Sustained media attack on Religious Orders is ‘scurrilous’

More than a decade ago the (then) Irish Times columnist, Kevin Myers, took
exception to the Sisters of Mercy receiving £5 million from St Andrew’s
College, Booterstown – a Church of Ireland school – for three acres of land.
A few days later a letter appeared in the Irish Times from the headmaster of
St Andrew’s College. He pointed out that the Sisters of Mercy had, in fact,
sold the land for £500,000, a figure which he said represented about
one-third of its commercial value. He also pointed out that, after the
purchase of the land, the college discovered it needed additional land and
when they approached the Mercy Sisters a second time, the extra land was
given to St Andrew’s College free of charge.
It seems that Myers’ source for the £5 million story was the property
section of the Irish Times which omitted a vital decimal point which turned
£.5 million into £5 million. Myers had the grace to apologise for the
mistake and the case he had built around that unruly decimal point.
What was instructive then about Myers’ instinctive distrust of the Mercy
Sisters was how reluctant the public (apart from the headmaster of a
Protestant school) seemed to be in defending the nuns. Where were all the
past-pupils of Loreto, Our Lady’s Bower and the Ursulines? Why indeed, at a
wider level, the silence from alumni of Clongowes, Blackrock, Rockwell, St
Jarlath’s and St Muredach’s?
What’s instructive now is how that silence and condemnatory attitude that
underpins it have become the media template for coverage of matters
How has it come about that the actions of a minority of religious has
effectively led to the demonisation of all religious, even though the vast
majority lived admirable and sometimes heroic lives? How has it come about
that religious who gave up their salaries so that schools could offer a
wider curriculum to their students (or religious who stood at a sink for
fifty years working for nothing in an effort to augment the measly
contribution of the state to the care of the young or religious who were for
decades the only social contact with the desperately poor) are now in their
old age ritually and comprehensively condemned in a media frenzy that seems
intent on not providing the kind of balance that equity and justice require.
Some recent examples. On June 18 last the Irish Times published an article
about ‘Magdalene nuns refusing payment’ to Magdalene survivors. A few days
later the paper, under the convenient heading of ‘Corrections &
Clarifications’, clarified a number of statistics: the Mercy Sisters had
already given €24 million and would be giving a further €16 million – a
total of over €40 million.
On June 21, Emer O’Kelly in the Sunday Independent quotes again a statistic
from the Ryan Report that four congregations involved with the Magdalenes
had assets in 2009 of €1.5 billion, without explaining the important detail
that most of those assets were schools, hospitals and other educational and
medical facilities!
On June 21, in The Sunday Times in a report by Justine McCarthy under the
title ‘State pays €580m to laundry nuns’, McCarthy listed a number of state
payments to religious congregations. Two examples will suffice to illustrate
the bias and unwarranted implications in the article: €339m to the Mercy
Sisters and €22m to the Sisters of Charity. The fine print made it clear
that the €339m was for Dublin’s Mater Hospital, Temple Street Children’s
Hospital, the National Rehabilitation Centre and Cappagh National
Orthopaedic Hospital. The €22m was for Our Lady’s Hospice in Harold’s Cross,
Dublin; a retirement home in Sean McDermott St; and a social inclusion
service in Drumcondra. To imply that the Sisters of Mercy and of Charity
‘received’ these sums is a bit like saying Michael Noonan gets all our tax
The reason for this sustained assault on the reputation of the Mercy (and
other) Sisters was the decision of four congregations – Sisters of Mercy,
Sisters of Charity, Good Shepherd Sisters and Sisters of our Lady of Charity
of Refuge – to refuse to bend to additional pressure from the State to make
further contributions to save the tax-payers paying their share. The
Minister for Justice even suggested that they had ‘a moral and ethical duty’
to pay more. The media coverage, unfair and sometimes scurrilous, upped the
pressure yet another notch. But the nuns were not for turning. They had
already contributed generously; they had apologised for the activities of
some of their members; they regretted ‘the distress, isolation, pain,
confusion and much more’ that the Magdalene women had to endure; and they
continued to do what they could to support those damaged by their
experiences in the laundries. But there would be no further financial
They are right. It’s time that the nuns drew that line in the sand. It’s
time that they refused to be bullied into line by politicians and a
predictable retinue of well-known anti-Catholic voices in the media. It’s
time that they rediscovered their self-respect and stopped apologising for
the failures of individual members – significant though they were – and
protested at the manner in which so many of their members have been unfairly
and irresponsibly demonised.
What happened in the Magdalene laundries was the responsibility of

  1.  the culture of the wider society (including that of the Catholic Church) that
    brought to bear what we now see as uncivilised attitudes on the hapless
  2. the state, that starved such institutions of necessary
    resources, human and material;
  3. the families of the Magdalene women;
  4. the religious who were persuaded to run them.

What happened with the McAleese Report is that it forced society to take a
more balanced view of what happened, why it happened and who was responsible
for it when it failed to throw up the kind of results that would have
allowed the media to adopt a predictable, anti-Catholic, anti-clerical,
populist rant. McAleese made it clear that the laundries were not profitable
and that the state failed in its responsibility to the laundry women. And
Taoiseach Enda Kenny spoke for everyone when he said that ‘We put away these
women because for many years we put away our conscience’. And by ‘we’ he
didn’t just mean the nuns.
I applaud the four congregations for standing up for their members, for
refusing to be bullied by government and media and for, in effect, demanding
the kind of balance and fair play that should be a necessary constituent of
journalism and of public discourse. The congregations have already
acknowledged their responsibility for the failures of a minority of their
members, stating their regret that they were ‘part of a system that had
little comprehension or understanding of how to really care for the women’.
But they’re absolutely right not to take 100% responsibility
because to do so would be to fail not just the truth but the hundreds of
nuns who worked in the laundries and whose lives were beyond reproach.

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  1. Association of Catholic Priests says:

    I would like to lend my total support to what Brendan says in this article. I was sickened by the abuse and vitriol heaped on the nuns during the last few weeks; as if shovelling abuse on a group of old women was and admirable thing to do. Some of the spokespeople for the Magdalenes were utterly extreme, and showed a complete lack of understanding of the lives of nuns, and of the contribution they have made to Irish life and people for the last few centuries. A combination of hypocrisy and moral righteousness is a very unpleasant sight.
    Tony Flannery

  2. Sean (Derry) says:

    At last, an ACP article that I actually agree with.

  3. Joan Murphy says:

    A wonderful clear and fair presentation of a difficult chapter in our history.
    Thank you Brendan.
    Your voice may be a lone one, speaking for the religious, but we need this kind of balance if further mistakes are to be avoided. Thank you for making us re think a lot of what we accepted blindly from the media.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    Why are religious orders owning schools, hospitals and other educational and
    medical facilities? These things should belong to the people in a republic.
    “What happened in the Magdalene laundries was the responsibility of (i) the
    culture of the wider society (including that of the Catholic Church) that
    brought to bear what we now see as uncivilised attitudes on the hapless
    women; (ii) the state, that starved such institutions of necessary
    resources, human and material; (iii) the families of the Magdalene women;
    and (iv) the religious who were persuaded to run them.”
    Why does the Catholic Church get just a mention in parentheses? The Catholic Church during that time dominated the other elements in that sentence. And dominated them in a totalitarian way.
    It is disrespectful to call those women ‘hapless’ as ‘luck’ didn’t come into it in a church-dominated society that sought to control women and still does. Remember that contraception is still a sin in the church and the hierarchy won’t be happy until women are under total control again.
    Not to be rude here but enough is enough: it is outrageous that the church does not accept women as the equals of men and it is the rock it will perish upon if it does not reform.

  5. Tony Flannery (@1): Do you realise that your observation, “A combination of hypocrisy and moral righteousness is a very unpleasant sight” perfectly sums up the experience of many of our church?

  6. cathy swift says:

    Please could the ACP consider publishing this article as a press release? Pace Joan, Brendan Hoban’s voice is not alone for there is also the article by Adrian Egan on this website as well as the comments listed there. But if we’re to kick up a fuss about social injustice, this is a key debate for us as Irish Catholics. I would be more than happy myself to write publicly in the same vein but an individual voice is not as strong as a representative one in this regard. And though I admire this website enormously and read it on an almost daily basis, it is still the arena for discussion and consideration by the relatively few. If a press release doesn’t have any impact (and this is the silly season) perhaps we should consider some sort of public meeting in support in September.

  7. Brendan Butler says:

    It seems that the litmus test for Catholics is on what side  does one  stand in relation to the ‘outrageous ‘ and ‘scurrilous  attacks’  against women religious as outlined by Adrian Egan and Brendan Hoban in recent articles. Brendan writes that the Congregations who managed the Magdalen homes should not be held 100% responsible for the wrongs done to the women involved. He is 100% correct in that statement as many others were also culpable –indeed we are not the only Church involved in this societal abuse of women as the  Church of Ireland also  have their own  legacy with the Bethany Homes . One group rarely mentioned and who escaped all responsibility and equally should have been  locked up (if anyone  were to )  were the men  involved ,often so-called pillars of our society,  who impregnated ,often forcibly ,many of the women who were subsequently condemned to these laundries. To describe the Magdalen women as ‘hapless ‘ betrays the viewpoint Brendan is coming from as indeed all views are coming from one point only.. The women were not ‘hapless’ but the innocent victims of a brutalised society where Jansenistic attitudes to sexuality portrayed the women as evil temptresses ( has much changed , I wonder,) who enticed men into sin .  Equally,  dedicating these institutions to Mary Magdalen was also wrong as she was deliberately vilified by Pope Gregory in the 6th Century as the prostitute of the gospel  in order to downgrade the role of women in the Church while  her title as the ‘Apostle to the apostles ‘ was scrubbed from  historical memory.
    Brendan asks for balance as equity and justice requires ; however  that does’t mean that we should all march in line and to one tune and close ranks against the evil society. Only for the media many of the great evils of our time including clerical sex abuse and indeed the grave injustices suffered by the Magdalen women would not have seen the light of day. . If a few of these women still remain very angry at the treatment they received in these laundries who are we to deny their reality and downgrade them as ‘hapless’.
    Women should not allow themselves be divided when it comes to their common experiences as second class citizens and sometimes as non-citizens. Obviously, I was not present nor privy to what happened in these terrible places of forced labour . I’m sure  it dehumanised many of the Sisters involved,  as it equally dehumanised the so-called Magdalen women . Equity demands that that we draw no line in the sand nor demonise anyone . After ensuring that all equitably contribute to ensuring that the Magdalen women, deprived so much in their early lives , should now be granted a life of dignified living  a process of reconciliation between survivors of the Congregations and the Magdalen women should now be our priority rather than putting us all on a war footing by ‘drawing a line in the sand ‘.

  8. An excellent article. Any chance that one of the ACP priests that the media loves so much at the moment would write a piece along the same lines for publication in the national papers? That, I think, would have some real impact on this debate.

  9. Con Carroll says:

    There are those who call themselves Spiritual or religious who would be more at home with the Front bench of the Tories / Progressive Democrats. We should call this group of people the Tories spirituality group: we would hope that many would give them the wide berth
    Brendan Hoban should remember the role of the person entering religious life or clerical statehood was one about CLASS. Does he honestly want to revert back to those arrogant, abusive, ignorant, dark days? Does he want to move with the times? If he does, then he has to realise that there is no room for a white male conservative priesthood, which forces celibacy policies down the throats of people, lectures to families about humanae vitae and has homophobic attitude towards gay men. We should be embracing a spirituality of welcome, being in political and spiritual solidarity with people who are economically alienated. When we elevate people, we have also to be sure that they won’t fall.

  10. Willie Herlihy says:

    While I agree with Brendan’s thesis: that the Sisters are correct in sticking with their line of this far and no further, I disagree with his following analysis:
    1. the culture of the wider society (including that of the Catholic Church) that
    brought to bear what we now see as uncivilized attitudes on the hapless
    2. the state, that starved such institutions of necessary
    resources, human and material;
    3. the families of the Magdalene women;
    4. the religious who were persuaded to run them
    I was born into 1940’s Ireland and I remember my Mother telling a story that happened one Sunday at Mass. A neighbour who had got married while she was heavily pregnant, was berated by name from the Altar, by the Priest for bringing disgrace to the parish, that woman sat weeping next to my mother and nobody stood up to defend her.
    A. The culture of the society that I grew up in was one that was fostered by the Catholic Church, by men of whom the man mentioned above was typical. Sex was the only sin when I was growing up.
    B. The state was completely subserviant to the Catholic Church, as was ably demonstrated by Taoiseach John A Costello during the mother and child debate in 1951.
    C. The families of the Magdalene women were a product of the culture fostered by the Catholic Church.
    D. The religious were also a product of that culture, should anyone be surprised that some of them turned out like the priest mentioned above.
    I am still a Catholic, but the loving Jesus I receive in the Eucharist was not represented by the so-called Christians I have outlined above.

  11. Joe O'Leary says:

    Brendan Hoban is once again the voice of sanity — rocklike sanity — I hope this piece receives wide attention.

  12. “I’m sure it dehumanised many of the Sisters involved, as it equally dehumanised the so-called Magdalen women.”
    Indeed. Houses divided cannot stand. You pit ‘victim’ against ‘victim’ – it hits the fan, flies everywhere and you wonder why.

  13. I feel I have to express complete agreement with Willie Herlihy @10 above; therefore not concurring, for once, with voices I greatly admire and respect.
    Greetings from the library in Dungloe, in the old chapel.

  14. Thanks to Brendan Hoban for articulating so well what many fair minded people are thinking.

  15. Willie Herlihy says:

    I completely agree with Elizabeth @4 above in summing up her letter as follows:
    “Not to be rude here but enough is enough: it is outrageous that the church does not accept women as the equals of men and it is the rock it will perish upon if it does not reform.”

    Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air in the church, but even he is definitive that the topic of women priests is not up for discussion.
    The world has moved on in the last two thousand years, when women were mere chattels of men. Women are now to be found in all the professions, we in this country have had two excellent women presidents.
    I recently went on a tour of Trinity College in Dublin, to be informed by the tour guide, that the first female student was admitted to the College in 1904 and today women make up 64% of the students.
    The world has moved on, but the Catholic Church is still stuck in a male chauvinistic time warp.

  16. Mark Spence says:

    Brendan wrote:
    “On June 21, Emer O’Kelly in the Sunday Independent quotes again a statistic from the Ryan Report that four congregations involved with the Magdalenes had assets in 2009 of €1.5 billion, without explaining the important detail that most of those assets were schools, hospitals and other educational and medical facilities!”
    Some of those schools, hospitals and other educational and medical facilities can be sold. There is no good excuse for the nuns to try so hard to avoid responsibility for their part in the Magdalene laundries. The money already committed is not enough for a proper financial compensation. Many nuns believe that following the Vatican policy of resisting, rather than offering, appropriate financial compensations is what Jesus would have done.

  17. Brendan makes the mistake of imagining that the slow death of Irish Catholicism is about bad media. I grew up in Ireland. The catholic thing is dying because education is taking the place of the absurd catholic abuse of decency. How many centuries did it take for the vatican to apologise to Galleleo for keeping him under house arrest for daring to suggest that Earth goes around the sun?
    Lets try another. Is anyone aware that the vatican made a saint of a Nazi?
    Lets try another. What reason is there for the Irish Government to shut down nunneries?
    Lets try another. Today, Some dingbat Scottish religious person has apologised for his whole sect for child abuse.
    Lets try another. Ratzinger condemned all gays as evil. We should not hold it against him that he was a member of the Nazi youth – all German kids were before Germany declared surrender. But Ratzinger has been hugely proactive in coverups in the various child abuse scandals. Did Ratzinger ever qualify as a “Holy Father”?
    Lets try another – Ratzinger resigned – QED

  18. Cannot help but add – Pope Francis wants tolerance – how many popes have there been before this new act of tolerence?

  19. Joe O'Leary says:

    markdask, the old catholic fanaticism is just inverted in this sort of ranting. what nazi saint are you referring to? what convents have the Irish government closed? where did Ratzinger say all gays are evil? where do you find him hugely proactive in cover ups?

  20. I would’nt normally be in agreement with Fr. Hoban, but I congratulate him on this excellent article/analysis. The vile media driven witch hunt against the Religious Orders is beneath contempt.

  21. Tom Tarpey says:

    Well done for your Times article today.

  22. Margaret Trench says:

    Glad to see this fine article which is balanced and fair was picked up by The Times today.
    The ACP have a wonderful platform with this website for getting into the public domain.
    It certainly ensures that the church perspective reaches a wide audience.
    I always read through it – although this is my first time writing a response.
    Few of us had the courage or perhaps thoughtfulness to speak out in support of the many, many good nuns who never did anything wrong and have been vilified by the media and the country of late.
    Brendan articulated so well what we should have shouted from the rooftops over the past few years.
    Fairness and truth should never get lost even when rectifying previous wrongs.

  23. In comments on a previous article here “Attacks on Magdalene Religious Orders ‘Outrageous'”, I pointed out some facts relating to Peter Mullan the director of the (admittedly fictitious) film “The Magdalene Sisters” and Dr. Frances Finnegan the historian consultant for the Channel 4 documentary “Sex in a Cold Climate”, which is supposed to be factual. The material I quoted, is available on the Internet but has been almost completely ignored by an anti-clerical media. I have been involved in these issues for many years now, and I find that this is the ONLY way that you can make an impact on people and get them to question their prejudices.
    Media attacks on the nuns started in a big way with RTE’s broadcast of the “Dear Daughter” documentary in February 1996 which focused on the Sisters of Mercy in Goldenbridge, Dublin. The following is an extract from UK cultural historian the late Richard Webster on this issue. (It’s from his book “The Secret of Bryn Estyn” about a child abuse witch-hunt in Wales, but he includes material on other countries.)
    The Irish story then developed in a manner which paralleled the development of the North Wales story. In 1996 the producer and director, Louis Lentin, made a television documentary about abuse in children’s homes which was shown by RTE, the main public service broadcasting station in Ireland. It focused on the brutal regime which was said to have been operating during the 1950s at St Vincent’s Industrial School, Goldenbridge, one of a network children’s homes or detention centres which were funded by the state and run by the Catholic Church.
    “The documentary featured allegations made against Sister Xavieria, one of the nuns belonging to the Sisters of Mercy order which ran the home. The woman ‘survivor’ at the centre of the film claimed that, on one occasion, she had been caned by Sister Xavieria so severely that the entire side of her leg was split open from her hip to her knee. She says she was treated in the casualty department of the local hospital and believes that she received 80 to 120 stitches. No medical evidence has ever been produced to substantiate this bizarre claim. The surgeon who ran the casualty department at the hospital in question has given evidence which renders it highly unlikely that such an incident ever took place. Apart from anything else, the surgeon points out that caning would not have caused a wound of this kind, which would have required surgical treatment under a general anaesthetic and not stitches in a casualty department.
    “Yet although the evidence suggests that the woman’s memory was a delusion, her testimony was widely believed at the time. In the wake of the broadcast, atrocity stories about Goldenbridge and other industrial schools began to proliferate.[3]”
    [3]. Sunday Times (Ireland), 28 April 1996, citing the views of the surgeon, J. B. Prendiville.

  24. Bernadette McLean says:

    I wish to express my sincere gratitude to Fr. Brendan Hoban for such a clear, balanced and well researched article, first published in the Western People and picked up by the Irish Times yesterday. This article, not alone gives witness to justice and truth but also presents a necessary challenge to myself and countless like me, to finally make our gratitude known for all we have received from the many religious orders through our country and indeed throughout the world.
    I was educated by the Mercy Sisters and had the privilege of teaching in a Mercy school for many years. I speak for many of my colleagues, when I say that the hospitality, warmth, generosity and dedication of the sisters were both inspirational and unforgettable.
    So I now wish to acknowledge my deep appreciation for all I have received from the Mercy sisters and to thank you Fr. Brendan for being the voice of justice and truth in this article and for the challenge it sent out to people like me. Articles such as this one somehow anchor the Catholic Church at this time of such upheaval. It mirrors the church founded by Christ, a church to which one feels proud to belong.

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