The Australian, 22 February 2013
THIS week, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny apologised to women who had been institutionalised in Magdalene laundries. He described these Catholic, nun-run institutions, in which 10,000 girls and women did unpaid labour between 1922 and 1996, as “a dark part of our history”.
There’s no doubt the laundries were unpleasant, filled with “fallen women” or petty criminals, who were made to wash sheets and do other laborious tasks for local businesses. But - and here’s the rub - it seems the laundries were not quite as unpleasant as we’d been led to believe.
The Irish government’s report into the laundries, which prompted Kenny’s apology, discovered a disconnect between the public perception of the laundries and the lived reality in them.
The general public, having been bombarded by films and plays about how awful laundry life was, looks on these institutions as cesspits of nun violence and sexual assault. Many people’s view of the laundries was cemented by the 2002 movie The Magdalene Sisters, where nuns were shown shaving girls’ heads, forcing them to strip and perving over them in the showers, among other horrors.
But the government report found not one case of sexual abuse by a nun in a Magdalene laundry.
It also found that in most cases where girls were beaten, it was in the same way as was commonplace in schools across Europe in the 1950s and 60s: they were rapped on the knuckles or caned on the legs.
As one woman told the report’s compilers: “It has shocked me to read in papers that we were beat and our heads shaved. I was not touched by any nun and I never saw anyone touched.”
Where once there was much talk of the Magdalene girls being slaves, the report found 35 per cent of women stayed in the laundries for less than three months and 60 per cent stayed less than a year. Many entered voluntarily.
The report’s authors, having no doubt imbibed the same cultural horror stories as the rest of us, apparently were taken aback by “the number of women who spoke positively about the nuns”.
So while Kenny’s apology has made headlines around the world, another response to the laundries report - one asking why we were willing to believe unsubstantiated stories about these institutions - has received far less coverage.
The Irish Times has asked if “factual inaccuracies are justified” if they help raise awareness about the problem of abuse in the Catholic Church. Campaigners say yes, telling the Times “artistic embellishment” about Catholic abuse is fine if it opens society’s eyes to a hidden problem.
This sounds dangerously like the “noble lie” defence, the idea that it’s OK to make things up if you’re doing it in the service of a greater cause. This attitude, this telling of “good lies” designed to jolt people out of their complacency, is now widespread among the Catholic-bashing set.
The fashionable anti-Vatican lobby claims it only wants to uncover the truth about abuse, yet it is remarkably cavalier about facts.
So in 2010, Britain’s The Independent made waves with a piece claiming that in the US “over 10,000 children have come forward to say they were raped (by Catholic priests)”.
This wasn’t true. For the period 1950 to 2002, 10,667 Americans have made allegations of sexual abuse against priests, but most of them do not concern rape; they include various horrible things, such as verbal abuse and fondling.
When the Irish government published the report of its child abuse inquiry commission in 2009, headlines around the world declared “Thousands were raped in Irish reform schools” or “Thousands raped in Ireland’s Christian Brothers schools”.
In fact, the commission heard allegations of 68 rapes in Catholic-run schools from 1940 to 1999, not thousands. That is a horrific number as it is; why embellish it?
Australian campaigners also have an extraordinarily casual attitude towards the facts of Catholic abuse.
Consider the words of Sydney law professor Patrick Parkinson, who recently admitted on ABC News that “reliable statistics are not available”, before nonetheless expressing his opinion that Catholics have committed six times as much sexual abuse as all other religions in Australia combined.
Catholicism’s shrill critics care little for trifling things such as “reliable statistics”.
They’re more interested in painting as horrendous a picture of the church as possible, however impressionistic their daubing may be.
We can only hope that the royal commission into Catholic child abuse in Australia will drum up some reliable statistics - though if the Irish, British and American experiences are anything to go by, even that probably won’t quash the metropolitan elite’s view of the Catholic Church as the most foul institution on earth.
If you point any of this out, as I did to The Independent about the “10,000 rapes”, you risk being accused of apologism.
Objectivity and cool-headedness are frowned on by those who are really interested only in shrilly depicting the Catholic Church as a sordid rape factory.
Which is ironic because Catholic-bashers frequently accuse the Catholic religion of promoting a childish narrative of good and evil that is immune to factual evidence, yet they do precisely the same.
Read more of my articles for The Australian and other publications here.