DUBLIN (Reuters) - Many of the women and girls subjected to harsh discipline and unpaid work in Ireland's now-notorious Magdalene Laundries were sent there by the Irish state, an official report said on Tuesday.
The laundries, run by Catholic nuns, have been accused of treating inmates like "slaves" for decades of the 20th century, imposing a regime of fear and prayer on girls sometimes put in their care for simply falling pregnant outside wedlock.
Irish governments had in the past denied blame, emphasising the laundries were private institutions, but the 1,000-page report concludes there was "significant state involvement", with one in four inmates sent there via various arms of the state.
The laundries, depicted in the award-winning film "The Magdalene Sisters", put 10,000 women and girls, as young as nine, through an uncompromising regime from the foundation of the Irish state in 1922 until 1996.
The report's findings follow investigations into clerical sex abuse and state-abetted cover-ups that have shattered the authority of the church in Ireland and rocked the Catholic Church's reputation worldwide.
"Many of the women who met with the committee experienced the laundries as lonely and frightening places. For too long, they have been and have felt forgotten," said the report, compiled by an inter-departmental government committee established in 2011.
"None of us can begin to imagine the confusion and fear experienced by these young girls, in many cases little more than children, on entering the laundries - not knowing where they were, feeling abandoned."
Groups representing survivors of the Magdalene Laundries - named after Mary Magdalene, the "fallen woman" of the gospels - asked Prime Minister Enda Kenny to apologise on behalf of the state and want a compensation scheme to be established.
Kenny stopped short of the full apology demanded, saying the Magdalene Laundries was not a "single issue story".
"To those residents who went through the Magdalene Laundries in a variety of ways, 26 percent of them from state involvement, I am sorry for those people that they lived in that kind of environment," Kenny told parliament.
Justice for Magdalenes, a group comprised of former inmates, family members of those who died and human rights activists, said Kenny's statement fell far short of a sincere apology and that what could have been a positive day had "been ruined".
Years of crisis over sexual abuse of children have prompted several Irish bishops to resign. Last month a new head of the Roman Catholic Church was appointed to succeed Cardinal Sean Brady, whose tenure had been plagued by allegations he failed to warn parents their children were being abused.
Unlike other harrowing reports where priests were found to have beaten and raped children in Catholic-run institutions, no allegations of sexual or physical abuse were made against the nuns at the laundries, Tuesday's report said.
However former inmates, one in 10 of whom died in care, the youngest at 15, described the atmosphere in the laundries as cold, with an uncompromising regime of physically demanding work and prayer enforced by scoldings and humiliations.
Many women still find it difficult to tell their stories, the report said. The committee, chaired by Martin McAleese, husband of former Irish President Mary McAleese, was only able to survey 100 "survivors".
Some, like Mary Currington, were too embarrassed to talk about their past until recently. Housed in a laundry against her will from 1963 to 1969, she only told her now husband about her experiences after he asked her to marry him.
Currington was sent to the laundries after being brought up in Ireland's now defunct Catholic-run industrial schools, themselves the subject of a 2009 report that labelled them places of fear, neglect and endemic sexual abuse.
Born to an unmarried mother, she returned to the nuns for help aged 18, only to be sent to a laundry where her name was changed, long hair cut and clothes replaced by rags. Expect for a 30 minute break for exercise, her days were spent behind a sewing machine.
"They locked me up for six whole years in that place. I lost my youth," the mother-of-two, known to the nuns as Geraldine, told Reuters from her home in England.
"All your life was about prayer, what did it do for us? They enslaved us, most of them were very horrible people. I don't know how they said they were people of God, they were not people of God... It's ruined my whole life."
Additional reporting by Stephen Mangan, Editing by Andrew Roche and Robin Pomeroy