Me at work in my studio
Image by survivor, Rachael Romero.
Opinion: “Women who have Lost their Way” by Rachael Romero, 2013
The Washington Times article: “A Magdalene Laundry survivor speaks out,” reminds us that Magdalene Laundries were not only in Ireland but replicated all over the world.
Was the Irish State’s recent apology for their complicity with the church in the enslavement of young women for years inside the notorious Magdalene Laundries, (or workhouses for girls, many of which were run by Good Shepherd nuns)--and subsequent calls for restorative justice for survivors---the impetus for the Good Shepherd Sisters in Australia putting a new spin on the history they share with Irish nuns? By recasting themselves online as seekers of justice they hope you don’t know of their role in more than a century of hidden imprisonment of vulnerable girls in Australia’s infamous Magdalene Laundries. When they say their doctrines promote freedom, do we infer that hypocrisy is their policy as a means to deceive and deflect criticism? Their new website says they’ve commissioned Anti-Slavery Australia to route out “hidden exploitation.” The Australian Good Shepherd’s historical perpetration of “hidden exploitation” in Magdalene Laundries no doubt informs their expertise. Disclosure: As a recipient of ‘hidden exploitation’ in their hands, so does mine!
In 1967, inside the dark-walled Dickensian world they ruled supreme, the Good Shepherd nuns suggested that I might just as well give up school. I was just fourteen. It occurred to me that school was mandatory till age fifteen so I claimed it not only as my right, but also as a way to get a few hours out of forced labor in their thundering, antiquated laundry. How had I come to this dreadful place? Like so many others I’d run away from home following a particularly brutal and life threatening attack by my father, (who had abused me physically, psychologically and sexually for years). Having turned myself into the Welfare I was subsequently dispatched (under the signature of my parents) to endure extra-judicial imprisonment and forced labor in a Magdalene Laundry run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in suburban North Plympton, South Australia (1941-74.) There, I was treated as defiled and forced to work in the laundry under the blind eye of the State of South Australia and the noses of god-fearing South Australian citizens. Out-of-sight-out-of-mind.
I was just one of tens of thousands of vulnerable girls stigmatized as “fallen,” herded like sheep to the slaughterhouse that was the Catholic solution. Those in charge of the Convent of the Good Shepherd were carrying out a mandate to get wanton, lost girls and women off the streets where they might contaminate society. The nuns’ constant vilification branded us—as livestock are branded—by fire. We were treated as mere objects of contempt, there to earn our wretched keep in Magdalene Infernos around the world. The advocacy group, Justice for Magdalenes, brought the issue to the attention of the United Nations Committee Against Torture eventually resulting in the Irish State’s recognition of culpability this year. (Australia has yet to address this, other than the 2009-sweeping apology to all of those mistreated in care during the last century.) Imagine my disbelief when I find the Good Shepherds using words like: Hope, Action, Justice to obscure their unpardonable history as slave-drivers of the most vulnerable girls society could serve up to them, presumably hoping to gain cred by awarding the writer Sushi Das (well placed as the Opinion Editor of The Age,) an award—on International Woman’s Day.
Have the Good Shepherds Nuns “lost their way?” Their idea of themselves as altruistic shepherds saving young “fallen” girls from themselves by herding them into hard labor was and is condescending, antiquated, disingenuous and the results have been horrific and gravely injurious. Why don’t they come clean about their dirty laundry? I believe the church is afraid that survivors seeking restorative justice will cause the revelation of hard facts resulting in potential donors to beginning to see their current Anti Slavery crusade as same old… sanitized with PC language. On their newly branded Good Shepherd website, Noelene White writes: “…the work of Good Shepherd Sisters and mission partners […], isn’t that different to what Good Shepherd has done since the Order began in France in 1835.” [Italics mine]
I suggest that the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Good Shepherd nuns’ arrival in Australia be seized as a time for the Good Shepherd Sisters to explore how they lost their way and an opportunity to taste the penitence and humility they so zealously forced upon those in their care. Let their archives be opened and those pitiful records studied. Let there be restorative justice for all those who suffered in the Good Shepherds’ Magdalene Laundries worldwide! [Rachael Romero MA is an international artist/filmmaker who addresses human rights. She is currently at work on a new film: Magdalene Inferno.] http://rachaelromero.com http://magdalenelaundrytestimony.org/#/news/4569632830
"The sin of im-purity is the foulest infection. What joy, then, do they give me when a soul is snatched from this loathsome disease; when, purified by the salutary bath of penance, it stands forth clothed..."
from a letter by Sister Mary Euphrasia, Founder of the Good Shepherd Magdalene Laundries. Digitized by the Internet Archive
the Adverse Childhood Experiences effect Magdalene Laundry Survivors see: http://www.ted.com/talks/nadine_burke_harris_how_childhood_trauma_affects_health_across_a_lifetime?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=tedspread
FACT SHEET: A summary of the rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child : http://www.unicef.org/crc/files/Rights_overview.pdf
This book by Rie Croll has an image on the cover that indicates the silent scream that all of us who survived carried in the cement quadrangle sealed off in our minds.
Ink and wash on cover by Rachael Romero, c 1973.
'Dickensian' Good Shepherd institutions covered up dysfunction in Canadian society, as late as the 1960s
Operated in reality as a form of incarceration, they sentenced women and girls as young as 12 or 13 to back-breaking, indefinite labour
A Magdalene Laundry in England in the early Twentieth Century, from Frances Finnegan, Do Penance or Perish, Congrave Press, 2001.Wikimedia Commons
Self portrait of surviver with PTSD by Rachael Romero 2016