Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Magdalene Sisters: Trinity of Betrayal

Summary of the movie

Set just outside of Dublin, Ireland, in 1964, this motion picture The Magdalene Sisters (Mullan, 2002) is about three young Irish women, and the circumstances of their confinement to a Magdalene asylum under the management of the Catholic Church of Ireland. During the 1960’s, Ireland had a strict religious culture with the Catholic Church as the supreme moral authority, and the church had great latitude to purge the stain of sin from Irish society. The church considers the protagonists—Margret, Bernadette, and Rose--as “fallen” women who must make penitence, by hard work in the asylum’s laundry and through daily prayer, for the period of time that the Mother Superior, Sister Bridget, deems necessary, to cleanse their souls of mortal sin. What are these great sins? A cousin at a wedding raped Margret; Bernadette is a “temptress” for flirting with some boys through the Saint Attracta Orphanage fence, and Rose had a baby out of wedlock. The Sisters of Mercy have the protagonist, and the others like them, dress in formless brown smocks to hide their figures. They arise early each morning for work; a nun guards them as the women parade about the asylum, and after the last meal of the day the nuns lock all penitents into their dormitories. Their lives are similar to the lives of inmates in a maximum-security prison, except there is no appeal, no visitation, no mail, no rights, and no parole. The protagonists are condemned for life unless a family member claims them or they escape.

Ethical concerns

A review of Mullan’s film The Magdalene Sisters has uncovered some serious ethical concerns involving the Irish family, the Catholic Church of Ireland, and the Irish Government. Each member of this trinity had a role in the immoral treatment of Margret, Bernadette, and Rose—and another estimated 30,000 Irish women—in the Magdalene asylum(s). This paper will focus on the following ethical dilemmas:

  • Involuntary servitude to the Catholic Church of Ireland for the purpose of profit.

  • Abuse of authority, including sexual abuse, by asylum staff and church officials.

Involuntary servitude to the Catholic Church of Ireland

Servitude—or slavery—is a condition in which a person is being deprived of his/her freedom to act as they choose. Furthermore, this condition is the complete and involuntary surrender of a person’s body, time, and property to another. According to Black’s Law Dictionary (Black, 1991 p. 1388), slavery is “the condition of a slave; that civil relation in which one man has absolute power over the life, fortune, and liberty of another.” Taking this a step further, Black’s Law Dictionary (Black, 1991, p. 1388) defines a slave as “A person who is wholly subject to the will of another; one who has no freedom of action, but whose person and services are wholly under the control of another.” Using these definitions as a starting point will help explain the civil relationship of the protagonist to the Catholic Church of Ireland.

Margret and Rose came under church control after their embarrassed families sought the advice of the local priest on how best to deal with their wayward daughters. The priest suggested that the young women would benefit from a stay at a Magdalene asylum in order to remove the stain of their moral sin. Therefore, without their consent and against their will, the Catholic Church of Ireland took Margret and Rose. Being an orphan, Bernadette was already in the control of the church; however, without her consent, and against her will, she went into the Magdalene asylum.

In the Magdalene asylum arrival scene, the protagonists are marched in military fashion into the Mother Superior’s office and made to stand at attention. As new arrivals, Sister Bridget makes it clear where Margret, Bernadette, and Rose stand in the institution’s social order. The rules are given. The women will not talk among themselves during their stay at the Magdalene asylum, and there will be no communication with anyone from outside the asylum. As penitents, they will rise early and go to bed late and Sister Bridget imparts to them in this scene from the film “Here you may redeem yourselves by working beyond human endurance, to remove the stains of the sins you have committed.” Furthermore, Sister Bridget informs our protagonists that they are going to be at the asylum for a long time, and that the young women had better mind the rules because there are severe consequences for any disobedience.

In this telling scene, the church has established its absolute power over the protagonists, both physically and psychologically. By stripping these women of their property, individual identity, and liberty, the conditions that establish involuntary servitude have been satisfied.

Financial profit by the church

The Magdalene asylum’s original mission was a laudable one. The church sought to remove prostitutes from the streets and get them into the safe environment of a Magdalene asylum. Once there, the Sisters of Mercy provided health care to get the diseased women clean, and the women were trained as laundresses, a trade suitable for 1890’s era women. Initially, these women could come and go as many times as it took to get them out of prostitution. However, the church discovered that running a laundry was profitable, especially with free labor. Naturally, the Catholic Church of Ireland wanted to maintain its workforce, and even increase it, to maximize profitability.

Accomplishing this task was easy with the help of Irish families who were devoutly Catholic; they understood that the wages of sin was a burning death in Hell and they did not want that for their daughters, so they gave the women over to the church to remove the stain of sin. All the church had to do was label more women as “sinners,” and the laundry’s labor pool would increase, as would its profits. The Irish government treated the Magdalene asylums as private institutions, and as such exempted them for any labor laws. The conditions were ripe for the abuse that followed.

The Catholic Church of Ireland, having no labor laws to regulate them and no one to oversee its activities, enslaved an estimated 30,000 women with the full cooperation of Irish society. These women would enter Magdalene laundries to work until a family member claimed them or they died. The church had stopped releasing these women years ago, and with the Sisters of Mercy forbidding contact with the outside world in any form, the women were helpless, and at the mercy of the unmerciful.

Abuse of authority, including sexual abuse

According to the United States Air Force, abuse of authority is “an arbitrary or capricious exercise of power by a military member or a federal official or employee that adversely affects the rights of any person or that results in personal gain or advantage to the abuser.” (United States Air Force, 2001). Plainly said, if a person has an authority position over another individual and the authority figure exercises this power in a fashion that violates the rules, this is an abuse of authority. Oftentimes the authority figure uses the power for personal gain.

In the motion picture, The Magdalene Sisters there are many scenes of such abuse. One of the most glaring examples occurs when the priest uses one of the inmates for his sexual gratification through oral sodomy and intercourse. This inmate is at the mercy of the system that will not allow her to report the abuse. When Sister Bridget discovers this abuse, the Magdalene in question is whisked away in the middle of the night to a mental institution. Unmistakably, this is an abuse of authority by all church officials involved.

In another scene from the movie, two of the asylum’s nuns have the penitents lined up naked in the shower room, and the sisters are stripping the dignity of the Magdalene’s through humiliation, such as, comparing which of the women have the hairiest genitals, biggest breasts, and the fattest posterior. The nuns are enjoying this “game” and they are laughing at the young women. The faces of the penitents show distress. Clearly, this is an abuse of authority by the asylum staff. In fact, the protagonists received a severe beating with a leather strap—repeatedly—in all cases of disobedience, big or small, real or perceived, and much to the enjoyment of Sister Bridget. Again, this is an abuse of authority by a church official.


In conclusion, the motion picture The Magdalene Sisters raises serious ethics issues concerning the conduct of the Catholic Church of Ireland. According to the textbook Moral Issues in Business, the church engaged in “groupthink” believing that “because the group—the Catholic Church—is good—the moral authority—or right—Irish society did not object—whatever it did was permissible” (William H. & Barry, Vincent, 2007, p. 19). The church passed its demeaning labels of young women—some victims of a crime—into the collective conscious of the Irish family and government. Admittedly, it is easier to send a “whore,” “temptress,” or “lustful sinner” to a life of confinement than, say, a rape victim, a flirtatious girl, or a young mother who loved the wrong man. This “groupthink” led to the abuse of thousands of young women over the course of approximately seven decades because of its acceptance by the Irish family and government. It wove itself into the fabric of the Irish people, and for nothing more than to fill the coffers of the Catholic Church of Ireland.

It appears that Irish society as a whole is a shareholder in this immoral behavior. They witnessed the physical and psychological destruction of young women, yet stood idly by. The whole of Ireland is morally bankrupt for this trinity of betrayal.

The author disagrees with the handling of the ethical dilemma concerns, and honestly cannot find a workable solution to them. To say “the solution is this or that” is hyperbole. The only viable suggestion for a resolution of these ethical issues was to have the Irish families stop giving their wayward daughters to the church. What is more, the Catholic Church did nothing to correct any of these issues internally and it never accepted responsibility for its wrongdoing. The Irish government made no law against the church’s treatment of these women, nor did they seek to protect them through regulation, therefore under Irish law, this abuse was legal—but in the authors opinion immoral. The author applauds the initiative of Bernadette and Rose for effecting escape, by force, from these wretched conditions, and was pleased that Margret’s brother came to claim her after she had sent five years in confinement.


Black, H. (Ed.). (1991). Black's Law Dictionary (6th ed.), West Group.
Mullan, P. (Director). (2002). The Magdalene Sisters. [Motion picture]. United States: Miramax Films.
Shaw, William H. & Barry, Vincent (2007). Moral Issues in Business. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth
United States Air Force. (2001). Inspector General Complaints. (AFI 90-301, Paragraph US Government.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Chess Club Championship...A Reflection

Oh, my god! I could hardly believe it, and the thought I was daydreaming crossed my mind. When the tournament results were announced at the end of the 2007 Chess Club Championship my name was included as the under 1300-class champion. Surely, one of the tournament directors had made a mistake. After all, they are human and humans are prone to oversights. However, when it came time to take the club’s champions group photograph, there I was in my yellow t-shirt shyly holding a champion’s plaque, and as the camera’s strobe flashed, my mind was replaying those four rounds...hmm.

As my mind recalled the events, suddenly I was back to the beginning of June when I registered for the championship. My expectations were simply to play chess to gain tournament experience, and to gather four United States Chess Federation rated chess games. The thought of winning something never crossed my mind.

My round one pairing was against a young man named Yury Markushin. This was just my luck! It was only the beginning of the tournament and I was playing a Russian. At 10 A.M., the director explained the rules of the championship, and then the handshakes signaled the starting of the chess clocks. I had the white chess army and I commenced the game by advancing the King’s pawn two squares. Yury played the mirror move and play continued until we eventually entered into a chess formation named the Italian game. At black’s 19th move, the position was complicated and I sat thinking about my reply.

However, the harder I thought the more the confounding the background noise became. My mind focused on the ticking of the chess clocks...tic, tic, tic, and tic! It was maddening to listen to this while trying to concentrate on improving my position. It reminded me of hearing a dripping faucet while you are trying to fall asleep; the more you try not to listen to it, the louder it becomes. I looked around the tournament room as a form of relief from this lunacy, and all I saw were nervous chess players with worried, anxiety filled, faces. I watched as these participants obsessively ran their fingers through their hair. I witnessed the various twitches of their bodies that occur as a direct result of intense concentration and frantic thought.

Suddenly, my head was filled with every non-chess related thought I could have. It was my move, and I had to play something because the time was ebbing away. Furthermore, I wanted to make a move that would impress this young Russian, and in this, I failed. My 20th move was a disappointment because I missed a clear win, and the game would end in a draw 24 moves later.

I do not know about most people, but when I play in tournaments, I get tired. This is in the form of mental fatigue, and it is especially bad after a loss. I think deep down I knew I was losing the endgame against Yury, and was lucky to have the draw. Little did I know that the next round would be a disaster.

Feeling exhausted both mentally and physically, I started the second round game. My new opponent was a young man from New Mexico named Zach Stuart. I could not help thinking that Zach was a little far of field, but chess is chess and people travel to play our game. During this game, I have command of the black pieces. White’s first move was the now familiar King’s pawn advance and my reply was to have the Queen’s Bishop pawn advance two squares. We have entered into a chess formation called the Sicilian Defense and a few moves later, it turned into the Four Knights variation. I was losing the game by move seven and nothing improved for the next 28 moves. Facing a checkmate in two on my 35th move, I resigned and lost the round.

After completing two rounds of play, my score stood at a half point out of the two possible. Oh, how easy it is to fracture one's ego. My feelings toward chess had reached into a new depth of despair with this loss. Perhaps I was suffering a form of chess related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. My thoughts were jumbled and my speech incoherent as I wandered out the club’s front door, and I was in this state when a fellow chess sufferer named Doug entered into my life to stop my aimless staggering around the parking area. I confided in him that I really did not think much of my present play, and I thought even less about my chances of winning the under 1300 class. Doug listened patiently as I poured out my heart and as I finished he simply asked if I wanted to go with him to get something at the Sonic across the street. What was he saying to me? I could not even get my mind around the fact that another human being was asking for my company. I needed help! There must be a twelve-step program out there for chess related trauma.

"Hi, my name is Todd and I suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder," I would say at some meeting.

An old army veteran would respond, "Hey man, you catch that in the 'Nam?"

"Naw, it’s from playing chess. There was a checkmate in two. I had pawns coming over the back rank!" would be my frazzled reply.

Doug saved my life, my chess life, by a simple act of kindness to a pawn shocked chess combat veteran while eating at the Sonic. He told me to have fun, stop worrying about your opponent’s rating, and just play the position on the board. These words helped me overcome my self-doubt and to enter into a new phase where I did not worry about the other players calling me a “Patzer” behind my back as they laughed at my feeble games. There would be no more worrying about the gossip of the others from me. I would just relax from here on out and have fun.

My opponent in round three was my old friend Leroy Asher. We had played each other in the Kansas City Open last February. That game ended in a draw and I looked forward to this game, as I had the white chessmen. I commenced play with my King’s pawn advancing two squares and Leroy responded with his Queen’s pawn advancing two squares. Of course, I took his pawn on the next move and the game entered a chess formation named the Scandinavian Defense. The game remained close for the next 31 moves. Finally, on black’s 33rd move Leroy blundered and I checkmated him three moves later. My score increased to one and a half points out of the three possible and this gave me some hope of finishing even.

The fourth and final round began at 4:30 P.M. with a new opponent named Fred Smith. He was in command of the white chess pieces, and he commenced the game with the now standard King’s pawn advance. I went into the Sicilian Defense and was determined to win this one. We played like professionals for the first twelve moves and then Fred made a mistake, which cost him one of his Knights without compensation. This blunder must have affected him psychologically because his next three moves were inaccurate. On white’s 16th move he lost his Queen and the game quickly ended with checkmate. My final score was two and a half points out of a possible four, and I was quite pleased with this result.

After I collected my champion’s plaque and headed for home, it hit me. I was very proud of myself for winning a class championship. I had overcome my self-doubt and that horrible tournament start in order to win. Since then my tournament results have improved because of this confidence boosting experience and I look forward to my continuing success.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

A Letter from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Dear Friend,

Even though its not been long enough, I've come to visit you once again. I live to see you suffer mentally, physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually. My visit will again make you anxious and irritable so everything and everybody will cause you to feel uncomfortable and disoriented. I want you to be confused and depressed so that you can't think clearly and you'll hate everybody, especially yourself. I want you to feel guilty and remorseful for the things in the past. I want to keep you angry and hateful towards the world and the way you are now. I want you to blame everyone but me for the predicament. I want you to stay fearful and paranoid for no reason at all. I want to live inside your dreams so you can wake up sweating and unable to go back to sleep. I thank you for the countless jobs you gave up for me, and for the fine friends that you ignored because we became so close. Most grateful for the family you sacrificed so you and I could be together. I am happy that you were able to pass me on to your wife and children when they tried to stand by you. Thanks for devoting your life to me. But do not despair!, because I will never desert you as the others have. I will become an even greater part of your life. You can depend on me to keep you living in eternal Hell. I will be your only friend.

Forever with affection,