The Magdalene Sisters Controversy

By Steven D. Greydanus

The first question that arises in response to The Magdalene Sisters, Peter Mullan’s controversial, critically acclaimed film about Irish penitential asylums for wayward girls and women, is: Did these horrors really happen?

Did the Magdalene asylums, originally established in the nineteenth century by the Sisters of Mercy as spiritual refuges for prostitutes and other women penitents, go on to hold girls and even grown women against their will, for disgraces ranging from extramarital pregnancy to mere flirting or even having been raped?

Did some women grow old and die working in the infamous Magdalene laundries, not necessarily out of personal conviction or desire for a vocation to lifelong penance, but more or less because the doors were locked?

Were girls brutally beaten for inadvertent or minor offenses, stripped naked and mocked by sadistic nuns over the sizes of their various body parts, abused in other ways?

Tragically, it seems that there may indeed be truth to these charges. While The Magdalene Sisters is a work of fiction, the abuses it depicts are allegedly based on credible survivor accounts of life in the Magdalene institutions, which are said to have taken in as many as 30,000 women between their inception in the 1880s and their final closing in 1996. In fact, there are reports that, according to some survivors, the abuses depicted in The Magdalene Sisters actually fall short of the worst that really happened, and the director himself has commented that he refrained from recreating the most terrible reported incidents for fear of overwhelming and alienating the audience.

In the wake of publicity and controversy surrounding the film — which took home the top prize at the Venice Film Festival and was strongly criticized in a review in the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano — the American wing of the Sisters of Mercy issued a statement acknowledging that the Magdalene institutions represent “a time in the history of the Catholic Church and religious orders of which we are not proud,” and apologizing for “anyone who may have been abused at the hands of our sisters, or any sisters.” (Media reports that the film was “condemned by the Vatican” are incorrect; a film review in L’Osservatore Romano doesn’t amount to the Vatican taking a stand on a film.)

A second question that arises is: How could this have happened? Is the truth simply that the nuns who ran the Magdalene asylums were monsters of cruelty? How could they have imagined themselves to be serving God while committing such blatantly unchristian acts as ritual humiliation of naked girls? For that matter, how could parents so easily have handed over daughters who in some cases had done nothing wrong? How could the state have permitted adult women to be held under lock and key without process of law?

To lay the entire blame at the feet of the nuns and priests involved is unsatisfying and unpersuasive. Certainly there have been abusive nuns and priests guilty of misusing their authority over the vulnerable — just as there are bad teachers, bosses, doctors, police officers, military personnel, and politicians guilty of doing the same. Even so, most teachers, bosses, and other authority figures get by without committing such flagrant abuses; and so do most nuns and priests.

The Sisters of Mercy who ran the Magdalene institutions were probably pretty much like anybody else, with some bad apples, some good ones, and most somewhere in the middle. This, indeed, is part of the horror: How could people who might perhaps turn out to be fairly human if you got to know them participate in something of this enormity?

Perhaps the Magdalene asylums were affected by some kind of cultural pathology, some institutionalized or social sin, that fostered especially cruel behavior. If so, it was a pathology not specific to the Catholic Church, but was shared by other Irish churches (which ran similar institutions of their own) as well as by society at large and the state. (At the time that the Magdalene asylums began, Catholicism had only recently come out of centuries of persecution, and the Irish populace had been able to publicly practice their faith for little more than a generation; so attempts to blame the pathologies of society and the state entirely on the Church would seem to be unpersuasive.)

But The Magdalene Sisters isn’t interested in exploring the pathologies of the culture or the psychology of the oppressors. The film offers no insights into its villains, the nuns, priests, and parents; it has no interest in what they were thinking, how they could have rationalized their actions in their own minds. When the parents of the young rape victim (Anne-Marie Duff) bundle her off to the laundries, when a nun reduces a girl to tears by sadistic mockery, we learn absolutely nothing about what these people thought about what they were doing, why they felt that such actions were justifiable and appropriate.

Instead, the film simply presents its nuns, priests, and parents as cruel, judgmental, and evil — end of story. Its sole interest in them is insofar as they are responsible for the unjust suffering of the girls.

Nobody likes to see representatives of their own group demonized or dehumanized on the screen. Stereotyped depictions of villainous bucktoothed Japanese, fanatical Arab terrorists, brutal military men, menacing urban blacks, hate-filled intolerant Christians, and similar negative portrayals of other groups have all been the subjects of protest and outcry.

Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with making a movie about bad apples. A movie about corrupt cops isn’t necessarily obliged to depict a representative number of good cops, or to sermonize about how many good cops there are in the world.

Yet suppose that someone were to make a serious film called LAPD that depicted exclusively vicious, lawless cops relentlessly brutalizing individuals who were always either wholly innocent victims or else guilty of nothing more serious than jaywalking. Suppose, further, that the director of the film, in interviews, compared the real-life LAPD to the Taliban, and that he himself was a bitter ex-cop and anti-establishment anarchist who considered the whole concept of criminal and penal law absurd. Even if the individual episodes in the film may have been based in fact, would there be any serious question that the film was pernicious anti-cop propaganda?

Peter Mullan was raised Catholic but in interviews has stated that he has considered himself a Marxist from his teenaged years, and has described belief in heaven and hell as “nonsense” and “the whole notion of celibacy” as “nuts” and “perverse.” Additionally, he has drawn an incendiary analogy between the nuns who ran the Magdalene asylums and the Taliban, presumably in connection with how each treated the women under their control (remarks that apparently were misquoted and misrepresented, especially on the Internet, as broadly equating the Taliban and the Catholic Church).

Mullan claims that his film isn’t meant to be anti-Catholic, but is meant to expose the victimization of young women by a certain phenomenon in the Church. Nevertheless, he freely acknowledges his animosity toward his Catholic upbringing, and admits that he brought his prejudices and sympathies to this project.

Perhaps he didn’t consciously set out to make an anti-Catholic film. D. W. Griffith didn’t set out to make a racist film, but it doesn’t make Birth of a Nation any less racist.

Jewish activist groups have been vocally protesting Mel Gibson’s upcoming The Passion over how it will portray first-century Jewish leaders, which they fear will lead to anti-semitic sentiment. Yet that film will at least have some positive depictions of Jewish leaders — for example, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, both members of the Sanhedrin.

By contrast, Mullan’s black-and-white (or rather black and more black) depiction of clergy and religious is absolute: Not a single character in a wimple or a Roman collar ever manifests even the slightest shred of kindness, compassion, human decency, or genuine spirituality; not one has the briefest instant of guilt, regret or inner conflict over the energetic, sometimes cheerfully brutal sadism and abuse that pervades the film.

The closest Mullan comes to humanizing his ecclesiastical figures are brief moments of aesthetic enjoyment or artistic expression. The film opens with a handsome young priest passionately playing a bodhrán and singing a traditional folk song at a wedding reception; minutes later, he’s complicit in the institutionalizing of one of the film’s protagonists, the young rape victim. Later, Sr. Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), the sadistic nun in charge of the asylum — whom even favorable reviews routinely compare with the infamous Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — smilingly confesses a lifelong love of cinema.

Such glimpses of something other than mere sadism notwithstanding, decency and compassion are entirely absent. If this doesn’t qualify as anti-Catholic, what would?

Whatever value the film might have had as an exposé of social sin is undermined, not enhanced, by its prejudicial stereotyping of every individual nun and priest. Instead of being a morally serious film about a corrupt institution in a flawed society, The Magdalene Sisters becomes mere agitprop about how evil and terrible Irish Catholic nuns, priests, and parents are.

Thus, for example, Valerio Riva, a member of the administrative board of the arts council that runs the Venice Film Festival, protested the festival’s top award going to what he called “an incorrect propaganda film,” even going so far as to say that “the director is comparable to [Nazi propagandist] Leni Riefenstahl.”

It’s important to note that not all films critical of Catholic clergy or religious are guilty of this sort of thing. The 1995 Vatican film list includes such hierarchy-indicting titles as The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Mission, and Andrei Rublev. (Somehow I can’t imagine many other groups officially recognizing films similarly depicting their leadership in such critical terms.)

That the Magdalene asylums represent a phenomenon as deserving of critical scrutiny as the trial of Joan of Arc or the ecclesiastical abandonment of the Guaraní missions, I don’t question. Mullan, however, betrays his subject with smug Catholic-bashing. It’s a tragedy that the enormity of what went wrong at the Magdalene asylums has been trivialized by cheap manipulation.

Tags: Anti-Catholic, Magdalene Sisters, Drama, Religious Themes

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Mail: Re: The Magdalene Sisters (2003)

Based on the interviews shown in Sex in a Cold Climate, the documentary film which inspired The Magdalene Sisters, I think your review is a little hard on the film drama and a little soft on the folks behind these institutions. There’s been so much harm done in the name of religion over the centuries it’s almost unbelievable, yet films like these serve as a lesson that the road to hell may indeed be paved with good intentions. The religious orders that ran these homes bear total responsibility for their actions and their treatment of the “inmates.” What happened happened, and to imply that it was the actions of a few “bad apples” does a disservice to the estimated 30,000 women who suffered and died in these hell holes.

Your assessment that my article comes across as “a little hard” on the film drama and “a little soft” on those responsible is at least a reasonable take, and one I can live with. For what it’s worth, I think your email may be “a little hard” on my article, for example by suggesting that I attributed the abuse in the asylums to “a few ‘bad apples.’” Although I did use the phrase “bad apples,” my point, far from suggesting that the abuse was the aberrant work of a few cranks in a basically caring environment, was on the contrary that truly horrific crimes can be institutional and daily realities even when the people running things aren’t all one-dimensionally evil villains. That, indeed, is precisely the horror, and it’s a horror The Magdalene Sisters fails to grapple with.

I stand by the substance of my critique of the film, and certainly I unequivocally condemn abuse anywhere, especially the Church, as well as the complicity of those who permit and protect it. I tried to be as fair and dispassionate as I could regarding the film. I acknowledged up-front the in-principle legitimacy of (a) the charges of abuse in the Magdalene asylums, and of (b) making a movie about it. I think the film does a significant disservice to its own cause as well as its dramatic impact by its prejudicially black-and-white (or “black and more black” as I wrote at the time) depiction of all religious and clerics as all evil, all the time. The guilt of church leaders and religious does not justify cinematic anti-Catholicism. I am in no way defending the guilty.

Those are the facts as I see them. The tone and nuance of my article readers must judge for themselves. I tried to be nuanced; it’s possible that I should have tried harder.

Incidentally, sweeping statements like “There’s been so much harm done in the name of religion over the centuries it’s almost unbelievable” tend to raise a red flag for me, not only because of all the good that has been done in the name of religion, but even more because the almost unbelievable amount of harm done in the name of irreligious ideologies (e.g., various Marxist regimes). Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that people with power have abused it in all kinds of situations, and leave it at that.

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Mail: Re: The Magdalene Sisters (2003)

You ask why all of the nuns connected with the laundry depicted in the film were ‘bad apples?’ Consider the phrase ‘corrupt culture’ — how long would a ‘good apple’ have lasted in such an environment? Would a nice young novice have stayed in the abusive environment, or would she have either (1) left the horrid place, or (2) accepted the establishment as her superiors in judgement, and eventually become part of the system? Because the possibility of lots of nice people working comfortably within an abusive system, doesn’t work.

My sincere thanks for your thoughtful comments and your honest interaction with my arguments. I can’t say for sure that you are the first reader to take issue with my Magdalene Sisters article in a thoughtful way (there’ve been any number of angry replies of the other sort), but you might be.

Very briefly, the mere fact that all of the nuns are “bad apples” is not exactly my problem with the film. I think I could have accepted that, as far as it goes. (As an aside, I do think your (1) and (2) propositions raise interesting dramatic possibilities — a young nun leaving the order in disgust; the corruption of a malleable young nun — but I certainly wouldn’t fault Mullan for not telling a story he didn’t set out to tell.)

No. My problem with the film is that in the real world, even with bad apples, there are still little bits and streaks of something other than sheer rottenness. Even the most heartless Nazi or Stalinist will still have an occasional flicker of conscience, a moment of moral discomfort, self-examination, or introspection, a flash of sympathetic identification with another human being in duress, even just a moment of geniality and expansiveness in which his whim for the moment favors the subjects of his oppression. Any number of Holocaust films have dared to show varying levels of moral complexity even in Nazis. This is what serious moral drama does, because this is human reality.

Mullan can’t muster this. He can’t even gesture in the direction of moral complexity. The closest thing to what we would ordinarily call humanity (in a positive sense) in any of the nuns is Sr. Bridget’s smiling comments about the cinema. Yet this is only humanity in an aesthetic mode, not a moral mode. (The young priest playing the bodhrán in the opening scene is another example of aesthetic rather than moral humanity.)

I really think the problem with the film is that (a) as Mullan has admitted, he wrote the screenplay in a fit of white-hot rage, which is not the best frame of mind for creative judgment, and (b) Mullan is personally anti-Catholic — which is not to deny that even an angry anti-Catholic artist might manage to transcend these issues and produce a morally serious work that acknowledges the moral complexity of even very flawed human beings. Only that Mullan himself didn’t do this in fact.

Had Mullan managed a level of moral complexity, I would be able to recommend the film, and would do so in fact. The subject is a legitimate one, and deserving of treatment. But I really think that Mullan’s film descends into cheap manipulation that trivializes the seriousness of his topic.

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Mail: Re: The Magdalene Sisters Controversy

Who are you to judge what is a good state of mind as far as creative judgement is concerned? It seems to me that you want creative judgement to be watered down to please the palette of ponses who have experienced nothing of hardship.

What do people do who feel rage in their hearts and minds to advertise their cause? This film was excellent.

It did not need the “other side”. Because the “other side of the argument” supports the beatings and abuse, mental torture and crimes against humanity that the catholic church have supported for centuries.

This film was not the party political broadcast you might have wanted but it was true, real, disturbing and educational.

Don’t draw analogies with Nazis about this film you very stupid person.

What is with the sudden rash of new Magdalene Sisters hate mail? (“Hate mail” in this case in part because of your closing sentence — certainly not all disagreement constitutes hate mail; for contrary examples, see the next exchange, or my previous mail column.) Oh, I see Film4 recently broadcast the film. Well, that explains it.

How have you misread me? Let me count the ways.

I never said I wanted “the other side of the argument.” I am not aware that there is any “argument” or any “other side” to be presented. I certainly did not use those words in my review, even though you use them in quote marks as if I did. I am not aware of anyone who “supports” the abuse that occurred in the Magdalene asylums, as you allege. If you can produce anyone who supports it, I would like to know. But I don’t think you can. So there is no “argument” and no “other side” that I am aware of.

You are 180 degrees wrong about my wanting Mullan to “water down” what occurred. On the contrary, it was Mullan himself who already said that he did water it down in his film, and I am quite willing to grant that he did, but I never said he should do that, nor do I think so. On the contrary, I think he could have — and should have — made his film more devastating than it is. I think he should have made it a genuinely devastating and morally serious indictment against the abuses in the Church, instead of what it is, which is agitprop substituting cardboard movie villains where there should have been genuinely wicked human beings.

For what it’s worth, it is not only religious critics who recognize the film’s propagandistic excesses. For example, see Ed Gonzalez’s excellent review. I think I’ve read Ed describe himself somewhere as an atheist; certainly he’s no fan of the Church, though he seems to me to have a certain respect for or at least semi-sympathetic understanding of religion. He is also one of the sharpest and most interesting critics out there, though I wouldn’t recommend all his reviews to my readers (certainly not without a content advisory).

Finally, if you were right about me only wanting to see “party political broadcasts,” it would follow that I would never recommend films that criticize or attack the Church and the faith. But there are such films that I do recommend. So you are wrong about me. However, believe what you like.

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Mail: Re: The Magdalene Sisters Controversy

You wrote, “It’s a tragedy that the enormity of what went wrong at the Magdalene asylums has been trivialized by cheap manipulation.” I disagree. No healing happens in a society without truth. The director’s responsibility was to open the discussion. The fact that we are writing and talking about it means that we can begin to care for this wound.

Thanks for writing. Whether or not you disagree with me, I’m not entirely sure I disagree with you, at least completely.

I am willing to grant that some good may be accomplished by The Magdalene Sisters. I agree that where abuse has occurred it is important to talk about it, and said as much in my review.

At the same time, just because a subject is worth talking about, it doesn’t follow that any film whatsoever that raises that subject is automatically good, or that it does all the good it could or should have done, or even that it does more good than harm.

I sometimes hear this line of defense from advocates of Michael Moore (“At least he’s getting people talking about it”) and even the likes of The Da Vinci Code, but I find this profoundly unconvincing. A filmmaker’s responsibility does not begin and end with “getting people talking about it.”

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Blog: Can’t Win Department: Cross-examination on The Magdalene Sisters

I don’t use Google alerts or otherwise troll for people talking about me online, so it was only happenstance that I happened upon a self-labeled “rant” about my Magdalene Sisters essay from a Bill Van Dyk, whose website is called

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Blog: Spotlight: The Magdalene Sisters Controversy Revisited

In my recent series of Spotlight posts, I’ve highlighted reviews and essays from earlier years of my work that I feel stand out in one way or another. This week I highlight a piece that I’ve come to regard as at least a partial failure: my essay on The Magdalene Sisters.

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