Sunday, October 31, 2010

No redress
Dispatching the Magdalene Laundries and Bethany Home “under the sod.”
James M. Smith
Associate Professor
English Department & Irish Studies Program
Boston College
Chestnut Hill, MA 02467

Dispatching the Magdalene Laundries and Bethany Home “under the sod.”

The government reiterated last week that there is no plan to extend the residential institutions redress scheme to survivors of the Magdalene laundries or the Bethany Home. Ministers Dermot Ahern and Sean Haughey contend that the State is not culpable for the abuses that took place in these institutions. This despite the fact that the Departments of Justice, Education, Health, Defence, Finance and Social Welfare, as well as the Judiciary, were complicit in referring women and children to these institutions and/or failed to uphold statutory provisions regulating their operation.

Now comes word that CORI’s executive board is refusing to meet and listen to a presentation detailing the Justice for Magdalenes (JFM) campaign to bring about (i) an apology and (ii) a distinct redress scheme. JFM sought a meeting with CORI on the advice of Cardinal Sean Brady, who characterized said presentation as “fair” and “balanced” while also encouraging the group to “continue its efforts to establish dialogue and a process of justice and healing for all concerned.” What does it mean that the Primate and CORI are on such different pages?

This is Ireland in 2010—Ireland after the Ferns, Ryan, and Murphy Reports, Ireland after Pope Benedict’s apology, Ireland as it prepares for an apostolic visit. The continuing refusal to engage survivors of the Magdalene laundries and the Bethany Home underscores the continuing need for transparency in Church-State relations.

The deepening economic crisis is, of course, the proverbial elephant in the midst of this discussion. The government has informed JFM that it will not fund any compensation package for Magdalene survivors. The religious congregations fear further dissipation of their assets. Money is the determining factor. Consequently, there will be no apology, no admission of culpability, no access to records, no health and housing services, no memorial, no oral history project.

Banks meanwhile are bailed out. Executives in corporate and public service enterprises receive golden parachute pay-off’s. Political representatives exploit the expenses reimbursement system. But, the cost involved in making reparation to some of the most marginalized of Irish citizens will break the national coffers?

Apologies are no longer cheap. Apologies establish legal liability. And thus survivors of the Magdalene laundries and the Bethany Home are still waiting to hear the words, “we were wrong and we are sorry.”

Bertie Ahern’s apology to residential institution survivors, in May 1999, is crucially instructive on this issue. On that occasion, the apology came first; survivors came forward demanding justice in greater numbers having first been told that what happened to them was wrong. Church and State deny survivors of the Magdalene laundries and the Bethany Home the same restorative justice.

Magdalene survivors must also deal with a particular sexual stigma that, in part, contributes to their unwillingness to come forward and speak about their past. For women of a certain generation this stigma is deeply felt. And, Church and State know this to be the case. Indeed, they depend on it.

Justice for Magdalenes will persevere despite the latest obstructionist tactics. We do so, because survivors of the Magdalene laundries and the Bethany Home do exist. There are communities of former Magdalene women, for example, living in convents in Dublin, Galway, Limerick, Cork and Waterford.

Survivors read between the lines of political gobbledygook and religious simulation. As one such survivor told me recently, “they’re hoping that in 10 years, we’ll all be under the sod and they can relax.”

James M. Smith is an associate professor in the English department and Irish Studies program at Boston College. He is the author of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment. He serves on Justice for Magdalene’s advisory board committee.

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