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Shocking ‘Magdalene Sisters’ is Praised, Condemned


A powerful movie about church-run laundries is putting the Catholic Church through the wringer.

The Magdalene Sisters, Scottish director Peter Mullan’s exposé of laundries where about 30,000 “wayward” young Irish women were systematically abused, has won awards, condemnation and even an apology.

“This is a film that points the finger at people within the Catholic Church who abused their authority,” says Mullan.

Fathers could condemn their daughters to the laundries as virtual slaves if they flirted, had a baby out of wedlock or were raped. After years of psychological, physical and sexual abuse, the last Magdalene Asylum in Ireland closed in 1996.

“This isn’t just about the Catholic faith. It’s about all forms of religious oppression,” says Mullan. “I wanted to universalize what happened to those women and draw a connection to other repressive regimes.”

No one has disputed the accuracy of Sisters, which stars Anne-Marie Duff, Geraldine McEwan and Eileen Walsh. Indeed, the only complaint has come from victims who say their treatment by the Magdalene nuns in various countries was worse than depicted. But the reaction to the movie, now in New York and Los Angeles and expanding Aug. 15, has varied wildly:

  • Sisters won a Golden Lion for best picture at the Venice International Film Festival. Most Italian critics raved, and England’s Guardian newspaper called it “celluloid incendiarism, rabble-rousing cinema with a delirious, delicious edge of black comedy.”
  • The Vatican condemned it, with the Vatican’s newspaper calling it an “angry and rancorous provocation.”
  • The Catholic League, the USA’s largest group of lay Catholics, protested the film, calling on the Disney board to dump its Miramax division, which is releasing Sisters.
  • The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and the group Catholics for a Free Choice praised the film. On the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference Web site, clerics support it.
  • Last week, one of the USA’s largest orders of nuns, the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, issued a statement saying, “We grieve with all victims and pray that they experience God’s comfort and healing in their lives.”

Louis Giovino, director of communications for the Catholic League, says the film is part of an anti-Catholic trend.

“This is the hip thing to do, and it has been for years,” Giovino says. “If you make a movie that’s critical of the Catholic Church, it’s a hit.”

Mullan counters: “That’s patently absurd. From Boy’s Town to Going My Way to Angels With Dirty Faces right up to The Sound of Music, we’ve seen enormously positive portraits of the Catholic Church. I felt obliged to reveal this story to the world because it has to be ensured that it never, ever happens again.”

This article originally appeared in the 4 August 2003 edition of USA Today.

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