A report issued this week by the Irish government detailed the state’s involvement in the so-called “Magdalene laundries” that operated for most of the 20th century. More than 30,000 girls and women were remanded to these institutions – ostensibly halfway houses for the “misguided,” where they were sent for “rehabilitation.”
The Irish government has now acknowledged these laundries were nothing more than state-sanctioned sweatshops. Females from nine to 89 were barely fed, detained illegally and had their babies taken from them. The laundries, the report said, were managed by Catholic nuns and kept operational in part thanks to “significant state involvement,” including contracts from various Irish ministries.
In the face of such damning evidence, one would expect the report to be accompanied by a fulsome apology, particularly since the abuses persisted as late as the mid-1990s. However, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenney stopped well short of a mea culpa. Under questioning in Irish Parliament, Kenney merely said he was sorry the women had suffered the “stigma” attached to being in the laundries. This lackluster expression of semi-regret infuriated victims and their supporters and guaranteed that the issue continues to scandalize and divide. This was not the closing chapter all parties were hoping for.
THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco). Has the Irish government – and the inexorably intertwined Catholic Church – learned absolutely nothing from the church’s sex abuse scandals?
THE PR TAKEAWAY: A good “sorry” speaks volumes. Whether it’s a German company admitting involvement in the Holocaust or the Japanese government apologizing to “comfort women,” acknowledging culpability regarding past indignities is now a well-trod path. When making such monumental admissions, an immediate and heartfelt apology is common sense and PR 101, not to mention the morally and ethically correct action. Acknowledging that the transgressions occurred is half the battle; taking responsibility is the critical other half. For the Irish Prime Minister, a review of the Act of Contrition is in order. Until he does so, this sorry chapter of Irish history remains unfinished and festering – a particular embarrassment during The Gathering, a year-long celebration designed to promote tourism. A sorry state, indeed.