Dutch women sue Good Shepherd convents over forced labour and abuse

Good Shepherd sisters

Nineteen Dutch women have taken the Sisters of the Good Shepherd to court.

The women have accused them, condemning them to years of forced labour, while keeping them locked up in convents.

They were “abused on industrial scale,” the women say.

The case before the Haarlem district court relates to about 15,000 teenage Dutch girls.

They were the wards of the Sisters and lived in convents across the Netherlands from 1951 to 1979.

The women, now aged between 62 and 91, said as troubled teens they were taken in by the order.

They were put to work, often for hours on end, six days a week. Their tasks would include sewing material, which was sold for profit, and 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 labour or compulsory labour,” their lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld said.

“Ostensibly the Good Shepherd was doing society, the government and the girls a favour 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.”

One woman told 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 woman said.

The claimants’ lawyers told the court their clients were among “thousands of young women in various countries who were seriously abused by the order by being subjected to forced labour on an industrial scale”.

Lawyers representing the Good Shepherd denied the accusations.

They argued the nuns’ method was “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,” lawyer Esther Dubach told the judges.

She said at the time the alleged abuse occurred, labour was seen as a reasonable method of rehabilitation.

“None of the claimants individually proved how they were abused,” she said.

Furthermore, she added, the women’s claim was invalid: it fell outside the 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 is expected in mid-April.


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