Nineteen elderly women in the Netherlands on Friday accused an order of Catholic nuns of years of forced labor while locked up in convents, saying they were “abused on industrial scale.”
The case before the Haarlem District Court relates to some 15,000 teenaged Dutch girls who were the wards of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd at convents across the country from 1951 to 1979.
The women, now aged between 62 and 91, said as troubled teens they were taken in by the order and put to work, often hours on end, six days a week sewing material sold for profit, grafting in laundries or ironing.
“The Good Shepherd is responsible for the violation of one of the most fundamental human rights known to us: the prohibition of forced labor or compulsory labor,” their lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld said.
“Ostensibly the Good Shepherd was doing society, the government and the girls a favor by giving a home to what it called ‘fallen women’,” she told the judges.
“In reality, it locked up hundreds of women and forced them to work,” Zegveld said.
Six women testified on Friday, one telling judges she became a “robot, following the nuns’ every instruction and working day-after-day without rest.”
“If I die and land up in hell I won’t be afraid, because I’ve already been in hell,” another emotional woman said.
The claimants’ lawyers said in court papers their clients were among “thousands of young women in various countries who were seriously abused by the order by being subjected to forced labor on an industrial scale.”
Lawyers representing the Good Shepherd however slapped down the accusations, arguing that the nuns’ method “is being seen outside of the context of the time.”
“There was no question of physical or psychological abuse just because they were asked to work,” Esther Dubach told the judges, saying back then labor was seen as a reasonable method of rehabilitation.
“None of the claimants individually proved how they were abused,” she told the judges.
The Good Shepherd’s lawyers added that in any case, the claim was not valid because it fell outside a five and 20 year statute of limitations for certain civil claims.
Judges now have to decide whether the order had indeed abused the claimants, and if so whether compensation should be paid.
A verdict in the case is expected in mid-April.
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