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The Magdalene Sisters

Katie Wagner and Maria Smith | Wednesday, February 4, 2004

When Peter Mullen’s drama about the Magdalene Laundries run by the Sisters of Mercy in Ireland came out in 2002, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights condemned the movie as anti-Catholic propaganda.The Magdalene Sisters portrays the lives of girls who were sent into de facto slave labor in the laundries, supposedly in payment for various sins.The Magdalene Laundries removed women from their homes and placed them into prisons run by the Catholic Church for being accused of participating in behavior that was considered sexually immoral. Ironically, not only were these women forced to participate in unpaid labor for their “sins,” but some were sexually abused by priests and nuns.Rape victim Margaret (Ann Marie Duff), the merely flirtatious Bernadette (Nora Jane Noone) and unwed mother Rose (Dorothy Duff) are all taken away from the families to be punished with the permission of their fathers. One particularly humiliating part of this film is the stripping of these women by nuns. Margaret, Bernadette and Rose’s breast, butts and pubic hair are evaluated. Another woman isolated by the Church (Eileen Walsh) is sexually abused by a priest.The film is set in the 1960s, but the Magdalene Laundries were still widely used until the 1970s. The last laundry closed only in 1996.Although the Catholic Leauge acknowledged the historical accuracy and importance of the film, they still objected to the portrayal of Church authorities in the film.”[The directors] have focused on cruel nuns, who were surely atypical, and presented them as being typical,” Louis Giovino, director of Communications for the Catholic League, said in a 2003 press release when the film was released in theatres.”This is a game that can be played with any demographic group and with any institution. Just gather all the dirty laundry, pack it tightly and present it as if it were reality.”The directors of the Women in European Film series sponsored by the Nanovic Institute felt this was not only an appropriate but also an important film to bring to campus.”As an academic, I think this is the place to bring this film,” Nanovic Institute professor Daniel Mattern said. “Even if people think that this film is anti-Catholic, that’s fine, but the point is to get people to think about these things.”In order to provide context for the film the Institute has asked English and Irish Studies professor Luke Gibbons to introduce the historical context of the film and lead a discussion afterwards.Mattern is pleased that the presentation of this film is being paired with an academic look at the issues and said that is important the significance of this film be explained and the film be “contextualized.”The treatment of women during the Magdalene Laundries sounds all too familiar to the Church’s recent problems with pedophilia in the priesthood. “It’s a particularly disturbing element of the history of the Catholic Church,” English and Irish Studies professor Susan Harris said. “The Magdalene Sisters is particularly relevant now because the Catholic Church in America is under fire after some of its own secrets have come to light.”That these discriminatory acts against women took so long to be exposed is shocking. “Not the least of the alarming aspects of The Magdalene Sisters and wider controversies is why we had to wait until the 1990s and 2000s for these grievances to be aired,” Gibbons said. “Silence itself is part of the suffering, just as cover-ups are parts of crime, and the sustained secrecy over decades reveals the extent of the veil of silence thrown over abuse.” Another striking aspect of this scandal was that no Catholic men were given equivalent punishments for engaging in sexual behavior or for being accused for doing so. “The Magdalene Laundries became a particularly disturbing example of how the patriarchal structure of Irish society, the overwhelming institutional power of the Catholic hierarchy, and the Irish Catholic Church’s very strong focus on sexual morality and especially female chastity essentially made Irish women second-class citizens,” said Harris.Notre Dame’s screening of this film is part of the Nanovic Institute’s Women in European Film series. It will be shown in the Carey Auditorium, on Thursday Feb. 5, at 7 p.m.