Irish society still needs to confront the abuse of thousands of women in Magdalene laundries

'Are you the man who wrote the Magdalene book?" A voice, hesitant and frail, asked from the other end of my office phone. "I just finished it. I read about 10 pages a day." She called to share her story. She wanted someone to listen. She needed someone to understand.

Her mother died when she was seven. Initially, she and a younger sister were cared for within the extended family. The farm required her father's attention. At 14, he deposited her with the Good Shepherd nuns in New Ross. Her sister was sent to the congregation's Limerick convent.

The Good Shepherd Sisters managed industrial schools at both these locations. They also operated a reformatory school for girls in Limerick. But the two teenage sisters would live and work with the adult women in the Magdalene laundry. They remained enslaved, unpaid for their labour, for almost five years.

The Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse evades this woman's experience of childhood abuse. She was disappeared directly into the Magdalene laundry. There was no judge. No "cruelty man". No committal order. She never was a ward of state. She was just dumped. Consequently, she exists in a legal limbo.

The Residential Institutions Redress Board ignores her experience of childhood abuse. The Dublin-based lawyers responded to her queries. She insisted she was a Magdalene and was never in the industrial school. They told her there was little they could do. The advocacy group 'Justice for Magdalenes' helped petition the redress board on her behalf. Again, her case was not taken up. Her childhood abuse didn't fit the legal parameters.

The recently published Ryan report tells a horrendous story. Irish society responds with anger, a sense of betrayal, and oft-stated disbelief. It seems intent on holding the religious congregations accountable. The government now accepts the report's major recommendations. The Dáil passed an all-party motion pledging to cherish all the children of the state equally. But what about those victims and survivors of institutional abuse not addressed by the report? What about Ireland's Magdalene women and their families? Now is precisely the juncture that Irish society – state, church, religious congregations, families, and local communities – should confront head-on the abuse of thousands of women in Ireland's Magdalene laundries.

The Magdalene laundries were excluded from the Residential Institutions Redress legislation. They were deemed private, charitable institutions. Women, the state asserted, voluntarily committed themselves seeking asylum. The four religious congregations involved in operating Ireland's laundries – the Good Shepherds, Sisters of Charity, Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge, Mercy Sisters – all gave testimony before the commission's confidential committee. But, they only addressed their management of industrial and reformatory schools.

Magdalene survivors were not invited to appear before the confidential committee. The commission, of course, was charged with inquiring into child abuse. Magdalenes were, in the main, women not children. And age continues to inform the state's rationale for disqualifying survivors' claims for redress. So too, however, does the question of liability. Unlike the industrial and reformatory schools system, the government disclaims any function in licensing or inspecting the laundries. It purports never to have funded them directly.

But the state always relied on the availability of the Magdalene laundries to conceal "problem women". It continually facilitated the transfer of women into the nuns' care. It helped make possible a labour force through court referrals. It apportioned lucrative contracts for state institutional laundry for places such as hospitals and the military. After 1960, it provided the nuns with capitation grants for women on remand from the courts.

The state always ignored the flagrant disregard for the women's civil and constitutional rights: false imprisonment; the absence of due process; exploitative and dangerous work practices; the denial of educational and human developmental resources; as well as emotional, physical and, in some cases, sexual abuse. The Department of Justice never regulated institutions routinely used by members of the judiciary to incarcerate Irish citizens.

Ireland's Magdalene survivors are denied a distinct redress and reparations scheme despite the state's culpability, complicity, and collusion in these abusive institutions. And no one in Ireland – not the religious congregations, not the hierarchy, not the state – has apologised to the Magdalene communities.

The Residential Institutions Redress Act (2002) did include, but only as an afterthought, young girls illegally transferred from industrial and reformatory schools to Magdalene laundries.

Many of these "preventative" cases, as they were called, rejoined society in their early 20s. Some have sought the redress they were entitled to. Others decided to remain in the sheltered environs of the convent all their lives. What about these women's lost childhoods? What about the abuse they suffered?

And what about the young children disappeared directly into Magdalene institutions, like the woman who picked up the phone to call me? What about her sister? What about the others? The Kennedy Report (1970) documents some "617 children… resident in 'Voluntary Homes which have not applied for approval'." We are left to guess how many of this number lost their childhoods in Magdalene Laundries.

And what of the larger Magdalene community of adult women? Is their experience of physical and emotional abuse somehow less worthy of acknowledgment, redress, and reparation than that of children? Is contemporary Irish society comfortable with this compartmentalisation of abuse?

In places like Drumcondra, Cork, and New Ross, laundries and industrial schools stood side by side. In Limerick, a system of underground tunnels ensured both populations could attend church and then return to their separate buildings without ever seeing each other. Indeed, survivor testimony speaks to mothers and children separated by walls within the one convent complex without ever knowing of the other's whereabouts.

Is the abuse experienced by these woman and children somehow fundamentally different? Is it conceivable that nuns abused children and didn't abuse adult women in a different part of the same institution? Or, is contemporary Irish society suggesting that the Magdalene women somehow deserved the treatment they received?

The woman who called me is a survivor of institutional child abuse. She remains scarred by her childhood experience. Elderly and alone, she is angry about the past, afraid for the future. Irish society now demands accountability for child abuse at the state's industrial and reformatory schools. When will it do likewise for the abuse of girls and women in the nation's Magdalene laundries?