Steve Humphries’ Sex in a Cold Climate , a documentary denouncing the Magdalene Asylums, which were operated by Catholic nuns in Ireland for over 100 years, caused an uproar when it was televised in England in March 1998 as part of Channel Four’s Witness series. An estimated three million people watched the documentary, one of the highest figures ever recorded for the series. A help line was set up, which received calls from almost 450 women who had experienced abuse and trauma through the Magdalene Asylums and the Catholic Church. The documentary was blacklisted by the Irish network RTE and to this date has never been officially aired in Ireland.

Mr. Humphries has produced over 80 social-history documentaries and written 20 books based on ordinary people’s life stories. But he insists that Sex in a Cold Climate is the most important story he’s told yet. “The shame of being a Magdalene still runs so deep in Ireland nobody would [talk]. It was only women who’d later escaped to England who were prepared to talk. This is the film I’m most proud of. There were Magdalene Asylums all over the world, especially in Catholic countries, so this film has relevance to a lot of people.”

One of the viewers of Mr. Humphries’ controversial 1998 film was actor-writer-director Peter Mullan. Mr. Mullan was so inspired by the documentary that he decided to direct own his fictional version on the subject, entitled The Magdalene Sisters, which was released in 2002 in the U.S. to rave reviews.

So what really went on in the Magdalene Asylums? In some cases, the women-many in their early teens-washed and scrubbed and ironed laundry from 6 in the morning to 6 at night, six or seven days a week, with a day off on Sunday (for incessant prayer, of course) and a day off for Christmas. The laundries were very profitable for the church, but the female “sinners” were paid nothing for years and decades of hard labor. The Magdalenes were not arrested, tried, or convicted for any crime; they were simply “detained”.

In the mid-19th century, secular asylums in Ireland were taken over by the Catholic Church and converted into Magdalene Asylums. They were originally intended to serve as a refuge for prostitutes, but their numbers grew, along with the number of abandoned children due to the Potato Famine. The industrial orphanages that arose as a consequence were exposed long ago for their cruelties in the treatment meted out to their helpless charges. Yet amazingly, the last Magdalene Asylum didn’t close until 1996.

These supposed Brides of Christ took charge of women from poor or nonexistent families, some for having children out of wedlock, others for having “provoked” their own rapes by possessing potentially “sinful” attributes, still others for simply being judged too dangerously attractive to avoid being plunged into sin with pitifully susceptible males. Curiously, oversexed boys and men were never consigned to monasteries to repent of their sins, and as we’ve now come to know, misbehaving priests were never, ever disciplined.

Phyllis Valentine, Brigid Young, Martha Cooney and Christina Mulcahy are the four eloquent real-life Magdalene “penitents” featured in Sex in a Cold Climate. Ms. Young describes how a priest at confession masturbated on her dress and then walked away as if nothing had happened; the young virginal girl was too inexperienced to know if anything had. Ms. Valentine was delivered to the asylum because she was considered “too pretty” and therefore a moral danger to herself and others. Ms. Cooney was incarcerated after she complained that a cousin had sexually molested her. It was her fault, of course. But most moving of all was the story of Christina Mulcahy, who agreed to talk about her experiences only because a diagnosis of terminal cancer had freed her from the prospect of any long-term stigma she’d inevitably have to carry. Mulcahy was torn away from her illegitimate baby while she was still breast-feeding him, on the grounds that she was an unfit mother. The baby was placed for adoption with a “good Catholic family,” and Mulcahy was whisked off to the Magdalene Asylum with baby’s milk still in her breasts. She searched for her abducted son for much of the rest of her life, and was finally reunited with him shortly before her death in 1997.

Sex in a Cold Climate highlights the complicity between society at large and a so-called holy organization that fostered a class of women steeped in shame and self-loathing, preventing all but a very few from finally bearing witness to their suffering.

~Derived from a review by Andrew Sarris for The New York Observer, 2003