DUBLIN (Reuters) - Advocacy groups for women forced to work at the Catholic Church's notorious Magdalene laundries in Ireland backed calls from the United Nations for religious orders to pay compensation and face prosecution for decades of abuse.
In an unprecedented report on Wednesday, the U.N. demanded that the Vatican "immediately remove" all clergy who are known or suspected child abusers. It also urged the Holy See to conduct an investigation into the laundries.
Women, many unmarried mothers, sent to the laundries were made wash items for business, hospitals and state bodies in slave-like conditions, and were often subject to cruel and degrading treatment as well as physical and sexual abuse, the report by the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child said.
"The state has allowed the perpetrators of these crimes to get away without taking responsibility," said Steven O' Riordan, director of Magdalene Survivors Together. "The religious orders are still not being held accountable, they have never apologized directly for their part in running the laundries."
The authority of the church in Ireland has been rocked by investigations into clerical sex abuse and state-abetted cover-ups at Catholic-run schools and institutions, labeled places of fear and neglect in a 2009 official report.
The Irish government last year agreed to pay up 58 million euros ($78 million) to hundreds of Magdalene laundry workers after an official report found that a quarter of them were sent there by the Irish state. Prime Minister Enda Kenny apologized for what he described as a "national shame".
The religious orders responsible for the laundries, which were run by Catholic nuns and were depicted in the award-winning film "The Magdalene Sisters", did not contribute to the compensation scheme.
The U.N. report said that "girls were deprived of their identity, of education and often of food and essential medicines and were imposed with an obligation of silence and prohibited from having any contact with the outside world".
The Conference of Religious of Ireland, the umbrella group for the religious congregations, said it had no comment to make on the U.N. report. The Vatican itself said the Church was committed to "defending and protecting the rights of the child".
The report also urged the Vatican to investigate the forced removal of thousands of babies from their mothers by members of Catholic congregations, notably in Spain and Ireland, a plight highlighted by the Oscar-nominated film "Philomena".
The 80-year-old Irish woman who inspired the film launched a campaign last month calling for access to adoption records, urging Dublin to legislate for the release of more than 60,000 files withheld by the state, private adoption agencies and the Catholic Church.
The United Nations said the Holy See should ensure that congregations involved disclose all the information they have on the whereabouts of these children in order for them, where possible, to be reunited with their biological mothers.
"It is causing untold heartache for tens of thousands of women," Susan Lohan of the Adoption Rights Alliance told national broadcaster RTE. "They are living inside prisons in their own head because they were sent away without their babies and told what they had done was a shameful act." ($1 = 0.7402 euros)
Editing by Alison Williams