Posts tagged ‘abuse of nun’

Maria Monk Reconsidered

In the light of modern revelations and nunsploitation movies, 19th Century tales of immorality and crimes in Roman Catholic convents appear far less fantastic.

IN 1836, a controversial book exploded upon the scene like an artillery shell, written by a woman who had supposedly fled the revered Hotel Dieu nunnery in Montreal, Canada. It bore the title, Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed! The book immediately touched off an acrimonious firestorm of wild polemics with its sensational allegations. And no wonder — for the author, “Maria Monk”, claimed that in the many years that she had been enclosed there in the cloister of the “Black Nuns,” as the sable-clad Sisters of Charity were called, she had witnessed or been subjected to a number of horrific crimes and abuses.

The nun’s tale

Book titlePriests, Monk claimed, under the pretext that such godly men could not sin, regularly used nuns for sex in a private room reserved for “holy retreats.” On the very day she took her solemn vows, she said that she herself had been forced to have intercourse with three priests, and once again with the first for good measure. More on that later.

Monk said she had personally witnessed an offspring from such a union being immediately baptized after birth, nonchalantly suffocated, and tossed into a pit of lime in the basement (where there were presumably others), with acid later added to dissolve the tiny corpse. A ledger she found in the Superior’s office listed many more.

Maria MonkAt the mere whim of a superior, disobedient or recalcitrant nuns were severely disciplined with punishments that ranged from petty annoyances up to Inquisition-like torture. In dark cells in the cellar near the pit, several sisters were imprisoned for unknown sins apparently for life. Nuns would disappear in the night for no known reason never to be spoken of again; Monk firmly believed some had been murdered. Suicides were also not unrumored.

All of this took place in a forbidding atmosphere of medieval despotism, where the only thing expected of a nun was silent, unquestioning obedience. Superstition ruled supreme — hair and nail clippings of an elderly nun thought to be holy were prized as relics, for instance. Bizarre penances, such as drinking the Superior’s foot-bath, were often imposed and strange rituals were frequent. Nuns, for example, would be placed in their coffins upon taking their vows to show they had died to the world, and then propped sitting up in church after they died to show they now lived in Heaven.

Meanwhile in this hell on Earth, the sisters were expected to constantly spy on each other and inform the Mother Superior of any defects, disobedience, or independence in themselves or others. Yet lying to outsiders was encouraged insofar as it would further the faith — especially if it brought in wealthy new recruits.

The aftermath

According to her own account, having become pregnant, she escaped, and told her story to a Protestant minister at a hospital for the poor in New York. He persuaded her to tell her story to the world.

At any time, such outrageous charges would have sparked an outcry; in the jostling pandemonium of pre-Civil War America, they touched off an immediate conflagration of bombastic claims and counter-claims. For this was the era of the “Know Nothings,” stridently anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic nativists. Even before the Potato Famine brought starving hordes of Irish over, these men feared the influx of Roman Catholics as a sneaky invasion of papists determined to subvert the liberties of free, white Protestants and take over the country. Catholic apologists instantly saw that Monk was a tool being used by Protestant nativist agitators and fought back vigorously in kind.

It was quickly realized that proof of Monk’s story hinged on the existance of certain secret entrances and passages built into the nunnery. She had described these in detail, showing how a priest could gain entrance to the cloister unobserved at any time, day or night, with secret signals so he did not have to mention his name or even speak a word. Like the much later controversy surrounding the McMartin Preschool, a Col. William Leete Stone found no signs of such secret passages in the Hotel Dieu during a brief inspection and after interviewing her, was convinced she had never even been there. This finding, along with the story that she was a actually a prostitute, had been in an asylum, and died in prison as a pickpocket, was loudly trumpeted throughout the press, and Catholic propagandists triumphantly labelled her an imposter and hoaxer to this day.

But was she? She was not the only former nun to break silence at that time; shortly before Monk, a woman named Rebecca Reed came out with similarly horrid tales that led a mob to burn her former convent in South Carolina. Famous ex-priest Charles Chiniquy, himself a French Canadian, spoke out about many clerical abuses in Montreal several decades later. Maria Monk herself countered the claims of Stone in the back of her book with statements of nearby residents attesting to unexplained building supplies for interior alterations at the Hotel Dieu that happened shortly after she first spoke out in the newspapers.

In the Preface she implored,

Permit me to go through the Hotel Dieu Nunnery at Montreal, with some impartial ladies and gentlemen, that they may compare my account with the interior parts of the building, into which no persons but the Roman Bishop and Priests are ever admitted: and if they do not find my description true, then discard me as an imposter. Bring me before a court of justice — there I am willing to meet [her detractors] and their wicked companions, with the Superior, and any of the nuns, and a thousand men.

This, needless to say, never happened and Maria Monk is nowadays remembered only with derision. Despite the fame, or rather notoriety, her life ended tragically. She lost credibility by running off again, falsely claiming she had been abducted by a gang of priests. She may have been married briefly, but in any case had another child, was arrested for pickpocketing, and died in poverty in an almshouse in 1839 (although some sources say 1849).

Her testimony

But for someone out to boldly defame the Catholic Church, she went about it in an odd manner. The tone of the book is anything but lurid or sensationalistic; she knew the gravity of what she was claiming, and related her story quite calmly and rationally throughout. It is certainly not titillating. While using florid Victorian language about her feelings concerning the “debased characters” of the priests who had access to the convent and its inhabitants, Monk showed great circumspection in discussing the actual abuse.

This, for instance, is all she had to say about what happened after she took her vows:

Taking the veilNothing important occurred till late in the afternoon, when, as I was sitting in the community-room, Father Dufresne called me out, saying, he wished to speak to me. I feared what was his intention; but I dared not disobey. In a private apartment, he treated me in a brutal manner; and, from two other priests, I afterwards received similar usage that evening. Father Dufresne afterwards appeared again; and I was compelled to remain in company with him until morning. [Emphasis added.]

I am assured that the conduct of priests in our Convent had never been exposed, and it is not imagined by the people of the United States. This induces me to say what I do, notwithstanding the strong reasons I have to let it remain unknown. Still I cannot force myself to speak on such subjects except in the most brief manner.

And indeed, she was true to her word. Far more space in her book was devoted to the daily life of the nuns. More space is even allotted to the antics of “mad Jane Ray M’Coy”, who helped her survive, than all the discussion of the wicked doings of the priests and her superiors.

In an age so famously reticent to speak of sex this was natural perhaps; surely quite different from the explicitly detailed confessions gloried in today. For many survivors of such cult-like abuse, however, often the only way it can be talked about is in such an unemotional, matter-of-fact manner as Monk. It is too painful otherwise.

The wrath of God’s wives

It is indeed strange that many people who are willing to ascribe any degree of wickedness to male clergy have a strong denial about female religious. Among victims and survivors that I have talked to those who had been molested by nuns seemed to bear a special burden, perhaps because of this. Yet, as every veteran of parochial schools has at least one story about mean or crazy sisters, a certain recognition of it exists in popular culture.

Undeniably, the best reason to reconsider Maria Monk’s claims is based on modern revelations of victims and survivors of clergy sexual abuse. Reports in recent years have detailed extensive and global abuse of nuns by priests, which the Vatican has vigorously denied. Nuns, especially in Africa, have been even more vulnerable than before as they are deemed to be safe from AIDS.

It may be significant that Canada has unfortuntely been one of the major epicenters of these scandals. Since the late 1980s, there has been one grim exposure after another of abuse and neglect of children in Church-run institutions on a massive, institutional scale, beginning with the Mount Cashel Orphanage run by the Christian Brothers in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and extending through one institution after another across the entire country.

Thousands of children over decades at Mt. Cashel and in similar facilities were subjected to foul food, severely beaten with belts and fists on a regular basis, and occasionally sodomized. A film, The Boys of St. Vincent’s, effectively dramatized the situation, but was banned in Canada after its first showing.

Then there are the so-called “Duplessis orphans”, some 3,000 children who were condemned to be treated as retarded simply for the higher rates the government would pay for their care. Indian children were treated even worse, if that’s possible, in Church-run residential schools. Two nuns, for instance, members of the Sisters of Charity, have been charged with assault at a residential school in Ontario. However, this abuse occured not just in Catholic schools, but also those run by Anglicans, Presbyterians, and the United Church of Canada as well. The recompense due to the Native population from this legacy of abuse may soon lead to the bankruptcy of the entire Anglican Church of Canada.

All of these innocents were victimized by an unholy bargain between the Church and the Canadian state, where the Church took charge of orphans and the underprivileged with the blessing of government grants and virtually no oversight — a situation already begun in Maria Monk’s day. (To which I say, thank God for the Masonic Founders of the US and the separation of church and state!)

The Sisters of Charity also figure in scandals in Ireland and in Australia. In Ireland, a Sr. Dominic of the Sisters of Mercy not only molested a 10-year-old girl, but also held her down to allow “a smelly vagabond” rape the child. Such cases are not common, but they do exist.

In Australia, war orphans sent from England were subjected to such abuses by the nuns as being burnt with a red-hot poker during an exorcism, locked in underground cells, scalded in boiling water, and so on in some of the worst atrocities ever said to be described there. “Madness, ruthless and sadistic madness, on the part of at least some of the nuns, and a depthless depravity on the part of some of the men who inhabited the place, are the defining characteristics of some of those who ran the orphanage,” Professor Bruce Grundy, the author of a report for the government, exclaimed. “There was no limit to the sexual deviance that could be engaged in with those unlucky enough to find themselves singled out as ‘the chosen ones’.”

He began his investigation, by the way, after police failed to find evidence that stillborn babies and children who died from disease were buried in unmarked graves. One can only wonder how these stories get started.

But, knowing the depravity that human nature is capable of, can anyone today claim in good conscience that Maria Monk‘s story could not be true? I doubt it.

The first victim

Illustrations from an Anti-catholic tract.
Top: “A Nun Stabbing a Priest,” Middle: “Death-Pit — Trap Door — Cell,” Bottom: “The Smothering of the Nun.”

It is time, I believe, for her name to be rehabilitated and her courage recognized and honored. Whether crazy or an imposter, Maria Monk was the first voice to speak out for North American victims of clergy sexual abuse, and paid the price for it. She was roundly reviled for her efforts. Even if she became a madwoman, pickpocket and a prostitute with several illegitimate children, it does not indicate her story is not true but more likely the opposite, for many victims of abuse come to unfortunate ends, especially if scorned and disbelieved. Certainly her verbal maltreatment by the mouthpieces of the Church after she spoke out is similar if even more severe than what many later survivors have faced.

With such factual horrors having been proven by government commissions and courts of law, the claims of rampant abuse and crime by Maria Monk do not sound so wildly extravagant anymore. Even the charges of infanticide which moderns find most revolting might look entirely different to those women who lived in medieval gloom before the invention of contraception.

After all, the Roman Catholic Church opposes such measures as abortion partially because it believes the soul of the infant, if unbaptized, will not be allowed into Heaven due to Original Sin. At least, the nuns might say in their deluded self-justification, their babies, being brought to term and baptized, were guaranteed an eternity of happiness, unlike today’s aborted fetuses forever doomed to Limbo, whatever that means. Their sins, they would claim, were thereby the lesser.

In any case, Maria Monk never claimed all nunneries were corrupt, but only spoke of her own experiences. But hers was not the only one so debased, and conditions have not necessarily changed for the better. A decade ago I listened in pity and horror along with several hundred other people at a conference as an elderly woman softly told her story. She had, at her quite advanced years, recently quit Regina Laudis, a wealthy convent, related somehow to the Benedictines and Sisters of Mercy, based on an island off the East Coast. Among other things, she claimed that the order stole land, duped recruits and supporters, and led by several shady confessors, advocated Eucharistic meditations for the sisters that were overtly autoerotic fantasies. Her complaints to the ecclesiastical authorities brought no relief but only harsh discipline for herself, and so she was forced to leave in protest.

Whether either her tale or that of Maria Monk is true or not, how can any of us on the outside ever know for sure? The lives of those women behind the cloister’s forbidding walls remain as insulated from the world today as if they were in a Dark Age harem.

Empty convents

Ironically, Maria Monk’s ultimate revenge lays not so much in reform but in extinction. It is not generally realized that many more nuns than priests have quit since the Second Vatican Council. Roman Catholic orders of female religious are withering away as their members grow old and are no longer replaced. Figures show that in the US there are only half as many in 1994 as there were in 1965, and the average age of a nun is now over 65.

The reason for this mass exodus may not be that the modern outside world is so glamorous. Perhaps it’s because the cloister is not that mysterious but cozy refuge portrayed in those old Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman movies any more than the priesthood is.

In reality, a convent is more like a prison, the uncomplaining inmates of which the Church has ruthlessly and thanklessly exploited throughout two millennia. Only those women who have actually been there can say if any of these disturbing tales are true, if a nun’s life is indeed worth such sacrifice. It should be noted that once Vatican II threw open the doors, many of these inmates have spoken, silently but eloquently, with their feet.

And so the cloisters’ silence deepens. The halls do not echo much anymore with the nuns’ whispered secrets or their footsteps hurrying on unknowable errands, but the mystery remains.


The Nuns’ Stories Vatican Condemned for Abuse of Nuns by Priests

Part 1: Reports Detail Sexual Abuse of “Sisters” by “Fathers”

Several reports written by senior members of women’s religious orders and by an American priest assert that sexual abuse of nuns by priests, including rape, is a serious problem, especially in Africa and other parts of the developing world.

The reports allege that some Catholic clergy exploit their financial and spiritual authority to gain sexual favors from religious women, many of whom, in developing countries, are culturally conditioned to be subservient to men. The reports obtained by NCR – some recent, some in circulation at least seven years – say priests at times demand sex in exchange for favors, such as permission or certification to work in a given diocese. The reports, five in all, indicate that in Africa particularly, a continent ravaged by HIV and AIDS, young nuns are sometimes seen as safe targets of sexual activity. In a few extreme instances, according to the documentation, priests have impregnated nuns and then encouraged them to have abortions.

In some cases, according to one of the reports, nuns, through naiveté or social conditioning to obey authority figures, may readily comply with sexual demands.

Although the problem has not been aired in public, the reports have been discussed in councils of religious women and men and in the Vatican.

In November 1998, a four-page paper titled The Problem of the Sexual Abuse of African Religious in Africa and Rome was presented by Missionaries of Our Lady of Africa Sr. Marie McDonald, the report’s author, to the Council of Sixteen, a group that meets three times a year. The council is made up of delegates from three bodies: the Union of Superiors General, an association of men’s religious communities based in Rome, the International Union of Superiors General, a comparable group for women, and the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, the Vatican office that oversees religious life.

Last September, Benedictine Sr. Esther Fangman, a psychological counselor and president of the Federation of St. Scholastica, an organization of 22 monasteries in the United States and two in Mexico, raised the issue in an address at a congress in Rome of 250 Benedictine abbots.

Five years earlier, on Feb. 18, 1995, Card. Eduardo Martínez, prefect of the Vatican congregation for religious life, along with members of his staff, were briefed on the problem by Medical Missionary of Mary Sr. Maura O’Donohue, a physician.

O’Donohue is responsible for a 1994 report that constitutes one of the more comprehensive accounts. At the time of its writing, she had spent six years as AIDS coordinator for the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development based in London.

Though statistics related to sexual abuse of religious women are unavailable, most religious leaders interviewed by NCR say the frequency and consistency of the reports of sexual abuse point to a problem that needs to be addressed.

“I don’t believe these are simply exceptional cases,” Benedictine Fr. Nokter Wolf, abbot primate of the Benedictine order, told NCR. “I think the abuse described is happening. How much it happens, what the numbers are, I have no way of knowing. But it is a serious matter, and we need to discuss it.”

Wolf has made several trips to Africa to visit Benedictine institutions and is in contact with members of the order there.

In her reports, O’Donohue links the sexual abuse to the prevalence of AIDS in Africa and concerns about contracting the disease.

“Sadly, the sisters also report that priests have sexually exploited them because they too had come to fear contamination with HIV by sexual contact with prostitutes and other ‘at risk’ women,” she wrote in 1994.

In some cultures, O’Donohue wrote, men who traditionally would have sought out prostitutes instead are turning to “secondary school girls, who, because of their younger age, were considered ‘safe’ from HIV.”

Similarly, religious sisters “constitute another group which has been identified as ‘safe’ targets for sexual activity,” O’Donohue wrote.

“For example,” O’Donohue wrote, “a superior of a community of sisters in one country was approached by priests requesting that sisters would be made available to them for sexual favors. When the superior refused, the priests explained that they would otherwise be obliged to go to the village to find women, and might thus get AIDS.”

O’Donohue wrote that at first she reacted with “shock and disbelief” at the “magnitude” of the problem she was encountering through her contacts with “a great number of sisters during the course of my visits” in a number of countries.

“The AIDS pandemic has drawn attention to issues which may not previously have been considered significant,” she wrote. “The enormous challenges which AIDS poses for members of religious orders and the clergy is only now becoming evident.”

In a report on her 1995 meeting with Card. Martínez in the Vatican, O’Donohue noted that celibacy may have different meanings in different cultures. For instance, she wrote in her report, a vicar general in one African diocese had talked “quite openly” about the view of celibacy in Africa, saying that “celibacy in the African context means a priest does not get married but does not mean he does not have children.”

Of the world’s 1 billion Catholics, 116.6 million – about 12 percent – live in Africa. According to the 2001 Catholic Almanac, 561 are bishops and archbishops, 26,026 are priests and 51,304 are nuns.

In addition to such general overviews, Martínez’s office has also received documentation on specific cases. In one such incident, dating from 1988 in Malawi and cited in O’Donohue’s 1994 report, the leadership team of a diocesan women’s congregation was dismissed by the local bishop after it complained that 29 sisters had been impregnated by diocesan priests. Western missionaries helped the leadership team compile a dossier that was eventually submitted to Rome.

One of those missionaries, a veteran of more than two decades in Africa, said the Malawi case was complex and the issue of sexual liaisons was not the only factor involved. She described the incident in a not-for-attribution interview with NCR.

The missionary said the leadership team had adopted rules preventing sisters from spending the night in a rectory, banning priests from staying overnight in convents and prohibiting sisters from being alone with priests. The rules were intended to reduce the possibility of sexual contact.

Several sources told NCR that religious communities as well as church officials have taken steps to correct the problem, though they were reluctant to cite specific examples.

Others say the climate of secrecy that still surrounds the issue indicates more needs to be done.

The secrecy is due in part to efforts by religious orders to work within the system to address the problems and in part to the cultural context in which they occur. In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, where the problems are reportedly the most severe, sexual behavior and AIDS are rarely discussed openly. Among many people in that region of Central and Southern Africa, sexual topics are virtually taboo, according to many who have worked there.

Expressing frustration at unsuccessful efforts to get church officials to address the problem, O’Donohue wrote in 1994, “Groups of sisters from local congregations have made passionate appeals for help to members of international congregations and explain that, when they themselves try to make representations to church authorities about harassment by priests, they simply ‘are not heard.'”

The Vatican press office did not respond to NCR requests for comment on this story.

O’Donohue wrote that, although she was aware of incidents in some 23 countries, including the United States, on five continents, the majority happened in Africa.

Ironically, given the reticence of many Africans to talk about sex, casual sex is common in parts of Africa, and sexual abstinence is rare. It’s a culture in which AIDS thrives. Experts say the view derives from a deeply rooted cultural association between maleness and progeny – a view that makes the church’s insistence on celibacy difficult not only in practice but also in concept for some African priests.

AIDS rampant in Africa

Some 25.3 million of the world’s 36.1 million HIV-positive persons live in sub-Saharan Africa. Since the epidemic began in the late 1970s, 17 million Africans have died of AIDS, according to the World Health Organization. Of the 5.3 million new cases of HIV infection in 2000, 3.8 million occurred in Africa.

According to a graphic article on AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa in the Feb. 12 issue of Time magazine, “Casual sex of every kind is commonplace. Everywhere there’s premarital sex, sex as recreation. Obligatory sex and its abusive counterpart, coercive sex. Transactional sex: sex as a gift, sugar-daddy sex. Extramarital sex, second families, multiple partners.”

Further, Time reported, women, taught from birth to obey men, feel powerless to protect themselves from men’s sexual desires.

Even accounting for promiscuity – which in fact, some experts have argued, is no less a problem in Western nations – the religious men and women raising the issue of sexual exploitation of religious women say the situations they report on are clearly intolerable and, in some cases, approach the unspeakable.

In one instance, according to O’Donohue, a priest took a nun for an abortion, and she died during the procedure. He later officiated at her requiem Mass.

Harassment common

In McDonald’s report, she states that “sexual harassment and even rape of sisters by priests and bishops is allegedly common,” and that “sometimes when a sister becomes pregnant, the priest insists that she have an abortion.” She said her report referred mainly to Africa and to African sisters, priests and bishops – not because the problem is exclusively an African one, but because the group preparing the report drew “mainly on their own experience in Africa and the knowledge they have obtained from the members of their own congregations or from other congregations – especially diocesan congregations in Africa.”

“We know that the problem exists elsewhere too,” she wrote.

“It is precisely because of our love for the church and for Africa that we feel so distressed about the problem,” McDonald wrote.

McDonald’s was the report presented in 1998 to the Council of Sixteen. She declined to be interviewed by NCR.

When a sister becomes pregnant, McDonald wrote, she is usually punished by dismissal from the congregation, while the priest is “often only moved to another parish – or sent for studies.”

In her report, McDonald wrote that priests sometimes exploit the financial dependency of young sisters or take advantage of spiritual direction and the sacrament of reconciliation to extort sexual favors.

McDonald cites eight factors she believes give rise to the problem:

* The fact that celibacy and/or chastity are not values in some countries. The inferior position of women in society and the church. In some circumstances “a sister … has been educated to regard herself as an inferior, to be subservient and to obey.”

“It is understandable then, that a sister finds it impossible to refuse a cleric who asks for sexual favors. These men are seen as ‘authority figures’ who must be obeyed.”

“Moreover, they are usually more highly educated and they have received a much more advanced theological formation than the sisters. They may use false theological arguments to justify their requests and behavior. The sisters are easily impressed by these arguments. One of these goes as follows:

” ‘We are both consecrated celibates. That means that we have promised not to marry. However, we can have sex together without breaking our vows.’ ”

* The AIDS pandemic, which means sisters are more likely to be seen as “safe.” Financial dependence created by low stipends for sisters laboring in their home countries or inadequate support for sisters sent abroad for studies. The problem of sexual abuse in Africa is most common, according to many observers, among members of diocesan religious congregations with little money and no network of international support. A poor understanding of consecrated life, both by the sisters and also by bishops, priests, and lay people. Recruitment of candidates by congregations that lack adequate knowledge of the culture. Sisters sent abroad to Rome and other countries for studies are often “too young and/or immature,” lack language skills, preparation and other kinds of support, and “frequently turn to seminarians and priests for help,” creating the potential for exploitation.

“I do not wish to imply that only priests and bishops are to blame and that the sisters are simply their victims,” McDonald wrote. “No, sisters can sometimes be only too willing and can also be naïve.”

* Silence. “Perhaps another contributing factor is the ‘conspiracy of silence’ surrounding this issue,” McDonald wrote. “Only if we can look at it honestly will we be able to find solutions.”

The American priest who gave a similar account of sexual abuse of women religious is Fr. Robert J. Vitillo, then of Caritas and now executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Campaign for Human Development. In March 1994, a month after O’Donohue wrote her report, Vitillo spoke about the problem to a theological study group at Boston College. Vitillo has extensive knowledge of Africa based on regular visits for his work. His talk, which focused on several moral and ethical issues related to AIDS, was titled, “Theological Challenges Posed by the Global Pandemic of HIV/AIDS.”

‘Necessary to mention’

He told the gathering at Boston College that nuns had been targeted by men, particularly clergy, who may have previously frequented prostitutes.

“The last ethical issue which I find especially delicate but necessary to mention,” he said, “involves the need to denounce sexual abuse which has arisen as a specific result of HIV/AIDS. In many parts of the world, men have decreased their reliance on commercial sex workers because of their fear of contracting HIV. … As a result of this widespread fear, many men (and some women) have turned to young (and therefore presumably uninfected) girls (and boys) for sexual favors. Religious women have also been targeted by such men, and especially by clergy who may have previously frequented prostitutes. I myself have heard the tragic stories of religious women who were forced to have sex with the local priest or with a spiritual counselor who insisted that this activity was ‘good’ for the both of them.

“Frequently, attempts to raise these issues with local and international church authorities have met with deaf ears,” said Vitillo. “In North America and in some parts of Europe, our church is already reeling under the pedophilia scandals. How long will it take for this same institutional church to become sensitive to these new abuse issues which are resulting from the pandemic?”


The Details

The specific circumstances outlined in the O’Donohue report are as follows:

In some instances, candidates to religious life had to provide sexual favors to priests in order to acquire the necessary certificates and/or recommendations to work in a diocese.

In several countries, sisters are troubled by policies that require them to leave the congregation if they become pregnant, while the priest involved is able to continue his ministry. Beyond fairness is the question of social justice, since the sister is left to raise the child as a single parent, “often with a great deal of stigmatization and frequently in very poor socioeconomic circumstances.

I was given examples in several countries where such women were forced into becoming a second or third wife in a family because of lost status in the local culture. The alternative, as a matter of survival, is to go ‘on the streets’ as prostitutes” and thereby “expose themselves to the risk of HIV, if not already infected.”

“Superior generals I have met were extremely concerned about the harassment sisters were experiencing from priests in some areas. One superior of a diocesan congregation, where several sisters became pregnant by priests, has been at a complete loss to find an appropriate solution. Another diocesan congregation has had to dismiss over 20 sisters because of pregnancy, again in many cases by priests.

“Some priests are recommending that sisters take a contraceptive, misleading them that ‘the pill’ will prevent transmission of HIV. Others have actually encouraged abortion for sisters with whom they have been involved. Some Catholic medical professionals employed in Catholic hospitals have reported pressure being exerted on them by priests to procure abortions in those hospitals for religious sisters.

“In a number of countries, members of parish councils and of small Christian communities are challenging their pastors because of their relationships with women and young girls generally. Some of these women are wives of the parishioners. In such circumstances, husbands are angry about what is happening, but are embarrassed to challenge their parish priest. Some priests are known to have relations with several women, and also to have children from more than one liaison. Laypeople spoke with me about the concerns in this context stating that they are waiting for the day when they will have dialogue homilies. This, they volunteered, will afford them an opportunity to challenge certain priests on the sincerity of their preaching and their apparent double standards.

In one country visited, I was informed that the presbytery in a particular parish was attacked by parishioners armed with guns because they were angry with the priests because of their abuse of power and the betrayal of trust which their actions and lifestyles reflected.

“In another country a recent convert from Islam (one of two daughters who became Christians) was accepted as a candidate to a local religious congregation. When she went to her parish priest for the required certificates, she was subjected to rape by the priest before being given the certificates. Having been disowned by her family because of becoming a Christian, she did not feel free to return home. She joined the congregation and soon afterwards found she was pregnant. To her mind, the only option for her was to leave the congregation, without giving the reason. She spent 10 days roaming the forest, agonizing over what to do. Then she decided to go and talk to the bishop, who called in the priest. The priest accepted the accusation as true and was told by the bishop to go on a two-week retreat.

“Since the 1980s in a number of countries sisters are refusing to travel alone with a priest in a car because of fear of harassment or even rape. Priests have also on occasion abused their position in their role as pastors and spiritual directors and utilized their spiritual authority to gain sexual favors from sisters. In one country, women superiors have had to request the bishop or men superiors to remove chaplains, spiritual directors or retreat directors after they abused sisters.”

Those most directly affected are the women abused, wrote O’Donohue. The effects extend, however, to the wider community and include disillusionment and cynicism. The abused and others in the community “find the foundation of their faith is suddenly shattered.”

Many whose faith has been shattered are from families that look unfavorably on religious vocations and who “question why celibacy should be so strongly proclaimed by the same people who are seemingly involved in sexually exploiting others. This is seen as hypocrisy or at least as promoting double standards,” O’Donohue wrote.

Some observers say that in the wake of such reports, steps have been taken to address the problem.


New guidelines

Wolf, the Benedictine leader in Rome, said, “Several monasteries already have guidelines in case a monk is accused of sexual misconduct, taking care of the individuals concerned, the victim included. I pushed this question in our congregation. We need sincerity and justice.”

A Vatican official told NCR that “there are initiatives at multiple levels” to raise awareness about the potential for sexual abuse in religious life. The official cited efforts within conferences of religious superiors, within bishops’ conferences, and within particular communities and dioceses.

Most of these, the official said, were steps the Vatican is “aware of” and “supporting” rather than organizing or initiating.

This anonymous Vatican official noted two signs that the culture in the church is changing. In specific cases, the official said, the response from church leaders is more aggressive and swift; and in general, there is a climate within religious life that these things have to be discussed. “Talking about it is the first step towards a solution,” the official said.

Church officials have not always, however, been open to such exchanges. McDonald wrote in her 1998 report that in March of that year she had spoken to the standing committee of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, the consortium of African bishops’ conferences, on the problem of sexual abuse of sisters.

“Since most of what I gave was based on reports coming from diocesan congregations and Conferences of Major Superiors in Africa, I felt very convinced of the authenticity of what I was saying,” McDonald wrote.

Yet, “the bishops present felt that it was disloyal of the sisters to have sent such reports outside their dioceses,” McDonald wrote. “They said that the sisters in question should go to their diocesan bishop with these problems.”

“Of course,” she wrote, “this would be the ideal. However, the sisters claim that they have done so time and time again. Sometimes they are not well received. In some instances they are blamed for what has happened. Even when they are listened to sympathetically, nothing much seems to be done.”

Worth talking about

Whatever positive steps have been taken, the problem remains a live concern for religious women. In an interview at her home in Kansas City, Mo., Fangman, the nun who raised the issue last September at a gathering of Benedictine abbots in Rome, told NCR that she had heard the stories about sisters being sexually abused by priests during informal discussions at meetings of abbesses and prioresses worldwide.

“The sisters who brought it up were deeply hurt by it and found it very painful – and very painful to talk about,” she said. Because of the pain that she and others were hearing, “we decided that it was worth also beginning to talk about in a more open way, and we had the opportunity at our regular meeting with the Congress of Abbots,” she said.

Fangman said her report to the Benedictine abbots was based on the conversations with sisters and on the material in O’Donohue’s reports.

Fangman’s talk was published in a recent issue of the Alliance for International Monasticism Bulletin, a mission magazine of the order.

O’Donohue’s report was prepared in a similar spirit: in hope of promoting change. She wrote in her report that she had prepared it “after much profound reflection and with a deep sense of urgency since the subjects involved touch the very core of the church’s mission and ministry.”

The information on abuse of nuns by priests “comes from missionaries (men and women); from priests, doctors and other members of our loyal ecclesial family,” she wrote. “I have been assured that case records exist for several of the incidents” described in the report, she said, “and that the information is not just based on hearsay.”

The 23 countries listed in her report are: Botswana, Burundi, Brazil, Colombia, Ghana, India, Ireland, Italy, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Tonga, Uganda, United States, Zambia, Zaire, Zimbabwe.

Her hope, she wrote, is that the report “will consequently motivate appropriate action especially on the part of those in positions of church leadership and those responsible for formation.”

Documents related to the above story will be available on the NCR Website

By John Allen and Pamela Schaeffer, National Catholic Reporter, 3/16/2001


Part 2: Vatican Denies Priests Abuse Nuns

The Vatican has denied a report in the National Catholic Reporter that says sexual abuse of nuns by priests is a serious problem.

The article is based on five reports by senior members of women’s religious orders and a priest going back to 1994. The National Catholic Reporter said the reports have been discussed at top Vatican levels.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Vallis acknowledged there were isolated cases of priests sexually abusing nuns but said the problem is “restricted to a limited geographic area.”

While the Vatican did not name the geographical area, the report said most incidents of sexual abuse against nuns occurred in Africa where the nuns were identified as “safe” following the onset of the HIV and AIDS viruses devastating the continent.

Navarro-Vallis said the Vatican is working with the leaders of religious orders and he stressed the heroic work of many priests and nuns.

Fr. Bernardo Cervellera, director of Fides, the news agency of the Vatican’s missionary arm, said celibacy has always been a struggle for some priests but he was surprised at the accounts of sexual abuse.

He said: “I was a missionary for 25 years and I never encountered such a problem. Instead, I found priests and nuns who gave themselves wholly to people with leprosy, with AIDS … priests and nuns who live their love for Christ.” Ananova, Reuters, 3/20/2001