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Torturing Children and the Separation of Church and State


(As posted on DailyKos.com)

 The United Nations Committee Against Torture received a formal submission on Good Friday by the Justice for Magdalenes (JFM), a survivor advocacy group.  As stated in the Executive Summary

1.1 Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries were residential, commercial and for-profit laundries operated by four Irish orders of nuns where between….1922 and 1996, when the last institution closed, a number of girls and women, estimated in the tens of thousands, were imprisoned, forced to carry out unpaid labour and subjected to severe psychological and physical maltreatment.

1.2 The women and girls who suffered in the Magdalene Laundries included those who were perceived to be “promiscuous”, were unmarried mothers, were the daughters of unmarried mothers, were considered a burden on their families or the State, had been sexually abused, or had grown up in the care of the Church and State….

5.3.1 ….Capitation payments were made by the Department of Justice for those remanded by the Courts in this institution. 

5.3.12 Finally, Magdalene Laundry survivors speak of washing prison laundry and laundry from state-funded industrial schools, and a May 1941 parliamentary debate suggests that the Irish Department of Defence may have held laundry contracts with the Magdalene Laundries and perhaps considered a fair wages clause to be an anomaly in this regard…. 

The horrors of the Magdalene Laundries are relatively well-known. A movie titled “The Magdalene Sisters” was released in 2002. Also, two years ago in May 2009, the Ryan Commission report was released which included additional revelations about Irish children confined to the care of Catholic clergy and religious. As reported in the British newspaper The Guardian:

Rape and sexual molestation were “endemic” in Irish Catholic church-run industrial schools and orphanages, a report revealed today.

The nine-year investigation found that Catholic priests and nuns for decades terrorised thousands of boys and girls in the Irish Republic, while government inspectors failed to stop the chronic beatings, rape and humiliation.

More than 30,000 children deemed to be petty thieves, truants or from dysfunctional families – a category that often included unmarried mothers – were sent to Ireland’s austere network of industrial schools, reformatories, orphanages and hostels from the 1930s until the last facilities shut in the 1990s.

The high court judge Sean Ryan today unveiled the 2,600-page final report of Ireland’s commission into child abuse, which drew on testimony from thousands of former inmates and officials from more than 250 church-run institutions. Police were called to the news conference amid angry scenes as victims were prevented from attending. 

One week before the JFM action, on April 15, 2011, Rod Vienneau, an advocate for the Duplessis Orphans, and Dr. Jonathan Levy, PhD, an international law expert, on behalf of thousands of Québécois orphans held captive in institutions operated by Catholic religious orders  announced they were making a claim against the Vatican.

They are known as Duplessis Orphans because:

Orphanages and schools were the financial responsibility of the provincial government but funding for mental institutions was provided by the government of Canada. Beginning in the 1940s and continuing into the 1960s, Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis, in cooperation with the Roman Catholic Church which ran the orphanages, developed a scheme to obtain federal funding for thousands of children, most of whom had been orphaned through forced adoption/kidnapping from their unwed mothers. In some cases the Catholic orphanages were relabelled as health-care facilities and in other cases the children were shipped from orphanages to existing insane asylums.

As reported by the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company):

An alarming number of healthy children living in sanctuaries were hastily diagnosed as mentally incompetent, psychotic patients. The diagnoses were always swift – the children went to bed orphans and woke up psychiatric patients. The reason? Shrewd fiscal planning; federal subsidies paid out more to hospitals than to orphanages.

The petition filed with the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, a department of the Vatican curia (bureaucracy) which supervises religious orders, has “documented accusations including use of electro shocks to punish children, child trafficking, murder, sexual molestation, torture and forced labor. The petition outlines various representative case histories and crimes committed on a systematic basis through 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s until finally halted by the Canadian government. Many of the crimes committed resulted in financial gain for the orders who received millions of dollars from the Canadian and Quebec government for warehousing so called orphans.”*

 While the Canadian government refused a 2004 request “for the bodies of children to be exhumed from an abandoned Montreal cemetery in a bid to discover whether they were the subject of medical experiments,” it finally settled with approximately 1,700 of the surviving Duplessis Orphans in 2006 paying them an average $15,000 each.

The JFM submission before the UN Commission on Torture is claiming “The women have still not received a pension for the work which they were forced to carry out, while their poverty has been exacerbated throughout their lives by the denial of educational opportunity which they suffered while incarcerated in the laundries, as well as the psychological and physical injury caused by the abuse. Nor have the women received healthcare or education to assist them in overcoming their trauma and abuse that Magdalene laundry survivors continue to suffer due to the Irish government’s failure to apologise, investigate and compensate them.”  

The petition filed with the Vatican states that “To date, no individual or entity – including the Canadian and Quebec governments, the psychiatrists and doctors who victimized the Duplessis Orphans and exploited them as human guinea pigs, and the Roman Catholic Orders which ran the institutions have been held accountable or apologized for the alleged crimes and human rights abuses.”


The sickening treatment of Québécois and Irish children was the direct result of collaboration between the Catholic Church and the respective governments in these overwhelmingly majority-Catholic areas.

Of course, children were tormented in Catholic institutions in locales not controlled by the Catholic Church. Also in April 2011 the U.S. diplomatic service was allowed to serve court papers on the Vatican, suing Pope Benedict, Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone and his predecessor, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, in connection with clerical sex abuse of 34 children at St. John’s School for the Deaf, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

It was the reporting of widespread sex abuse at a prestigious Jesuit boarding school in Germany which ignited the scandal in continental Europe later spreading across Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands.

The tragedy of the multiple forms of abuse suffered by aboriginal children at residential schools operated by the American, Canadian and Australian governments in conjunction with Catholic and other religious groups was made far worse by the fact that these were not orphans but children taken from the families and forced to “assimilate” by abandoning their own culture and heritage.

While in no way diminishing the suffering and premature deaths of all children who have been abused, there is intense revulsion knowing that Church and State colluded to not only torture their children, but to make a profit in doing so. This should also serve as a warning to the religious right that uniting Church and State will not result in a more “Godly” America.

2 Responses

  1. I was put in a Catholic orphanage in the 50’s.It was a nightmare which still affects me to this day.I am now 66 and they can’t hurt me anymore.They were very cruel to us children and my mother had no custody of us after we went to the orphanage as the State took over custody .They could do what they wanted to us now.We were put into the orphanges as my mother was married to a very abuse husband .When she left him she had no place to live.She did eventually get us all back but she had a real struggle to get us back.

    • Evelyn, I’m so very sorry for what you suffered both as a child and the nightmares which haunt you to this day. It is the courage of survivors like yourself – brave enough to tell the world what happened to you – which has saved millions of children from a similar fate.

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