DUBLIN - Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny apologised on Tuesday for the "national shame" of forcing thousands of women to work without pay at the Catholic Church's notorious Magdalene Laundries and promised compensation for the survivors.
The laundries, depicted in the award-winning film "The Magdalene Sisters", put 10,000 women and girls as young as nine through uncompromising hardship from the foundation of the Irish state in 1922 until 1996.
Run by Catholic nuns, the laundries have been accused of treating inmates like slaves, imposing a regime of fear and prayer on girls sometimes put in their care for falling pregnant outside wedlock. One in 10 inmates died, the youngest at 15.
A government report this month found that a quarter of the women were sent there by the Irish state.
Irish governments had in the past denied blame, saying the laundries - named after Mary Magdalene, the "fallen woman" of the gospels - were private institutions.
"The Magdalene Laundries have cast a long shadow over Irish life over our sense of who we are," Kenny told parliament and survivors, who looked on from the public gallery.
"This is a national shame, for which ... I am deeply sorry and offer my full and heartfelt apologies," he said.
A devoted Catholic whose centre-right Fine Gael party has seen sharp falls in its poll ratings in recent months, Kenny initially angered victims groups by refusing to offer an immediate state apology.
Survivors' groups welcomed the speech as offering closure.
"He has given Ireland the opportunity to acknowledge and understand the terrible wrongs of the past," Sally Mulready, who runs the Irish Women Survivors Support Network, told state broadcaster RTE.
"Kenny has honoured his promise and he has honoured it more generously that I had ever expected."
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.
However, unlike other 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, the report said.
But former inmates spoke of physically demanding work, enforced by scoldings and humiliation, at the laundries that operated on a commercial basis to wash linen and clothes for the state, private firms and individuals.
Kenny said the government would set aside funds to compensate the survivors and provide them with counselling services. (Editing by Alison Williams)