Eilis O'Hanlon: McAleese Report fails to do justice to suffering of women
There's a big disconnect between committee's findings and personal accounts of hardship.
It would have been welcome had Martin McAleese stuck around afterwards to answer questions and provide clarification on his final report as chair of the inter-departmental committee to establish the facts of State involvement in the Magdalene Laundries, but none of the authors of the last four reports did either, so it wasn't as if the former first husband was breaking with tradition. Nor is it the outgoing senator's fault that the Government initially dropped the baby he handed to them.
But it is his responsibility if the report issued under his name turns out not to be as insightful a document as it seemed on first glance.
Of course, it's easy to pick holes. Whatever failings the McAleese Report may have, it still deserves credit for nailing the myth that the laundries were wholly private institutions over which the State had no power, and the equally poisonous lie, told by the previous government to the UN, that the "vast majority" of inmates went there voluntarily.
Many of its details have also added hugely to the historical picture, including cases of disabled and psychiatrically-ill girls sent to laundries for no other reason than that it was more cost-effective than providing them with proper treatment.
There remains, however, a glaring disconnect between the personal accounts of many inmates and the final report of the McAleese committee. Last year, the Justice for Magdalenes group handed the committee 12 files of supporting evidence, including 795 pages of harrowing survivors' testimonies from girls who were assaulted by nuns, often with keys and belts and other implements, and independent witnesses who attested to the truth of the stories. It could be argued that this treatment was commonplace in Irish society at the time. That's true. But then that makes it even more odd for the McAleese Report to find that a "large majority (of former inmates who provided evidence) said they had neither experienced nor seen other girls or women suffer physical abuse in the Magdalene Laundries" – especially as in Chapter 19 it explicitly states the committee looked at this other evidence, including the report of the Ryan commission into child abuse, which also documented litanies of ill-treatment, as part of its deliberations.
As McAleese notes, there is often a conflict between the testimony of survivors and the written record, but the only way to overcome that discrepancy is to make the widest possible survey of experiences, and the report simply didn't do that. In fact, it admits that the women to whom it spoke "cannot be considered representative" as the sample size was too small, and because there was a bias towards the later years, when the laundries had largely cleaned up their act. There were also issues in using the Ryan Report, as it was impossible to determine if any of the witnesses to that inquiry had been in the 10 institutions which it was this committee's remit to examine. Even so, there's a world of difference between being unable to establish exactly where physical assaults took place, and placing so much emphasis in the final report on the words of inmates who said "we were treated good and well looked after", or doctors who recalled "a group of ladies who appeared to be quite happy and content with their current environment".
Most observers, faced with a contradiction between what they were being told and what other records showed, would wonder if perhaps they were missing something that needed further investigation. That was provided for in the terms of reference of the inter-departmental committee. The interim report, handed to the Government within a few months of the start of the fact-finding mission, said Mr McAleese was "determined to ensure the work of the committee is not unduly prolonged", but added: "If the volume of records uncovered or available resources, including personnel, vary substantially from those currently anticipated, it may be necessary to adjust this intended timeline."
That's rather a narrow set of circumstances envisaged for seeking more time, but given that the committee had already, "in the public interest", explicitly interpreted its remit "in the broadest sense" to include "all possible connections, interactions or overlaps between the State and the Magdalene Laundries", it was surely open to them to extend it for the purpose of hearing as many personal testimonies as possible too. Not least because the committee declared at the start that its "overriding principle" was to "work positively with all those who have information of interest and assistance to the committee" and that it would therefore approach its functions "in a spirit of co-operation with all interested parties in order to establish the full facts and their broader context".
"All" is a crucial word, and it's repeated three times in the above quotes from the interim report. In the event, it seems they did not engage with "all" those who might have "potentially valuable information". Far from it. The focus when it came to dealing with victims was strikingly narrow. Nor did they ask for more time to make it less so, suggesting that the committee was satisfied with the answers it was given and the evidence that it uncovered. That was their right. It's also our right, though, to be dissatisfied with the same story. Indeed, what else could we be, given that there now exists two such radically differing versions of the supposedly same history?
At the least, it could be argued that, having made a deliberate decision to restrict the actual survivors to whom they spoke, the committee would have correspondingly restricted the scope of its conclusions about their collective experiences. What's notable from the report, by contrast, is its surprisingly bullish tone concerning the absence of physical brutality in the laundries. Indeed, one conclusion that might be drawn from the report is that it was much better to end up under the care of those particular religious orders as a result of being indirectly landed in their lap by the State than to be under the State's direct care in industrial and reformatory schools where there was "widespread brutality". There's certainly a case to be made for that, but it wasn't in the committee's remit either to compare laundries with industrial schools, so it's a strange place to go.
These details matter because, as the committee continually states, theirs is a narrative report, whose purpose is not to decide on particular complaints or to come to conclusions on whether there should be redress, but to lay down as many facts as possible. In a narrative report, it's axiomatic that the narrative carries greater weight. The committee admitted as much when it said that, without individual testimony, the report would be incomplete. What was needed, it said, was "the clarity of direct experience". That's the key point. In a narrative report, the "clarity of direct experience" is even more crucial than in a dry legalistic survey, and the tragedy is that the McAleese Report could in no way be said to approach "clarity". That may turn out to be its greatest failing.
The bigger personal tragedy is that the surviving Magdalene women, many now elderly and frail, expect so little from their own country that they're happy with any acknowledgement that they did not deserve to be sent to the laundries in the first place. We should continue to make as complete a record as possible of their histories whilst we still can. They might expect nothing better, but we have a duty to expect nothing less on their behalf.