The United Nations Committee Against Torture will review a case of possible human rights abuse perpetrated by nuns in Ireland’s asylums, industrial schools, and “Magdalene laundries,” said plaintiff and former student Elizabeth Coppin, 69.
From the early 1800’s to the late 20 century, Ireland social services would send its orphans to industrial schools, a state-funded, religious-run institution, while women of “ill repute” were sent to the “Magdalene laundries,” where lodging and work were provided in exchange for meager wages.
However, the charity homes, which were run by Catholic nuns, were ripe with physical and mental abuse and, since their closure, the number of allegations of mistreatment has grown.
Coppin’s is among the most prominent cases who states she arrived to the Sisters of Mercy in the Nazareth House industrial school in Tralee in 1951 at the age of two. Coppin said she was subject to harsh beating, starvation, solitary confinement, and humiliation at the hands of her religious guardians. Education came second to chores and disciplinary measures, the New York Times reports.
As a teenager, she attempted suicide by setting herself on fire and refused medical treatment, “even aspirin.” At age 14 she was transferred to a Magdalene asylum, where she suffered further abuse under inhumane conditions. Despite numerous escape attempts, Coppin didn’t find freedom until at age 19 she ran away from her job at a hospital to live in London.
"It was in the padded cell that it dawned on me that I would be there for life, that I'd be buried in a mass grave...I saw the people who were there, who were broken, institutionalized, illiterate, from living in a dark, dark place with no way out. I remember asking myself the questions, 'What will I do? How will I get out'," Coppin said.
She attributes struggles with suicidal thoughts, social interactions, depression, and chronic anxiety to her traumatic experience. Some 50 years later, Coppin has exhausted nearly all her conventional criminal and civil remedies after pursuing her case in both 1999 and 2001.
"I will never come to terms with the past...They violated my human rights, the basic principles of my life. What gave these men and the church the right to deny us our rights, because we were women," said Coppin.
The Irish government has so far rejected the UN’s requests to investigate the mounting abuse allegations against the Magdalene Laundries as well as hold those members of the Catholic church accountable.