06/26/2013 12:45 EDT | Updated 08/26/2013 05:12 EDT

Ireland to pay living ex-residents of Catholic-run Magdalene laundries at least $45 million

DUBLIN - Ireland will pay several hundred former residents of Catholic-run Magdalene laundries at least 34.5 million euros ($45 million) to compensate them for their years of unpaid labour and public shame, the government announced Wednesday following a decade-long campaign by former residents of the workhouses.

Justice Minister Alan Shatter apologized to the women — an estimated 770 survivors out of more than 10,000 who lived in the dozen facilities from 1922 to 1996 — that it had taken so long for them to receive compensation. The move marked the latest step in a two-decade effort by Ireland to investigate and redress human rights abuses in its Catholic institutions.

Shatter's decision came four months after a government-commissioned probe found that women consigned to the laundries were broadly branded "fallen" women, a euphemism for prostitutes. The investigation found that few actually were, while most instead were victims of poverty, homelessness and dysfunctional families in a state lacking the facilities to care for them.

In remarks to former Magdalenes, some of them in the press-conference audience, Shatter said he hoped they would accept the compensation plans as "a sincere expression of the state's regret for failing you in the past, its recognition of your current needs, and its commitment to respecting your dignity and human rights as full, equal members of our nation."

And in a challenge to the four orders of nuns that ran the workhouses, Shatter called on them to help pay the bill.

The orders — the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge, the Sisters of Charity, and the Good Shepherd Sisters — all issued statements welcoming the payments plan. None offered any pledge to contribute and insisted their staff had done the best they could at the time, given the state's own inability to care for the women.

The nuns noted that they still were providing homes to more than 100 former laundry workers who chose to remain in church care when the last of the laundries closed, while virtually none of the nuns involved in running the workhouses was still alive today.

"We wish we had provided a better and more comprehensive service and shown more empathy, but we were also part of a system that had little comprehension or understanding of how to truly care for these women," said the Good Shepherd Sisters, who ran four laundries in Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Wexford. "We always acted in good faith and many of our sisters dedicated their entire lives to this work."

Shatter said the total cost of payments could reach 58 million euros ($75.5 million) if the maximum number of eligible women worldwide applies. The tax-free payments would range from 11,500 euros ($15,000), for women who spent less than three months working in a laundry, to up to 100,000 euros ($130,000) for those who spent 10 years or more there.

As part of the plans, former Magdalenes also will receive state-funded retirement pensions and free medical care at state-funded facilities.

Activists representing the so-called "Maggies" had demanded justice and state compensation since 2002, when a previous government launched a compensation fund for people abused in Catholic-run orphanages and workhouses for children.

Former Magdalene residents were declared ineligible, as the government contended that the laundries were privately run institutions with negligible state involvement. Taxpayers since have paid more than 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion) to more than 13,000 people who suffered sexual, physical and psychological abuse in the children's residences.

A government-commissioned investigation in February found that the state was legally responsible for overseeing the laundries, too. Prime Minister Enda Kenny offered an official apology for what he called "a cruel, pitiless Ireland" that had abused the women with " untrue and offensive stereotypes."

Investigators trawling through decades of the laundries' residency records found that more than a quarter of women were directly committed to the laundries by public officials, such as judges or truancy officers, and all residents spent their days in menial labour without access to education.

Most did laundry for hotels, hospitals and prisons, while others scrubbed floors or made rosary beads for the church's profit.

The report found that the average length of stay was just seven months, not the lifetime imprisonment commonly depicted in fictional works. It said 14 per cent stayed more than five years, and 8 per cent more than a decade.

Many hundreds checked into the facilities repeatedly for short periods, reflecting their poverty and the Irish state's inadequate facilities for homeless women. And until the 1970s, judges often ordered women guilty of crimes ranging from shoplifting to infanticide into the laundries rather than Ireland's male-dominated prison system.

The report did dispute depictions in popular culture of physical beatings in the institutions, noting that many Magdalene residents had transferred there as teenagers from Catholic-run industrial schools where such violence was common, and some survivors in their adult recollections failed to distinguish between the two. It found no evidence of such attacks in the nuns' care and, specifically, no complaints of sexual abuse by the nuns.



Ireland's compensation plans,

Magdalene Laundries report,