the Irish Prime Minister Enda  Kenny on behalf of the people of Ireland for ignoring them and their treatment at the 10 laundries in the Republic between 1922 and 1996. The women will also hear details of how the State intends to assist them financially and in other ways as restitution. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

    A woman hold a poster as relatives of victims of the Magdalene Laundries hold a candle lit vigil in solidarity with Justice for Magdalene Survivors and their families outside Leinster House, Dublin,Ireland, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013. The women expect to witness an apology by the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny on behalf of the people of Ireland for ignoring them and their treatment at the 10 laundries in the Republic between 1922 and 1996. The women will also hear details of how the State intends to assist them financially and in other ways as restitution. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Relatives of victims of the Magdalene Laundries hold a candle lit vigil in solidarity with Justice for Magdalene Survivors and their families outside Leinster House, Dublin,Ireland, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013. The women expect to witness an apology by the Irish Prime Minister Enda  Kenny on behalf of the people of Ireland for ignoring them and their treatment at the 10 laundries in the Republic between 1922 and 1996. The women will also hear details of how the State intends to assist them financially and in other ways as restitution. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

    Relatives of victims of the Magdalene Laundries hold a candle lit vigil in solidarity with Justice for Magdalene Survivors and their families outside Leinster House, Dublin,Ireland, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013. The women expect to witness an apology by the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny on behalf of the people of Ireland for ignoring them and their treatment at the 10 laundries in the Republic between 1922 and 1996. The women will also hear details of how the State intends to assist them financially and in other ways as restitution. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Relatives of victims of the Magdalene Laundries hold a candle lit vigil in solidarity with Justice for Magdalene Survivors and their families outside Leinster House, Dublin,Ireland, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013. The women expect to witness an apology by the Irish Prime Minister Enda  Kenny on behalf of the people of Ireland for ignoring them and their treatment at the 10 laundries in the Republic between 1922 and 1996. The women will also hear details of how the State intends to assist them financially and in other ways as restitution. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
  • A woman hold a poster as relatives of victims of the Magdalene Laundries hold a candle lit vigil in solidarity with Justice for Magdalene Survivors and their families outside Leinster House, Dublin,Ireland, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013. The women expect to witness an apology by the Irish Prime Minister Enda  Kenny on behalf of the people of Ireland for ignoring them and their treatment at the 10 laundries in the Republic between 1922 and 1996. The women will also hear details of how the State intends to assist them financially and in other ways as restitution. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
  • Relatives of victims of the Magdalene Laundries hold a candle lit vigil in solidarity with Justice for Magdalene Survivors and their families outside Leinster House, Dublin,Ireland, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013. The women expect to witness an apology by the Irish Prime Minister Enda  Kenny on behalf of the people of Ireland for ignoring them and their treatment at the 10 laundries in the Republic between 1922 and 1996. The women will also hear details of how the State intends to assist them financially and in other ways as restitution. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

A tearful Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny stood before Parliament Tuesday to say the nation had failed the more than 10,000 women and girls forced into prison-like institutions known as Magdalene laundries from 1922 to 1996. He was right to offer unqualified apologies to the women who suffered inhumane treatment and unjust incarceration at the hands of the Catholic Church because the church was aided and abetted by the state.

And a sorry, shameful partnership it was. The government has much to regret.

A 1,000-page, government-commissioned report released two weeks ago found that these women were forced into the institutions after being deemed “fallen.” Though these laundries were ostensibly created to offer rehabilitation to prostitutes, they were institutions of cruel and contemptible mistreatment, where the punishment never fit the crime.

The report revealed that the women — and sometimes girls — incarcerated were often guilty of nothing more than being homeless, poverty-stricken, or products of dysfunctional families. For these “crimes” they were institutionalized and forced into hard labor with no recourse or avenue for appeal.

While the report detailed the institutions that operated in Ireland from 1922 to 1996, the year the last one closed, they had been around for much longer. The first one opened in Ireland in 1765. They were taken over by the Catholic Church in 1829. According to some reports, over that time as many as 30,000 women were incarcerated.

The government report found that more than a quarter of the 10,000 women incarcerated from 1922 to 1996 had been directly referred by the government — by a judge, for example, or a truant officer. It also revealed that women may have been incarcerated for infractions as minor as failing to pay a train ticket. Women who ran away from the laundries could be arrested without a warrant.

The women often spent years in these residential workhouses doing menial labor while being denied access to education. Among the work they did: laundry for local hotels, hospitals and prisons; scrubbing floors; and making rosary beads that were sold by the church.

Their efforts were so much part of the fabric of society that the Irish prime minister said: “We swapped our scruples for a solid public apparatus.”

A couple of weeks ago, upon release of the report, Kenny expressed regret for the mistreatment of the women forced into the Magdalene laundries. But he did not offer a full governmental apology.

What led him now to issue a full-fledged apology? He spent time speaking with surviving victims of the Magdalene laundries, an experience he called “humbling and inspiring.”

It’s one thing to read a report, however detailed and heart-rending. It’s another to meet people victimized by a systemic atrocity perpetrated by the two most powerful institutions in Ireland — the state and the Catholic Church.

Kenny announced Tuesday he has appointed a judge to determine financial compensation for the 1,000 women still alive who were incarcerated in the Magdelene laundries. He also promised government funding for a memorial to ensure this sordid chapter of Irish history will not be forgotten.

These are essential steps, for after an apology, amends must be made.

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