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I begin with a spoiler alert: If you have not seen the movie Philomena, you may want to see it before reading further. It is directed by Stephen Frears and stars Judi Dench. It is nominated for Golden Globes for Best Drama, Best Actress in a Drama and Best Screenplay.
Philomena is based on the true story of a victim of the Magdalene Laundries, the notorious Irish convents in which unwed mothers were virtually enslaved, released only after signing away their rights to their children, who were sold into adoption. The institutions were ironically named after Mary Magdalene, long mistakenly thought to have been a prostitute. The film honors its subject, and the art of storytelling, by not oversimplifying. Dench gives an engrossing, beautifully detailed performance.
The film takes artistic license, but the key details are true: Philomena, 50 years after her 3-year-old son Anthony was taken from her at the Sean Ross Abbey outside the Tipperary town of Roscrea, breaks down and tells her other children the long-kept secret about the older brother they never knew. Her daughter contacts journalist Martin Sixsmith, who helps track down what happened to Anthony despite obstruction by convent and government officials. Sixsmith’s book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, was published in 2009.
Anthony had been adopted by Americans and renamed Michael Hess. He was chief legal counsel of the Republican National Committee from the late 1980s into the 1990s, and devised legal arguments on redistricting that helped the GOP win control of Congress in 1994. He was gay and had a relationship with a man named Pete Nilsson (a pseudonym), who fulfilled his wishes after his death in 1995 by burying his ashes at the convent in Ireland. Michael had looked for his mother, but was thwarted as she had been.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny, the Irish head of government, apologized to the women of the Magdalene Laundries on Feb. 19, 2013, calling the Laundries “the nation’s shame.” He said, “[T]he thread that ran through their many stories was a palpable sense of suffocation, not just physical in that they were incarcerated but psychological, spiritual and social.” In June, the Irish state, which sent a quarter of the women to the laundries, agreed to a settlement of up to 58 million euros for the survivors. In July, the four orders of nuns who ran the laundries refused to compensate the victims.
The Catholic Church’s attitude in the 1950s was well expressed by Father Cecil Barrett, then family policy adviser to the archbishop of Dublin: “Sinful mothers are unfit to have custody of their own children. Therefore it would be cruelty to both to leave them together.” The persistent denial by conservative Catholics is shown by Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, who says of the Magdalene Laundries scandal, “It’s all a lie.” He glosses over the massive evidence and appears indifferent to the church’s trade in children for profit.
Much of Michael’s own story is sadly familiar: the closeted gay Republican who regrets too late having helped the likes of Jesse Helms; his adoptive father’s battle to wrest his estate and remains from Nilsson (though Nilsson won); the father’s shock at discovering that his son was gay and died of AIDS.
In contrast to this is Philomena’s ready acceptance of her son’s gayness; Nilsson’s gift of sharing the details of Michael’s life with her; and the abiding love that drove her to seek the truth and cooperate in telling it. She even forgave the nuns.
I would withhold forgiveness until I saw repentance. But as I cannot fathom Philomena’s pain, I do not presume to question her act of grace. One looks with wonder at the fortitude of mothers, including some whom pious predators call fallen.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.