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In the last few years, Ireland has been reckoning with a shameful part of its history: the Magdalene laundries. Established in the 1700s and surviving well into the 20th century, these were church-run institutions, overseen by nuns, where women were sent for transgressing against conventional morality or custom, or simply because they were viewed as a burden to society. Prostitutes, unwed mothers, rape victims, orphans, the mentally and physically disabled, or those who were deemed too attractive or too flirtatious, all could and did end up there.

Supposedly for reform and rehabilitation of these “fallen” women, in reality the Magdalene laundries were prisons where the inmates were used for slave labor, mostly doing menial jobs like laundry for no pay. Most of the women incarcerated there were brutally abused and tortured, both physically and psychologically, by church overseers. Over 10,000 women were forced into this system over its lifetime, with the complicity of the Irish state. Some were imprisoned for decades.

Because record-keeping in the Magdalene laundries was deliberately scanty, historians are still uncovering the truth about what went on within their walls. And this week, there was an explosive new revelation.

A local historian, Catherine Corless, was researching a Magdalene laundry in the town of Tuam, run by the Sisters of Bon Secours, that operated from 1925 to 1961. Over this forty-year span, Corless uncovered death certificates for 796 children, all of them born to unmarried mothers who had been sent there. She was able to prove that these children had been buried in an unmarked mass grave on the grounds – including at least some that were apparently dumped in a disused septic tank. (Some reports have stated that all 796 bodies were found in the tank, which appears to be a miscommunication, but even the less sensational version is ghastly enough.)

It’s well known that children born to women in the Magdalene laundries were badly mistreated and neglected. They died at a rate four to five times higher than the general population, from diseases like measles, tuberculosis and pneumonia, as well as outright malnutrition. Even a report in 1944, when the home was still in operation, described the children living there as emaciated and pot-bellied. (This is a symptom of kwashiorkor, a nutritional deficiency that normally only occurs in famines.)

The looming question, given how widespread the Magdalene laundry system was, is whether there are more children’s mass graves waiting to be discovered. (There are already rumblings of a much bigger burial site at another location in Blackrock, County Cork.) But whether or not this was an exceptional case, the attitudes that caused it certainly weren’t.

During this era in Ireland, the culture was permeated with Catholicism’s wicked theology of sin, shame and human depravity, which gave rise to the belief that to be pregnant outside of marriage was “the worst thing on Earth“. Women who found themselves in this situation, along with their children, were judged worthless and disposable.

Remember, this is the church that claims above all else to be “pro-life”, yet for decades it ran a slave-labor camp where hundreds of children were neglected to death and their bodies thrown away like trash. This shows, as if more proof were needed, the moral bankruptcy of this religion and the utter hollowness of its pretense to be the supreme moral authority.

Even in extremis, however, the church still has its apologists: like Rod Dreher, who takes pains to insist he’s not defending the Magdalene laundries, but complains that it seems “terribly unjust to single out Catholicism for special contempt”. (For the record, I promise to show the same level of harshness in criticizing any other belief system that produces mass graves of children.) He also insists that they won’t change any of the doctrines that led to this end result: the Catholic church “does not operate according to the standards of sexually permissive North Americans, thank God”. This is the boast of the closed-minded, an argument from one for whom no evidence is sufficient to sway him from his belief that ancient ideas of morality should be preserved unchanged, regardless of the stigma they produce or the suffering they cause.

P.S.: There’s a crowdfunding drive for a memorial for the Tuam children, since the Catholic church seems uninterested in paying for one themselves. Please donate if you think it’s a worthy cause.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM—Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...

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