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Slave labor, by church & state

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Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

In government news last week, the Irish Parliament released a 1,000-page report that belatedly admitted “significant state involvement” in the virtual enslavement of thousands of “fallen” women and girls, some as young as 9 years old, in the infamous Magdalene Laundries, named after the woman cleansed of “seven demons” by Jesus in the Gospels of Mark and Luke and described more imaginatively over the centuries as a rehabilitated prostitute.

The involuntary confinement of girls and women in the Magdalene Laundries began in the mid-1880s and didn't end until 1996, producing more than a century of emotional cruelty, physical abuse and unpaid labor.

“None of us can begin to imagine the confusion and fear experienced by these young girls, in many cases little more than children,” stated Martin McAleese, the committee chairman who headed the inquiry, in his introduction to the report. “Not knowing why they were there, feeling abandoned, wondering whether they had done something wrong and not knowing when, if ever, they would get out and see their families again.”

A report from Dublin in The New York Times last week told the story of twin sisters Etta Thornton-Verma and Samantha Long, born in 1972 and adopted at 9 months.

“Nothing prepared us for what we found,” said Ms. Thornton-Verma, who lives in New York, referring to the search by the sisters to track down their mother. “We were prepared for the ordinary possibilities, like a teenage girl who got pregnant and wasn't in a circumstance to keep us. But we were not thinking that she might be incarcerated by nuns.”

They found their mother in 1995 in one of the more disreputable Magdalene Laundries “where she had toiled since 1967,” then in her mid-teens, “six days a week, without pay” for 28 years.

Their mother became “pregnant twice while under the care of the religious order that ran the laundry,” reported The Times. “Conversations with their mother led her daughters to believe that they were conceived of sexual abuse” and later adopted, along with another girl born several years later and adopted.

Eight years after she was found by her daughters, the woman died of Goodpasture syndrome, “a disease associated with exposure to toxic chemicals used in the laundry,” reported The Times.

The abuse of these allegedly “deviant” people came from both the church and the state. The Magdalene Laundries were run by four religious orders. The state and the courts delivered one-fourth of the incarcerated and unpaid laundry workers and the police hunted down any of the girls and women who managed to escape.

Most of the women who talked to the government committee said they “felt trapped and bewildered, kept in the dark about why they were there and when they could leave,” reported the Los Angeles Times. “Women and girls were routinely scolded and humiliated, the report says.”

The New York Times described the population that was forced to work behind locked doors in these slave labor facilities: “Women who had children outside marriage, girls deemed flirtatious (so-called preventive cases), those with mental disabilities and even victims of sexual abuse were sent to the laundries, often turned in by family, where they simply disappeared from society.”

Said one woman who worked in the laundry in the 1950s: “When that door locked, my life ended.”

Ralph R. Reiland is an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University and a local restaurateur. His e-mail:

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