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The Magdalene Laundry

Someone once said the only thing really new in the world is the history we don't know. The Irish people are learning that right now and it's a painful experience.

It began five years ago when an order of nuns in Dublin sold off part of its convent to real estate developers. On that property were the remains of 133 women buried in unmarked graves, and buried with them was a scandal.

As it turns out, the women had been virtual prisoners, confined by the Catholic Church behind convent walls for perceived sins of the flesh, and sentenced to a life of servitude in something called the Magdalene laundries.

It sounds medieval, something that happened hundreds of years ago, but, in fact, the last Magdalene laundry closed just over two years ago. And as the story was firstly reported in 1999, revelations have shocked the Irish people, embarrassed the Catholic Church and tarnished the country's image.

From the front, the former Good Shepherd Convent in Cork looks like an exclusive private school, with a hidden history too heavy to tell. At the back of the convent, you can still see the skeleton of the washhouse, one of dozens of Magdalene institutions scattered across the countryside.

It was there that Mary Norris and Josephine McCarthy each spent three years of hard labor, enforced silence and prayer, after it was decided that they were in moral danger and unfit to live in Irish society.

Both had come from troubled homes, spent time in Catholic orphanages, and were sent out as servant girls, where they ran into trouble with their employers for staying out late. They were turned over to the nuns because it was suspected they either were, or were about to become, sexually active. Josephine says she was accused of having sex in the backseat of a car.

"And then the next thing I knew, I was with this woman on a train to Cork. And I was just brought up here. I was just told my name was Phyllis, and I'd work in the laundry," said McCarthy, walking down the laundry during her revisit to the convent.

They were given new names by the nuns to help them break from their pasts. No one knows how many women were sent off to the laundries. The religious orders refuse to make those records available, but estimates range into the tens of thousands.

The church was the only authority under which they were held, as Norris explained. "I would have rather been down in the women's jail. At least I would have got a sentence and I would know when I was leaving," she said.

"It's made me feel a horrible, dirty person all my life," McCarthy added, when the two of them walked past the convent.

They were both teenagers when they came here, Norris in the 1950s and McCarthy in the 1960s. Their only crime was appearing to violate the moral code dictated by the church. At that time, it was the church and not the state that was the most powerful force in Ireland. There was no due process and no appeal.

According to McCarthy, the women got up about 5 in the morning, went to Mass, had breakfast, started work and then went to bed about 7 at night.

"That was it. That was our life. And we dare not ask questions," she said. "And (the work is) very hard. You'd have to hand-wash – scrub. You'd have no knuckles left. Ironing – you would be burnt. It was just hard work."

The choice of work was no accident. They were called "Magdalenes", or "penitents". By scrubbing, they were supposed to wash away their sins along with the stains on the laundry of the orphanages, churches, prisons and even the local butcher shop.

The income from their labor put a roof over their heads, food on their plates, and financed any other ventures the nuns might be involved in.

Besides washing all day, every "Magdalene" needed to pray out loud for her sins.

The laundries got their name from Mary Magdalene, the fallen woman who became one of Jesus' closest followers. They began 150 years ago as homes to rehabilitate prostitutes. But by the early 20th century, the role had been expanded to care for unwed mothers and other young women the church considered to be wayward.

The stigma attached to illegitimacy and promiscuity was so severe that the woman was often thrown out of her home, driven from her community, disowned by her family. And for many, the laundries were the only things that stood between them and the street. Although few visual records could be found, some of the massive compounds are still standing.

One of the former Magdalene institutions in Waterford is now a college campus. Niall McElwee, a sociologist who teaches here, has written about the Magdalens.

He said girls could be sent to the institution by different people – parish priests, Catholic curates, family members and sometimes even the girls themselves.

Although some people knew the laundries existed, according to McElwee, what went on behind the convent walls was largely a mystery. It was a place to be feared.

"There would have been apple trees, for example. And this would be one place where children would not steal apples, mainly because they were afraid of what would happen to them if they got caught inside," he explained.

"Some people are arguing that these were prisons. At least in a prison, people had certain rights and responsibilities that were certainly taken away from the women within these walls."

Quoting from one of the religious people, McElwee said in those days, "every effort was made to try and locate these girls." Therefore, even if the confined girls wanted to escape, it would have been very difficult. At the Magdalene institution in Cork, Norris and McCarthy were locked behind 20-foot brick walls, topped with shards of broken glass that were mortared into the concrete.

The only way out was to be claimed by a relative who was willing to take responsibility. McCarthy recalled that they were watched 24 hours a day. And the chances of being claimed was slim, too.

"My mother didn't know where I was. My sisters didn't know where I was. Nobody knew where I was," said Norris.

In some cases, inquiring family members were told that the church had found their missing relatives in other cities, and with new names, they could be difficult to locate.

Norris was finally released when an aunt in Boston began making inquiries. McCarthy was rescued by a brother in London.

She said, "When I left, they gave my brother an envelope with three 10-shilling notes in it. And my brother asked the nun what it was for, and she said, 'That's the payment for working.' And my brother wasn't very nice. And he just tore it up and threw it back at her."

At that time, 30 shillings was about $3.20.

According to McCarthy and Norris, the experience was hardest on unmarried mothers. Their children were taken from them at birth and placed in orphanages, sometimes within the same compound. Both of them remembered a woman who could see and hear her child. "She couldn't even talk to her; she couldn't smile at her. And that was her daughter, her baby daughter in the orphanage," McCarthy recalled.

Most of the babies were eventually adopted, some by good Catholic families in the United States.

Vincent Browne, founder of Magill magazine, is one of Ireland's most respected editors and journalists. He believes what happened to those "Magdalenes" have a lot to do with people's attitudes on sex and women.

"That part of the veneration of the Blessed Virgin has been to accord a status to virginity," he said. "To some extent, women who had had sex, within or without marriage, were regarded as unclean and - and as less than perfect."

Browne said the nuns believed that through suffering and hard work in the laundries for the greater glory of God, they might find salvation in heaven.

"And I suppose a lot of conscientious Catholics were going to be preserved for the hereafter, even though their lives on Earth was going to be harsh and difficult," he added.

When the last laundries finally closed, most of the Magdalenes had nowhere to go. Many of them now reside in group homes and convents around the country. For example, a convent in Dublin still holds some women now being cared for by the same nuns who once confined them.

The association that represents the nuns, or the Conference of Religious of Ireland, declined an interview. It, however, provided CBS a statement saying, the Sisters accept the part they played in this regrettable era and asked that it be examined in context. The statement also admits that many former Magdalenes had painful memories and welcomed the opportunity for them to speak with us.

But when the CBS reporter knocked on the door, he was told, "There's no one to speak."

"I think the attitude at the moment is to batten down the hatches and hope to God that the scandals over-blow and that the media take up some other cause," said McElwee.

The story of the Magdalene laundries is but the latest blow to the prestige and power of the Catholic Church in Ireland, which no longer dominates the political agenda. The church, perhaps afraid of litigation and a movement to win some sort of compensation for the women, has remained silent.

The only church official who was willing to discuss the laundries was Willie Walsh, Bishop of Killaloe.

He said, "I think we ought never to be afraid of truth. I think truth is a fundamental Gospel value." He agreed that in some ways, the values of Gospel could not be reconciled with the treatment that some of these Magdalen women received.

For now, the women must be content with small victories. Norris petitioned the sisters of the Good Shepherd in Cork to at least list the names of the Magdalenes who had been buried in unmarked graves behind the laundry. The nuns complied.

"I, who lived in that society, have a deep sense of shame at the wrong that has been done to them," said Bishop Walsh. "I would see an obligation in us to make some effort to make our reparation for the wrongs that were done to these girls. It's not just a matter for the nuns, or for the religious orders. I think it's a matter for all of us in society."

(The story was originally broadcast on 60 Minutes in 1999)

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