Catholic nuns tell of pervasive sex abuse at the hands of clergy
VATICAN CITY: Revelations that a prominent US cardinal sexually abused and harassed adult seminarians have exposed an abuse of power that has shocked Catholics.
But the Vatican has long been aware of its heterosexual equivalent – the sexual abuse of nuns by priests and bishops – and done little to stop it, an analysis has found.
Cases of abused nuns have emerged in Europe, Africa, South America and Asia, showing the problem is global and pervasive, thanks to the sisters’ second-class status in the church and their ingrained subservience to the men who run it.
Yet some nuns are finding their voices, buoyed by the #MeToo movement and the growing recognition that even adults can be victims of sexual abuse. They are going public in part to denounce years of inaction by church leaders, even after studies on the problem in Africa were reported to the Vatican in the 1990s.
“It opened a great wound inside of me,” one nun said. “I pretended it didn’t happen.”
Wearing a full religious habit and clutching her rosary, the woman broke nearly two decades of silence to talk about the time in 2000 when the priest to who she was confessing her sins forced himself on her.
A different priest made an advance on her a year later.
The extent of the abuse of nuns is unclear, at least outside the Vatican. However, this week, about half a dozen sisters in a small congregation in Chile went public on national TV to tell of abuse by priests and other nuns and how their superiors did nothing to stop it.
A nun in India recently filed a formal police complaint accusing a bishop of rape, something that would have been unthinkable even a year ago. And cases in Africa have come up. In 2013, for example, a wellknown priest in Uganda wrote a letter to his superiors that mentioned “priests romantically involved with religious sisters” – for which he was promptly suspended from the church until he apologised in May.
“I am so sad it took so long for this to come into the open, because there were reports long ago,” Karlijn Demasure, one of the church’s leading experts on clergy sexual abuse and abuse of power, said.
The Vatican declined to comment on what measures, if any, it has taken to assess the scope of the problem globally, or to punish offenders and care for victims. A Vatican official said it was up to local church leaders to sanction priests who sexually abused sisters.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorised to speak on the issue, said the church had focused much of its attention on protecting children but that vulnerable adults “deserve the same protection”.
“Consecrated women have to be encouraged to speak up when they are molested,” the official said. “Bishops have to be encouraged to take them seriously and make sure the priests are punished if guilty.”
But being taken seriously is often the toughest obstacle for sisters who are sexually abused, said Demasure.
“They (the priests) can always say, ‘she wanted it,’” Demasure said.
The reports in the 1990s were prepared by members of religious orders for top church officials. In 1994, the late Sister Maura O’Donohue wrote about a six-year, 23-nation survey, in which she learned of 29 nuns who had been impregnated in one congregation. The reports were never meant to be made public but the US National Catholic Reporter put them online in 2001. – AP/ANA
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