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Dr Katherine O'Donnell: State must force orders to apologise

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Today we are seeing the remarkable images of Pope Francis meeting with Philomena Lee, whose son Anthony was repeatedly taken from her by a Catholic religious order.

The first time Philomena lost Anthony to a coercive regime of adoption that shamed the 'unmarried' mothers. There were multiple other occasions when this same religious order lied to both Anthony and Philomena and effectively denied them the relationship of mother and son that they both so evidently craved.

The heart-warming scene of Pontiff and Philomena, survivor of Sean Ross Abbey Mother & Baby Home, is a welcome step in the right direction for the Catholic Church.

Yet there are many more steps that need to be taken and yesterday the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child pointed the way that the Vatican should go. As child abuse was a central focus of the committee it is perhaps not surprising that Ireland figured so prominently in the clearly-written 16-page report.

A central section of the report called on the Vatican to "Conduct an internal investigation into the conduct of religious personnel working in the Magdalene laundries in Ireland". The UN Committee is also calling for "full compensation" to be paid to the victims either through the congregations themselves or through the Holy See as supreme power of the church.

The UN wants the Vatican to take all appropriate measures to ensure the physical and psychological recovery for the survivors and to "assess the circumstances and reasons which have led to such practices and take all necessary measures to ensure that no women and children can be arbitrarily confined for whatever reason in Catholic institutions in the future".

While the Irish State has apologised to the Magdalenes, the four religious orders that ran the Magdalene Laundries (Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Charity, Sisters of Our Lady of Charity and Good Shepherd Sisters) will not apologise to survivors of the Magdalene laundries.

Neither will the congregations make a financial contribution to the Government's reparations scheme, which was founded on the tenets of restorative justice. Yet how can there be justice without the nuns' apology?

These orders still play a prominent role in Irish public life in terms of the schools, hospitals (private and public) and social services they run. It might be argued that their numbers are diminishing, yet that is true only if we consider the congregations in Ireland.

These are global organisations and they are increasing their influence in many other parts of the world.

If the Vatican will not hold them to account for their responsibility in running the grossly abusive Magdalenes in Ireland, how will they be held to account for their behaviour in other countries?

Our Government conducted an inter-departmental inquiry into state involvement with the Magdalene institutions which fell well short of the kind of independent inquiry into the Magdalenes called for by Justice for Magdalenes (JFM), the Irish Human Rights Commission and the UN Committee Against Torture.

Cabinet members have periodically conveyed their wish that the orders would apologise or contribute to the compensation fund but in the absence of the kind of inquiry called for yesterday by the UN the Government is left with little more than moral persuasion and the Irish taxpayer is left to pick up the financial tab, as was the case with the redress board and the banking scandals.

KATHERINE O'DONNELL IS DIRECTOR OF THE UCD WOMEN'S STUDIES CENTRE IN THE SCHOOL OF SOCIAL JUSTICE, UCD, AND A MEMBER OF JFM RESEARCH

Irish Independent