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I recently saw the movie The Magdalene Sisters. Here's the premise: For 150 years, ending in 1996, teenage girls in Ireland who got pregnant or raped, or were so attractive it was assumed they would eventually become promiscuous, were sent by their parents to prisonlike asylums run by the Catholic church. Nuns oversaw day-to-day operations. The girls were forced to work in laundries from dawn till dusk 364 days a year and were fed only gruel. The asylums were surrounded by high walls topped with broken glass and had locked gates and bars on the windows. Nuns stood guard at night to make sure no one escaped. Far from being released upon turning 21, these girls were imprisoned for life; in the words of the movie's mother superior, "I decide when or if you're allowed to leave." Thirty thousand women were locked up in these asylums over the years.

I'm assuming even the Catholic church in Ireland wasn't exempt from laws against false imprisonment and the like, so these women had to know they were being held illegally. Despite the high walls and so on, it's hard to imagine a woman of, say, 35 having remained there since age 18 or 19 simply because she'd been physically prevented from leaving. Could a religious organization hold someone against her will decade after decade? Wouldn't the more determined eventually find a way out? The inmates outnumbered the nuns by a wide margin. It's not like the nuns were armed. What gives? --Mark Reynolds, Carol Stream, Illinois

I hear you, bud. The common reaction to Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters (2002), which depicts what amounts to a church-operated slave labor camp, is disbelief. You can imagine this kind of thing happening during Victorian times, but the movie is set in 1964. Was Ireland that wacky? Was the Catholic church? Sure looks that way. The scandal didn't break until 1993, and the full story has yet to be told, but here's what we know so far:

1. Despite widespread impressions to the contrary, Magdalene asylums weren't centrally organized, weren't operated by a single religious order or solely by the Catholic church, and weren't all in Ireland. There was a Magdalene asylum in San Francisco as late as the 1930s, and similar institutions could be found at one time around the world.

2. Named for the New Testament prostitute, the Magdalene movement originated in 18th-century England. Magdalene asylums took in fallen women--prostitutes initially, then unwed mothers and eventually, in Ireland at least, any female suspected of being out there sexually, including girls who were simply flirtatious. In Sex in a Cold Climate, the 1998 documentary by Steve Humphries that inspired Mullan to make his film, four former inmates speak chillingly of the cruelty of the nuns in charge, some of whom had once been inmates themselves. A good if narrow account is Do Penance or Perish: A Study of Magdalen Asylums in Ireland (2001) by Frances Finnegan.

3. Organized abuse of children in Ireland wasn't limited to Magdalene institutions. Equally appalling were the Irish industrial schools, which were funded by the state and operated by Catholic religious orders. Most of the inmates weren't orphans but rather kids (of both sexes) whose parents were too poor to care for them. They were beaten, starved, and dressed in rags; many were sexually abused. Reports of unexplained deaths and so on were dismissed by public officials. The industrial schools began to close in the late 1960s; in 1999, after several media exposes, the Irish government apologized to the former inmates. Later the Catholic church agreed to pay 100 million pounds to sexual abuse victims. The best examination to date is Suffer the Little Children: The Inside Story of Ireland's Industrial Schools (1999) by Mary Raftery and Eoin O'Sullivan.

4. Were Magdalene asylums in Ireland conspicuously worse than those elsewhere in the world? Too little is known to permit any confident statement. However, Finnegan's account suggests that while the strict discipline in the asylums in some countries relaxed over time, in Ireland it grew harsher. Why? The rigid character of the Irish Catholic church and its dominance of the Irish state surely had something to do with it. Rather than administer social services itself, the government subcontracted many of them to religious orders. Take that authoritarian predisposition and add in Irish society's archaic attitude toward sex, and the unsurprising result is systematic brutality that would do credit to the Taliban.

Which brings us to your question. How did the Irish gulag persist for so long with so little outcry? Social pressure was part of it: Magdalene prisoners--like their families, who alone could rescue them--generally felt too stigmatized to discuss the experience. More fundamentally, Mullan has argued in interviews, the victims accepted the premise that the twists in charge could send them to perdition and that, in the end, submission was their only choice.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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