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DUBLIN (Reuters) - Many of the women and girls subjected to harsh discipline and unpaid work in Ireland's now-notorious Magdalene Laundries were sent there by the Irish state, an official report said on Tuesday.
The laundries, run by Catholic nuns, have been accused of treating inmates like "slaves" for decades of the 20th century, imposing a regime of fear and prayer on girls sometimes put in their care for simply falling pregnant outside wedlock.
Irish governments had in the past denied blame, emphasising the laundries were private institutions, but the 1,000-page report concludes there was "significant state involvement" in them, with one in four inmates sent there through various arms of the state.
The laundries, depicted in the award-winning film "The Magdalene Sisters", put 10,000 women and girls, as young as nine, through an uncompromising regime from the foundation of the Irish state in 1922 until 1996.
The report's findings follow investigations into clerical sex abuse and state-abetted cover-ups that have shattered the once-high authority of the Catholic Church in Ireland and rocked the church's reputation worldwide.
"Many of the women who met with the committee experienced the laundries as lonely and frightening places. For too long, they have been and have felt forgotten," said the report, compiled by an inter-departmental committee established in 2011.
"None of us can begin to imagine the confusion and fear experienced by these young girls, in many cases little more than children, on entering the laundries - not knowing where they were, feeling abandoned."
Groups representing survivors of the Magdalene Laundries - named after Mary Magdalene, the "fallen woman" of the gospels - have asked Prime Minister Enda Kenny to apologise on behalf of the state and want a compensation scheme to be established.
Kenny stopped short on Tuesday of the full apology demanded by opposition politicians for state negligence.
"To those residents who went through the Magdalene Laundries in a variety of ways, 26 percent of the time from state involvement, I am sorry for those people that they lived in that kind of environment," Kenny told parliament.
"It's not a single issue story. Those residents, all 10,000, arrived in the Magdalene Laundries through a variety of circumstances and for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was destitution and poverty," Kenny told parliament.
No allegations of sexual or physical abuse were made against the nuns at the laundries, the report said.
However former inmates described the atmosphere in the laundries as cold, with an uncompromising regime of physically demanding work and prayer enforced by scoldings and humiliations.
The report found that a majority of women spent less than a year in one of the 10 laundries, run by four religious orders. But almost one in 10 died inside, the youngest being 15.
Many women find it difficult or even impossible to share their stories, the report said. The committee, chaired by Martin McAleese, husband of former Irish president Mary McAleese, was only able to survey 100 "survivors".
Some, like Mary Currington, were sent to the laundries after being brought up in Ireland's now defunct Catholic-run industrial schools, themselves the subject of a 2009 report that labelled them places of fear, neglect and endemic sexual abuse.
Born to an unmarried mother, Currington spent much of her youth in a children's home before returning to the nuns for help, only to be sent to a laundry where her name was changed, her long hair was cut and she was put to work sewing clothes.
"They locked me up for six whole years in that place. I lost my youth," the mother-of-two told Reuters on the telephone from her home on the outskirts of London.
"All your life was about prayer, what did it do for us? They enslaved us, some of the nuns were okay but most of them were very horrible people. I don't know how they said they were people of God, they were not people of God."
Years of crisis over sexual abuse of children have brought damning government reports, the resignations of several Irish bishops and a papal letter to Irish Catholics.
Pope Benedict last month appointed a new head of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland to succeed Cardinal Sean Brady, whose tenure had been plagued by allegations he had failed to warn parents their children were being sexually abused by a priest.
Editing by Andrew Roche