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Nuns Who Were ‘Worse than the Taliban’


The Magdalene Sisters, a new film that has angered the Vatican, is based partly on a book by a University of Guelph professor.

The controversial film by Scottish actor-director Peter Mullan won the top awards at film festivals in Toronto and Venice, and depicts nuns’ abuse of three Irish girls whose families sent them to a Magdalene Asylum outside Dublin in the 1960s to save their souls by working seven days a week in the Asylum’s commercial laundry.

One girl had become pregnant out of wedlock, another simply enjoyed flirting with boys and the third had been raped by a family member. Once inside the Asylum, they are beaten, humiliated and forbidden normal conversation. In one scene, naked women are lined up in a shower room and taunted for their bodily imperfections. The film also discreetly depicts a woman performing a sexual act on a priest.

Mr. Mullan said his film is based on true stories from women that he interviewed, but he also cited The Magdalenes: Prostitution in the 19th Century, a book by Linda Mahood, a history professor at the University of Guelph, as one of his sources for the film.
What propelled the small independent film into a worldwide August release by Hollywood’s Miramax Films is publicity attracted by Mr. Mullan’s own statement that the nuns who ran the laundries “were worse than the Taliban,” and the Catholic church’s subsequent condemnation of his work.

When the film won at last year’s Venice Film Festival, the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, denounced it as “an angry and rancorous provocation” that misrepresented religious leaders. Italian Cardinal Ersilio Tonini declared it “does not tell the truth about the Catholic Church”.

‘This week, after the film was shown at select screenings in major U.S. cities, the U.S. Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights condemned it as one of a string of anti-Catholic Miramax films, including Priest (1994), The Butcher Boy (1998) and 40 Days and 40 Nights (2002).

“They love these movies,” said the League’s director of communications, Louis Giovino.

He said the film is not a fair portrayal of the Catholic church. “I could make a movie out of Jews that elected Hitler,” he says. “Is that going to be made? No. You can choose any institution in history and make an epic out of their bad events.”

William Donohue, president of the League, said “They have focused on cruel nuns, who surely were atypical, and presented them as being prototypical.”

But, two American Catholic groups — the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and the pro-abortion Catholics for a Free Choice — praised the movie.

SNAP screened the film at its annual convention, and Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice said “The fact that Vatican officials … denounce the film rather than the sickness and corruption it exposes is further evidence that church authorities do not have the capacity to end the numerous problems of abuse within the church.”

And there were some real-life abuses at Magdalene laundries in Ireland, Scotland and other countries. In Ireland alone, more than 30,000 women were taken in by the Magdalene Asylums over several decades.

In 1996, when the last of Ireland’s Magdalene Asylums closed, the Irish chapter of the Sisters of Mercy, which had run three of the laundries, apologized for abuse at the Dublin orphanage, which they said was “under-funded, under-staffed and under-resourced.” The American branch of the order, which ran a Magdalene laundry in San Francisco, also recently issued a statement, saying the reformatories represent “a time in the history of the Catholic Church and religious orders of which we are not proud.”

The Magdalene Asylums or Institutions were set up in the 19th century for so-called fallen women, and the various religious orders that ran them financed their operation by providing a commercial laundry service for schools, prisons and other institutions.

This article originally appeared in the 2 August 2003 edition of the Ottawa Citizen.

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