A few days ago, my own Benedictine community of nuns watched "The Magdalene Sisters," Peter Mullan's disturbing new film about "fallen" women sent to work in Irish convent laundries. It was a very painful event for all of us. There was no defensiveness, just real chagrin that we women ever allowed ourselves to get into situations like that in the name of God.

This movie is a story that needs to be told, not because it is one story but because it is six stories.

It is the story of a church whose theology of Eve could justify the destruction of women to `save' their souls. Labeled temptresses because men could not control their own sexual urges, Irish women were sent away to the laundries--many of them for life--for being pregnant out of wedlock, for being independent, for being flirtatious. It is the story of a culture that asked no questions of its church, and that germinated guilt like mold on the heart. Adults who never claimed a mature spirituality for themselves stayed forever "the children of Holy Mother Church" and so sacrificed their own daughters for the sake of its honor. It is the story of the women immersed in that culture and that church, both the inmates of the Magdalene Laundries and the nuns whose own sexuality had been so warped by this theology that they devoted their lives to running these laundries. It's the story of the men who created and supported this culture and this church, had all of its privileges, but paid few of its prices. There were no Magdalene Laundries for the men who had impregnated the women who were sent there. It's the story of what happens to women when they are made invisible in a world that wreaks on its women a morality and theology written only by men.
And finally, it is the story of the long-term incarceration of girls in a place where they became physically as well as socially invisible--all for the questionable crime of bearing children in a sexually suppressed and guilt-ridden world. At first glance, it would seem that unmasking the abuse of these women, setting an old record straight, is the real value of this film. But it is not. Those positions, true as they may be--even overdrawn as we hope they are--are not the only thing at stake here. What is at stake is the challenge to look at anyone who degrades another human being in the name of doing a good thing: prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, for instance, or homosexuals in society, or women in the church. I am sure the accuracy of the film will be debated for months. The fact is that accuracy and truth are not the same thing. The film may be faulted for `accuracy,' but it is the truth of the society it reflects that must concern us. Apologists for these Irish detention homes for `fallen' women will criticize the film for making sweeping generalizations about both the purpose and the quality of the homes. And undoubtedly, the movie does. To tell the story of an entire institution through just three main characters implies a great deal of compression. After all, such homes first emerged in a Victorian England fearful of venereal disease and puritan in its attitudes toward sex. By 1898, England alone had 300 such institutions and employed over 1,200 full-time personnel. The `rescue' of prostitutes was big business all around the world, and not a Catholic business alone, obviously. The defense will most certainly be made that past times cannot be evaluated by the standards of this time--but we must remember that the last of these institutions only closed in 1996. The defense will also point to the fact that these institutions were actually 19th century "houses of refuge" for pregnant girls and were developed with the best of intentions. Which may well be true. Advocates of the film, on the other hand, will just as surely hail it as a breakthrough moment, an historical expose of religious fanaticism-Catholic in origin and sexual in nature--and the evils that grow out of transplanting church laws into the secular world. Which surely it is.

Anecdotes collected from women incarcerated in the laundries detail regular beatings and humiliations, grueling labor conditions, and instances of sexual exploitation by visiting priests. Nuns who operated the laundries--themselves taught that chastity was a "higher" vocation and sexual relations suspect--were imbued with a fervent desire to "save bad women." They ran the laundries, therefore, with a commitment to penance and discipline that, at least in many instances, bordered on the sadistic.

What's more, women who found themselves in Catholic laundries--unlike those in short-term Protestant Rescue Homes--received neither education nor financial compensation for their work. In fact, until the development of domestic washing machines in the 1950s, Magdalene Laundries were big business for the religious orders that ran them. The religious reality is the story of a church, any church, with political power. With little or no separation of church and state in Ireland during this period, the church elevated private moral matters to matters of state. Worse, those moral standards were themselves deficient to the core. But the state failed, too. The state failed in its obligation to monitor public institutions--and so the institutions themselves, for all practical purposes, became private ones, with private aims, private goals, and private faults of their own. And the state colluded in the cause by passively surrendering its own responsibility for its citizens. The women's issue is the development of two populations--the "holy" women and the "sinful" women--both of whom were suppressed, diminished and treated like pawns. Mothers were powerless to speak for their daughters. Nuns wielded unthinking power over other women. Young women learned that sex was bad, that men were worse, and that they themselves were somehow tainted. In the 1990s, the very period in which the laundries were coming to light, I encountered deep anticlericalism and almost irrational anger at nuns and priests from lay people in Ireland. I didn't understand it then; it shocked me. I understand it now, and I am more shocked than ever to know the roots of it.

The question will be whether or not a film like this should be made, should be viewed. Isn't it mere Catholic-bashing? Let me put my answer this way: What can't be faced, can't be cured. The nuns I know want to be sure that nothing like this can ever happen again.

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