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CFFC in the News - 2003

copley news service

'Magdalene Sisters' Awash in Controversy

Sandi Dolbee

8 September 2003

The Catholic Church needs another controversy like hell needs a heat wave - but that's what it's getting, courtesy of a film about the cruelty of nuns who ran laundry factories in Ireland.

When it opened, "The Magdalene Sisters" brought to the theater screen a brutal, heart-wrenching depiction of an environment that was a cross between a prison and a sweatshop for generations of women cast off by their families.

Written and directed by Scottish actor Peter Mullan, and released by Miramax Films, the movie portrays an Irish society's cruelty toward unwed mothers and other women deemed too promiscuous or perhaps merely just too tempting.

An estimated 30,000 women were incarcerated in the now-closed Magdalene Laundries run by Catholic sisters over about 150 years. The name came from Mary Magdalene, the female follower of Jesus in the New Testament who has been described by scholars as everything from a saint to a prostitute.

In the movie, the fallen women of the Magdalene Laundries were expected to wash the clothes as if they were washing away their sins. It was their penance. And it was awful.

"This is actually the user-friendly version, the palatable version," said Mullan during a recent visit to San Diego. "The real version is even worse."

Since debuting last year in Europe, "The Magdalene Sisters" has been blasted by the Vatican as a gross exaggeration and praised by critics for its courage.

But it's the feedback from former residents of these laundries, sometimes referred to as asylums, that the 43-year-old Mullan most cares about. And those women, he says, tell him that they loved the film.

The last laundry reportedly closed in 1996. By then, however, word of the abuses was leaking out and even some of the nuns were admitting there had been problems.

"We made mistakes," Sister Lucy Bruton, who was then the reverend mother of this last facility, told The Irish Times. "One of my greatest regrets is that we continued with the status quo rather than pioneering change. If a woman came in today with her daughter, I'd tell her to get lost. I'm not saying I'd refuse to take the girl, but I'd indicate to the mother that you don't hide people away."

Since then, one of the orders that operated the laundries has apologized for its wrongdoings and an Irish bishop has called the facilities "a source of pain and shame." For Mullan, the church's response is not enough.

"These women have not received any recognition," he said, sitting in a hotel room overlooking San Diego Bay. "They received no compensation. No adequate apology."

Raised a Catholic, Mullan has since shifted his ideological allegiance to Marxism. Though he says he believes that the church does more good than harm, he's zealous about the laundries issue.

"They will not give out the information, the names of the women, how long the women were in there," said Mullan, chain-smoking cigarettes between gulps of cream-spiked coffee. "Exactly how many women were in there? How much money did these places make? And one other thing: How high up did it go?"

Like its creator, the film is blunt and driven. As the head nun tells a group of women when they arrive, "The philosophy here at Magdalene is a very simple one. Here, you may redeem yourself by working beyond human endurance to remove the stains of the sins you have committed."

And that's one of her more compassionate speeches.

No Balance Intended

There isn't a nice nun in the film.

Even in "The Pianist," about Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman, there is a Nazi who gives Szpilman food and a coat. "The Magdalene Sisters" offers no such relief.

"Why the hell should I try to be balanced when all the evidence suggests it (kindness) didn't exist?" said Mullan. "This film was from the girls' point of view, unashamedly from their point of view."

The script focuses on three young women in the 1960s - one is shipped off after being raped by her cousin, another is an orphan starting to garner the attention of boys and a third is hustled away after giving birth to a child out of wedlock.

Mullan says the women are composites, drawn from a documentary about these facilities that he saw five years ago. However, he insists that all the incidents in the movie actually occurred.

"Obviously, the psychological and emotional and spiritual makeup of the girls is fictional on my part, but what happens to them is absolutely true."

The movie won the top award, the Golden Lion, at last year's Venice Film Festival. L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, was not likewise impressed, calling it "an inept caricature" and an "angry and rancorous provocation."

William Donohue, president of the conservative Catholic League in New York, issued several statements condemning the movie. He has asked Disney to cut its ties with Miramax for handling this and other films that he says bash the church (among the others: "Priest" and "Dogma"). He has also complained that the filmmaker "focused on cruel nuns, who surely were atypical, and presented them as being prototypical."

On the other side, Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, a liberal reform group in the United States, praises the movie as "a remarkably restrained portrayal of the emotional and physical abuse suffered by Irish women who were imprisoned by church authorities when they simply did not fit the image of good girls that the church, their parents and a repressive society was most comfortable with."

Kissling said the Vatican should denounce "the sickness and corruption it exposes," rather than the messenger.

Some Catholics have grown weary of reports of pedophile priests and church cover-ups.

"It seems that there really are people out there trying to sacrifice the Roman Catholic faith," said one local reader recently. "... It's just too much."

As for Mullan, he is convinced that this is dirty laundry worth airing.

"My ambition was to get these women recognized, this stigma taken away from them and compensation, be it spiritual, emotional or financial, from the church."

He takes another drag on another cigarette.

"If we can embarrass them into doing something, I'll die a happy man."

This article courtesy of Copley News Service.