The publication last week of the Irish government's McAleese Report on the Magdalene laundries has proved kind of awkward for Catholic-bashers. For if McAleese's thorough, 1,000-page study is to be believed, then it would appear that those laundries were not as evil and foul as they had been depicted over the past decade. Specifically the image of the laundries promoted by the popular, much-lauded film The Magdalene Sisters – which showed them as places where women were stripped, slapped, sexually abused and more – has been called into question by McAleese. This has led even The Irish Times, which never turns down an opportunity to wring its hands over Catholic wickedness, to say: "There is no escaping the fact that the [McAleese] report jars with popular perceptions."
In the Irish mind, and in the minds of everyone else who has seen or read one of the many films, plays and books about the Magdalene laundries, these were horrific institutions brimming with violence and overseen by sadistic, pervy nuns. Yet the McAleese Report found not a single incident of sexual abuse by a nun in a Magdalene laundry. Not one. Also, the vast majority of its interviewees said they were never physically punished in the laundries. As one woman said, "It has shocked me to read in papers that we were beat and our heads shaved and that we were badly treated by the nuns… I was not touched by any nun and I never saw anyone touched." The small number of cases of corporal punishment reported to McAleese consisted of the kind of thing that happened in many normal schools in the 1960s, 70s and 80s: being caned on the legs or rapped on the knuckles. The authors of the McAleese Report, having like the rest of us imbibed the popular image of the Magdalene laundries as nun-run concentration camps, seem to have been taken aback by "the number of women who spoke positively about the nuns".
And yet, despite the fact that the McAleese Report has utterly exploded the popular view of these laundries, some are wondering out loud if it was nonetheless legitimate and good to have produced so many embellished stories about evil nuns in recent years, as a way of highlighting the broader culture of abuse in the Catholic Church. As The Irish Times ponders: "Are factual inaccuracies in movies justified by role in highlighting issues?" The Times cites campaigners for justice who believe that "the role such [movies and books] played in highlighting the issue justified any artistic embellishment". A playwright told the paper that even if these portrayals of laundry life were exaggerated, they "served an important function at the time" – that is, to raise awareness about the problem of abuse in Catholic life more broadly.
This sounds dangerously like a Noble Lie defence – the idea that it is okay to make things up, to spread fibs, if one is doing it in the service of some greater good. The idea of the "good lie", the lie which helps open people's eyes to the existence of wickedness, should be anathema to anyone who cares about getting history right and establishing the truth. Yet there seem to be many in Ireland who believe that telling "good lies" about the extent of abuse in Catholic institutions is an okay thing to do since it might prove cathartic for a nation allegedly in denial about its dark past.
This isn't the first time that observers or artists have massively embellished the alleged evilness of the modern Catholic Church. In September 2010, The Independent casually reported that in America "over 10,000 children have come forward to say they were raped [by Catholic priests]". This wasn't true. For the period 1950 to 2002, 10,667 Americans have made allegations of sexual abuse against priests but the majority do not concern rape – they include other foul things, from verbal abuse through to fondling. When the Irish government published its Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse in 2009, newspaper headlines declared "Thousands were raped in Irish reform schools" or "Thousands raped in Ireland's Christian Brothers schools". But actually, the commission heard allegations of 68 rapes, not thousands. That is a horrific number as it is; why embellish it?
Anyone who points out that reports and depictions of abuse in Catholic institutions have been overblown risks being denounced as an abuse apologist or a sinister whitewasher. When I pointed out a couple of years ago that The Independent was wrong to say 10,000 children were raped by American priests, I was accused by one humanist magazine of being "pedantic". So it's pedantic to point out that there is a difference between being verbally abused by a priest and raped by one? These days, anyone who insists on getting the facts straight about Catholic institutions is accused of being a pedant, someone annoyingly and peskily committed to historical accuracy rather than to the grander goal of making the Catholic Church appear as rotten and warped as possible, regardless of the facts. Yet those of us, even atheists like me, who are genuinely interested in truth and justice should definitely be concerned that films and news reports may have left the public with the mistaken belief that women in Magdalene laundries were stripped and beaten and that thousands of Irish and American children were raped by priests.
Catholic-bashers frequently accuse the Catholic religion of promoting a childish narrative of good and evil that is immune to factual evidence. Yet they do precisely the same, in the service of their fashionable and irrational new religion of anti-Catholicism.