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Powerful Film Exposing Church Scandal Draws Rave Review from Conscience, but Wrath of Vatican

July 22, 2003

The Magdalene Sisters, opening August 1, is praised for depiction of girls in Ireland sentenced by families and Catholic church to forced labor in laundries as “fallen women.”

“That a drama almost unrelieved in its portrayal of a mad theocracy, sexual repression and rage should be so compelling is a measure of how our sympathy, as much as our outrage, is engaged.”
Ruth Riddick, film review in 
Conscience, Summer 2003


Washington, DC – Conscience, the hard hitting newsjournal of Catholic opinion, gives high praise to The Magdalene Sisters, a new film by Peter Mullan that has been denounced by the Vatican as an “angry and rancorous provocation.”

Having won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, The Magdalene Sisters opens in major US cities on August 1 and nationwide on August 15. The film tells the story of three girls in Ireland who are sent to the Magdalene laundries where women accused of sexual sins (being raped, flirting with boys, and having a baby while unmarried) were banished to a lifetime of servitude during the 20th century.

In her illuminating review in Conscience entitled “Lifting the Lid on Catholic Totalitarianism,” Ruth Riddick, noted Irish writer, reviewer and women’s health advocate, states:

Mullan unapologetically confronts the Catholicism of the time &. This is the Ireland where 30,000 women were imprisoned in Magdalene laundries, literally washing the country’s dirty linen (clerical and lay), their babies taken for largely undocumented adoption by Catholic families at home and in the US, their exhausted bodies laid to final rest in unmarked graves, until the last of these church-run institutions closed in 1996 &. This Ireland, obsessed with sexual sin, may be unfamiliar to American audiences nostalgic for the Hibernian myth.

The Vatican condemned the film in its newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, in which its art critic, Father Franco Patruno, wrote, “If he wanted to inform his own church . . . about the scandal of certain psychopathic detention centers in Ireland and Scotland, the director certainly could not have achieved his goal with this angry and rancorous provocation.”

Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, viewed the film and stated:

Contrary to the Vatican and the right wing, The Magdalene Sisters is a remarkably restrained portrayal of the emotional and physical abuse suffered by Irish women who were imprisoned by church authorities when they simply did not fit the image of good girls that the church, their parents and a repressive society was most comfortable with. The film is a testament to the courage women worldwide have shown in the face of sexual abuse. The fact that Vatican officials do not see this and 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 — whether it be the sexual misconduct of priests who abuse children or a structure that relegates women to second-class citizenship throughout their lives.

As part of CFFC’s campaign calling for accountability by the Catholic church for the sexual, psychological and physical abuse it perpetuates, the organization is urging progressive Catholic groups, feminists and survivor groups to see the film and make their voices heard on how The Magdalene Sisters highlights an important yet often ignored element of the sexual abuse crisis.

“We believe the telling of such stories is vital if the Catholic church and society are to ever come to terms with what is wrong, put it right and achieve justice for the survivors,” stated Jon O’Brien, vice president of CFFC. Born in Dublin, Ireland, O’Brien was reminded of his own experiences with the church there on seeing the film. “This is a film about abuse of power. Its emotional impact is so great because it captures how helpless one feels when the world seems to have gone mad, when abuse by ‘religious’ adults becomes the norm and you fight to hold on to your inner sense of right and wrong. The film shows how that fight can be won, and lost.”

In her politically astute review, Riddick puts the scandal firmly in the context of the newly independent Ireland and a Catholic middle class that was the mainstay of the state:

Public decorum, defined by the invisibility of sex, became an end in itself, and the motivator behind so many parents’ sacrifice of their children and grandchildren, all unflinchingly portrayed in this movie.

What were they thinking? This is the question the viewer is moved to ask of the assorted clerics, nuns, parents and businessmen (and they were all men in this period) without whom the laundries could not have existed, much less flourished over the decades.

–Statement ends–