The Magdalene Sisters courageously portrays the devastating horrors that can happen when institutions and adults breach their sacred trust to protect children and abuse their power over children.
The Magdalene Asylums were featured in a critically acclaimed British documentary and on CBS's 60 Minutes, and The Magdalene Sisters brings more of their terrible stories to light. It will leave viewers reeling in shock, disbelief, and outrage over the tens of thousands of girls who suffered many years of forced labor, harsh treatment, and physical and emotional abuse.
The Magdalene Sisters tells the story of three teenage girls in Ireland in the 1960s who, according to the strict moral code in place in the Catholic Church, had "sinned": one had been raped by a cousin; another had a baby out of wedlock; and the third was caught flirting with boys through the gate at her orphanage.
All three were banished to the Magdalene Asylums, institutions for "fallen" girls, to repent. The asylums, established in the 19th century, ran commercial laundries, and the girls confined there were forced to do unpaid work and to spend long and grueling workdays praying in silence.
The girls were not allowed contact with the outside world. Even friendships inside were discouraged. Many women never left the asylum because they had grown to believe the message drummed into them day after day that they didn't deserve to get out. Many, rejected by their families, had nowhere to go.
The outrageous complicity, complacency, and sometimes active participation of so many adults -- nuns, priests, the Catholic hierarchy and infrastructure, other community members, and even families-in the mistreatment of these voiceless girls is one of the most devastating messages in the film. Unbelievably, the last Magdalene Asylum did not close until 1996.
This movie should evoke outrage not only about the tragic Irish girl victims but also about the horrible sexual abuse scandals facing the Catholic Church in this country which demand the most urgent and thorough response. We must insist on protecting children over institutions, particularly institutions which have betrayed the very heart of their mission. Secrecy and the lack of accountability in both Ireland and the U.S allowed these tragedies to occur.
But while The Magdalene Sisters is a story about the Catholic Church, it is important to acknowledge that the abuse of children is pervasive and not limited to the Catholic Church. Child abuse can be found in many religious and secular institutions. It must be eliminated and those involved punished wherever it occurs. The Magdalene Sisters reminds us of what happens when any institution is permitted to impose moral standards without accountability.
Neither religious doctrine nor ideology should be used to justify outrageous mistreatment of the vulnerable. There are modern parallels in fundamentalist religions which sanction child abuse by preaching the need to physically discipline children in order to train them properly, or urging wives, with their children, to return to abusive husbands.
I hope this compelling film will provoke much thoughtful discussion about our adult responsibility to children. More importantly, I hope it will provoke effective individual and collective action. In our nation where a child is abused and neglected every 36 seconds, there are children all around us who need us to hear and see and respond to their desperate cries for help and protection.
Marian Wright Edelman is President and Founder of the Children's Defense Fund whose mission is to Leave No Child Behind* and to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.
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