Declining to apologise, Mr Kenny said the report presented a story that was “very different from the impression that many people might have of what happened”.
The report, by Martin McAleese, said that, until now, the operations of the laundries had “not been fully understood” and “fuelled by this absence of information, stories grew to fill these gaps”.
While they were cold, rigid places with demanding work and prayer regimes, “the ill-treatment, physical punishment, and abuse that was prevalent in the industrial school system was not something they experienced in the Magdalene Laundries”.
Campaign group Justice for Magdalenes said the report utterly minimised the abuse they suffered and the Government “should not see this as the full picture in any shape or form”. Spokeswoman Claire McGettrick said: “For Enda Kenny to decline the opportunity to apologise today prolongs the stigma for these women.”
JFM strongly rejected the report’s claim that the institutions were not commercial or profitable and did not “recruit” women to work.
In his introduction to the report, Mr McAleese said the religious orders responded in a “practical way as best they could” to the “fraught situations of the sometimes marginalised girls and women sent to them, by providing them with shelter, board, and work”.
Just one of the four orders that ran the 10 laundries apologised. However, Mr McAleese noted that many of the sisters involved in the institutions “have experienced a profound hurt in recent years” as the debate gained public prominence.
Under Dáil questioning, Mr Kenny said women ended up in the laundries for a “variety of reasons — not least of which was destitution and poverty”.
He said 10,012 women entered these laundries — not the 30,000 that had previously been estimated — and just 26% of those were referred by the State.
“I am sorry for those people that they lived in that kind of environment,” he said, adding it had occurred in “an Ireland which was a very hostile environment in the far off past”.
He compared the women to victims of other State failures. “We have seen what happened to the women who underwent symphysiotomies, or thalidomide victims.”
Mr Kenny said the stigma of the laundries needed “to be removed and should have been removed long before this. I really am sorry, and I regret, that that never happened.”
The Taoiseach is likely to come under criticism from his own backbench TDs over his handling of the issue, as well as the Labour Party, whose Labour Women group issued a statement last night calling for an apology.
Mari Steed, whose mother Josephine Murphy was in a laundry in Sunday’s Well, Cork, when she was adopted by a family in the US, said the Government’s response was horrifying. “What we witnessed today was absolutely shameful. I can’t recall ever being so angry,” Ms Steed said.
Katherine O’Donnell, director of the Women’s Studies Centre at UCD, who has researched the laundries for JFM, said the Taoiseach’s failure to apologise was down to “ineptitude”.