- 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.
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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 220.127.116.11). US Government.