Washington, February 9, 2013 – Courage has a name: It is Diana O’Hara. Diana is a survivor of the Magdalene Laundries operated in the United States by the Good Shepherd Sisters, a Roman Catholic religious institute for women.
The order is among those that are being charged with the enslavement and abuse of thousands of woman in what are called “Magdalene Laundries.”
Diana’s childhood slipped away while she was trapped by walls of stone and hearts of barbed wire.
In an exclusive interview, she shares her story with the Communities.
A self described “Big Mouthed Irish Girl,” Diana O’ Hara was born in Buffalo, New York, into a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic mother. At the age of four months, she was removed from her home for her own safety and placed into foster care, where she remained until the age of ten.
Foster care had given Diana two parents who loved her and some semblance of structure in her life.
When Diana heard her foster parents speak of having to return her to Social Services, she became possessed by fear and started running away until she was returned to Social Services and placed back into the foster care system.
Diana became caught in an endless cycle, shuffled in and out of Social Services from one foster home to the next.
Between the ages of ten and twelve, she passed through no fewer then 11 different foster homes.
At the age of 12, Diana was sent back to live with her alcoholic mother, a lounge singer who rarely came home and spent most of her time in nightclubs with different men.
During that time, Diana began receiving unwanted visits from a man in his twenties who had found out she was home alone. One day he forced his way into the apartment and molested her. Despite Diana’s efforts to stop him, he returned time after time. When she tried to tell her family, her grandmother punished her for having sex by hanging her out of a second story window by her ankles.
The stay with her mother was short-lived, and Diana returned to foster care, where she drifted from family to family. One overbearing set of older foster parents dismissed her as “difficult” and sent her to a “Protestant Home” which was ironically located across the street from the club where her mother was a singer.
One night, Diana decided to sneak out and confront her mother. Drunk and angry, Diana’s mother would have nothing to do with her. When Diana returned to the “Protestant Home” her mother followed her screaming that the Protestants were not monitoring Diana closely and demanded they send her to the “nuns.”
Only fourteen, Diana entered the gates of the Good Shepherd Laundry in Buffalo, New York with the lable of “incorrigible.” The Laundry, run by Irish Catholic nuns and priests, was a place where young girls aged fourteen to eighteen did penance for their sins.
“I could feel the evil as it descended and began to wrap its arms around me as the scraping sound of the steel gates opening shook the very core of my soul,” Diana says. “My mind just stopped and I could feel myself shift into survival mode.”
The Laundry, surrounded by towering walls of stone topped with barbed wire, was a “holy place meant to save the souls of young girls.” In reality, it was a prison of fear that would forever haunt Diana and the other survivors.
As she entered the Laundry, a nun silently escorted Diana through endless stone tunnels. With each step she took along the rough cobbled floors, hope slowly drained away.
She finally found herself shoved into a small room with a man wearing a suit, Diana recalls, that looked as if he had slept in it for several days. The man, a doctor, fixed his stare on Diana as she felt her skin begin to crawl. “Well, what do you think, is she a virgin?”
The nun laughed. The doctor only smiled, and as the nun turned and left the room, Diana was thrust into the depths of a new hell as the doctor slowly moved towards her.
She was powerless as the doctor overpowered and raped her.
The walls of the Good Shepherd Laundry were not only a physical prison, but a prison of the soul. Diana endured her suffering alone and in forced silence. Within the walls of the Laundry, talking was allowed only when the nuns clapped their hands.
Violating this rule led to severe punishment.
The Good Shepherd Laundry in Buffalo was comprised of six units, each unit housing thirty girls. Dinner was six girls per table, and during her first night Diana found that nightmares could indeed live outside your dreams.
As she sat in the deafening silence of the dining hall that first night, a sudden scream broke the silence. As the screams continued, no one looked up from their plates or spoke a word. Diana would soon discover that directly outside the dining hall there was a narrow, tall broom closet. When any of the young girls misbehaved, she was locked inside the closet, sometimes for days.
“If you pulled your knees into your chest and placed your back against the wall you could sit down and maybe sleep but you were in severe pain when you finally stood up,” Diana says. “The nuns would shove a bucket into the room so you could go to the bathroom.”
There also existed what was known as the “Dungeon Room,” an old shower room with stone benches. You could be locked in this room for bad behavior as well.
“You were in total darkness in the Dungeon Room,” Diana recalls. “As you sat in silence you could hear a high pitched squeal begin to grow louder and louder. Then your body would shake in fear as you felt the rats begin to crawl over your body.”
Diana soon learned that screaming, or showing any kind of emotion, only served to expose a vulnerability to later be exploited by her jailers. If you screamed or cried while you were in the “Dungeon Room,” it was the first place that the nuns would put you when you broke the rules.
When the door finally opened, Diana says, the light stung your eyes as they adjusted from the blackness; what followed next was a severe beating. Diana told me that the nuns would often say while beating her that it was to “make her strong.”
The Good Shepherd Laundries were founded on the premise that young girls needed to do “penance” to absolve them of their sins, and in the archaic view of the Catholic order that ran them, that meant suffering for your sins.
Diana told me of how her knees bled from long hours spent kneeling on the hard cobblestone floors, and beatings were a routine occurrence with each new transgression. Every young woman who entered the Good Shepherd Laundry was constantly reminded she was sinful, and that her time within the prison of hopelessness was to cleanse her of her sins.
The nuns and priests who dispensed the harsh and cruel punishments believed they were doing it for the girls’ own good.
Diana spoke of a group within the Laundry she calls the “Shadow Women.”
Clad entirely in black, with veils covering their faces, they walked the halls single file, heads down, the sound of their footsteps the only recognition that life existed beneath the black folds of cloth that covered every inch of their bodies.
These were older girls, known as the “Sisters of the Seven Sorrows,” who felt that they were so sinful that they devoted their lives to the Laundry.
These women could never become nuns, but they suffered for their sins as they sacrificed their lives in search of redemption that would not come.
For a young woman captive in the Laundry, the days were filled with a minimal dose of primary education and an intense focus on Catholic Doctrine, which was followed by work in the laundry cleaning soiled linens and clothing.
Nights were filled with silence as no talking was allowed and books were not allowed anywhere except in the cramped classroom.
In the dormitory, girls sat in silence, sleep only a temporary escape from the horror that would return at sunrise. Every day was a carbon copy of the one before, the only change the increasing intensity of the punishments.
The Laundries supported themselves with a slave labor force of young girls who were unpaid. Large profits were made from the abuse of the girls sent to the laundries for violation of a strict feminine moral code that became a blanket for sentencing those from impoverished families to slavery that benefited not only the Catholic Church, but also others.
Diana says that young girls from poor families were targeted, and that a corrupt system that included the police, judges and Social Services constantly replenished the labor force. Girls from poor families or those who were constantly in trouble who could not be placed by the system were “dumped” into the Good Shepherd Laundries.
Even darker transactions haunted the halls of the Good Shepherd Laundries. Diana tells of illegal adoptions that were a common occurrence. Unwed and pregnant young women were given no choice except to give their children up for adoption.
Babies were sent from the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland for adoption by parents in the United States. Diana says that the official story was that the babies came from South Buffalo, a predominantly Irish area of the city, but the sheer number of adoptions could not have come from such a small area.
Diana eventually left Buffalo’s Good Shepherd Laundry, only to be thrown into a chaotic system that swept her from one place to the next. Within a year of leaving the Laundry in Buffalo, she found herself at the gates of another Good Shepherd Laundry, this one in Albany, New York.
After a few days a social worker spoke to Diana and asked her how she was doing. She responded, “Well I haven’t been raped, beaten or locked in any closets yet, so I’d say things are going pretty well!”
The social worker replied in a stern voice, “You will never speak of these things!” Diana knew that even if she did, the system that had placed her there would not allow the justice she deserved to see the light of day.
At the age of seventeen Diana O’Hara walked away from the Good Shepherd Laundry in Albany New York, but a part of her still remains there.
As a survivor of child abuse, I understand the trauma that can be caused when your innocence is stolen and your childhood has been vandalized. Diana O’ Hara struggles each day with the pain of what happened to her as a helpless young girl, but she lives her life as a beacon of strength and an example of an indomitable spirit.
Each day she lives her life as a victory over those who tried to break the spirit of a “big mouthed Irish girl” who became one of the most courageous women I have ever met.
Diana O’ Hara offers support for others who have suffered within the walls of the Good Shepherd Laundries through her Facebook page, American Victims of Magdalenes and Good Shepherd.
She is a courageous, strong and passionate advocate for those who have suffered within the Laundries, and she is in the process of setting up additional resources for survivors which will be posted here
I am working with Diana and other survivors to help find justice for the American Victims of the Magdalene and Good Shepherd Laundries. Ireland has admitted state involvement in the operation of the Magdalene Laundries operated in that country, and has outraged many by not offering a full apology.
Survivors and their families in Ireland continue to fight for the justice they are due. In the United States there has been no acknowledgement or investigation of the Good Shepherd Laundries that operated here. I urge the Obama administration to lend their support in helping these survivors find not only justice, but also peace in their lives before they are just a memory.
The story that Diana tells is echoed in the stories of others I spoke with. In the coming weeks I will recount the experiences of two other courageous survivors of the Good Shepherd Laundries of the United States, Bonnie Green and Patricia Noel.
I hope you will remember these women for their courage and bravery and join me in the fight for justice. Let President Obama know that the pain and suffering forced on these women is a part of history that will not be forgotten and that justice for every American can be a reality in their lifetime.