The civil process against the Catholic order of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd has begun in the Netherlands. A group of 19 women, between the ages of 62 and 91, want recognition of the forced labor they did while held in their Dutch convents after World War II and up until the 1970s. They have also asked the judges to grant them compensation for the salary they never received for working six days a week in very harsh conditions. In total, at least 15,000 girls passed through one of the order’s five Dutch centers, which operated as a network of exploitation. The congregation received laundry and sewing orders from clients such as hospitals, hotels, the church, the Army and the Government. The “girls”, their colloquial name, even ironed and starched tablecloths for the Dutch royal house. Uncovered in 2018, the severe regime applied by the nuns to some girls between the ages of 11 and 21 became a scandal that continues. The legal route has not been easy, since some 250 survivors have preferred to abstain. But the plaintiffs, who appeared last Friday before a court in Haarlem, are asking for justice.
The “girls” could be sent to the convents of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd by the police, judges, those responsible for what would later be the services of minors, or the families themselves. The reasons for the hospitalization were varied: there were problems at home or they were victims of abuse; they had a criminal record; an unwanted pregnancy; a past in prostitution or did not adapt to their environment. Once inside, the nuns did their best to re-educate them by making them work. What happened was included in a section of the official report published in 2011 on the abuses suffered by between 10,000 and 20,000 victims within the Dutch Catholic Church since 1945. However, the case grew when the newspaper NRC Handelsblad published an investigation in 2018.
Lies Vissers, 70, is one of the inmates, and she clearly remembers the long days in silence. She has recorded the isolation imposed on the rebels and the loss of identity, because they erased their names to assign them a number. “In a jail [al menos] there is a relationship with other people. Ours was like a factory, with the work of the inmates as a source of income for the nuns”, he says. She has agreed to tell her story to EL PAIS, and explains that she was in a convent in Almelo (east of the country) between 1966 and 1969. She entered at the age of 14 and left at 17. They had no voice of their own and control was absolute .
The routine of the convent was immovable. They got up at seven in the morning, and after personal hygiene and cleaning the room, they prayed and went to church. “At breakfast we would go in line, with a nun in front and another behind,” recalls Vissers. They worked until noon, with a stop for lunch. Then back to work and a break around half past three for a snack. The working day ended at six-thirty, and gave way to dinner and a while in the common room. At nine at night it was time to sleep. On Saturday afternoon they cleaned the floors, on their knees. And so, day after day. It was very hard, and silent most of the time. The families could go once a month, “but they never entered our premises: they were only shown a part that did not reflect our life at all.” “It is a scandal. We worked for free, we were isolated, and we were not given an education. Where did the money we earn for the nuns end up?
In the Netherlands, three representatives of this congregation remain. They are 94, 96 and 103 years old, respectively, but they live in a home for religious and have not been called to testify. As the interests of the only remaining Dutch convent are represented by the same order in France, both entities appear in the lawsuit. In Ireland, the so-called Magdalena Laundries, open until the middle of the 20th century and which maintained a similar regime, were managed by various religious communities. Among them, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. The Dutch apologized in 2020, although they do not admit having forced the inmates to work. They describe it as “a therapy” so that they learn to fend for themselves.
The lawyers for the order maintain that the case has prescribed, but the 19 women see it otherwise. They want it to be accepted that the jobs were indeed forced, in a regime of deprivation of their feelings, thoughts and emotions. Since they were never paid, they in turn request the equivalent of the salary they would have earned. Also in 2020, the Dutch government considered these survivors victims of violence, and apologized. Until 2022, they could ask for 5,000 euros for what happened, and about 250 have done so. This group finally considers itself validated, and they appreciate the symbolism of the monument installed last December on the land of one of the old convents. It has a large rose and this inscription: “Name me, recognize that I exist.”
“Identity was stolen”
In 2019, a report by two experts in social and labor law concluded that the situation in the convents “fits the definition of forced labor according to international standards.” The study added that the Government “should have better controlled what was happening behind closed doors.” Lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld, who represents the group of 19 women, affirms that “both the International Labor Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights are applicable in this case.”
The lawyer for the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, Pieter Nabben, assured the court that “what happened cannot be judged with today’s eyes.” He said: “The nuns were not trained to treat these girls, and they thought that hard work was a form of education and redemption. They prepared them to clean, sew, cook Considered tasks for women and good wives”. He argued that the case has expired, and said that “excursions and parties were also organized.” His words were greeted with a murmur of disbelief in the room, where there were several ex-inmates. “But what parties are you talking about? I’ve been told that once the sisters allowed snowballs to be thrown in the yard. The scene was filmed and that’s it: inside again. They could keep you until you were 21 and we didn’t go out at all. It is pure propaganda”, points out Lies Vissers. The lawyer Nabben asserted that the nuns “do not consider this legal act beneficial, and would like to sit down with the women to promote reconciliation.” Liesbeth Zegveld prefers not to anticipate events, but, if necessary, they are willing to appeal. The ruling is expected in April.