The Vatican women’s magazine is blaming the drastic drop in the number of nuns worldwide in part on their wretched working conditions and the sexual abuse and abuses of power they suffer at the hands of priests and their own superiors.
“Women Church World” dedicated its February issue to the burnout, trauma and exploitation experienced by religious sisters and how the church is realizing it must change its ways if it wants to attract new vocations.
The magazine published Thursday revealed that Pope Francis had authorized the creation of a special home in Rome for nuns who were kicked out of their orders and all but left on the street, some forced into prostitution to survive.
“There are some really tough cases, in which the superiors withheld the identity documents of the sisters who wanted to leave the convent, or who were kicked out,” the head of the Vatican’s religious orders congregation, Cardinal Joao Braz di Aviz, told the magazine.
“There were also cases of prostitution to be able to provide for themselves,” he said. “These are ex-nuns!”
“We are dealing with people who are wounded, and for whom we have to rebuild trust. We have to change this attitude of rejection, the temptation to ignore these people and say ‘you’re not our problem anymore.’’”
“All of this must absolutely change,” he said.
The Catholic Church has seen a continuing free fall in the number of nuns around the world, as elderly sisters die and fewer young ones take their place. Vatican statistics from 2016 show the number of sisters was down 10,885 from the previous year to 659,445 globally. Ten years prior, there were 753,400 nuns around the world, meaning the Catholic Church shed nearly 100,000 sisters in the span of a decade.
European nuns regularly fare the worst, Latin American numbers are stable and the numbers are rising in Asia and Africa.
The magazine has made headlines in the past with articles exposing the sexual abuse of nuns by priests and the slave-like conditions sisters are often forced to work under, without contracts and doing menial jobs like cleaning for cardinals.
The drop in their numbers has resulted in the closure of convents around Europe, and the ensuing battle between the remaining sisters and diocesan bishops or the Vatican for control of their assets.
Braz insisted the assets don’t belong to the sisters themselves, but the entire church, and called for a new culture of exchange, so that “five nuns aren’t managing an enormous patrimony” while other orders go broke.
Braz acknowledged the problem of nuns being sexually abused by priests and bishops. But he said in recent times, his office has also heard from nuns who were abused by other nuns — including one congregation with nine cases.
There were also cases of gross abuses of power.
“We’ve had cases, not many thank goodness, of superiors who once they were elected refused to step down. They went around all the rules,” he was quoted as saying. “And in the communities there are sisters who tend to blindly obey, without saying what they think.”
The international umbrella group of nuns has begun speaking out more forcefully about the abuses of nuns and has formed a commission with its male counterpart to take better care of their members.
The Lord’s Prayer filled the marble dome of the Russell Senate Office Building on Thursday as 70 Catholic sisters, clergy and parishioners were led away in handcuffs.
“Forgive us our trespasses,” the demonstrators recited, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
On a day they dubbed the “Catholic Day of Action,” hundreds of Catholics gathered outside the Capitol to protest the Trump administration’s immigration policies and its treatment of migrants.
“We hope that by being here and putting our bodies on the line, we can give people, members of Congress, courage to do the right thing,” said Sister Marge Clark, from the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. “It’s important to go beyond words, to put your body where your words are, where your beliefs are.”
In their hands and fastened to their bodies, demonstrators carried photographs of migrant children who died in federal custody into the Russell building, where more than 30 senators have offices. As five protesters lay on the floor of the rotunda to make the shape of a cross with their bodies, the group recited the children’s names:
“Darlyn,” protesters chanted in unison. “Jakelin. Felipe. Juan. Wilmer. Carlos.”
Thursday’s demonstration was the second protest this week in which people of faith decried Immigration and Customs Enforcement and called for an end to the federal practice of detaining migrants at crowded detention centers along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Ten Jewish demonstrators were arrested Tuesday for refusing to leave the lobby of ICE headquarters in Southwest Washington. More than 100 others locked arms and formed barriers around the building’s doors and garage, disrupting the agency’s daily operations.
Thursday’s protest, which called for an end to child detention, was organized by a coalition of more than 15 Catholic groups, including the Sisters of Mercy, Faith in Action and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
“We are here today because of our faith. The gospel compels us to act,” Sister Ann Scholz, associate director for LCWR’s social mission, told the crowd. “We are outraged at the horrific treatment of families and especially children. The inhumane treatment of children being done in our name must stop.”
Though Pope Francis and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have long affirmed their support for migrants and refugees, Catholic voters are split on the issue of immigration, according to surveys conducted earlier this year by the Pew Research Center.
Catholic Democrats are more likely than Catholic Republicans to view immigration as a boon rather than a burden to the United States — 86 percent to 47 percent — and are more likely to oppose expanding a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We can and must remain a country that provides refuge for children and families fleeing violence, persecution and acute poverty,” the Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote in a statement last month. “All people, regardless of their country of origin or legal status, are made in the image of God and should be treated with dignity and respect.”
Claribel Guzman, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, bounced her 17-month-old daughter in her arms Thursday as demonstrators read aloud the words of migrant children detained at federal facilities.
Guzman, afraid of being deported to a country she fears and of being separated from her child, said she has been weighing her options. Maybe, she said, she would seek sanctuary at a local church.
Later, as Franciscan brothers in brown robes were arrested alongside Catholic sisters, Guzman looked on, her head shaking slightly.
“This is my fight now, for my daughter,” she said in Spanish. “It’s very frustrating, very difficult. I am alone here. But in this moment, seeing people like this helps me.”
The demonstration came less than a week after President Trump promised a crush of immigration raids in cities around the country. Though they failed to materialize Sunday as the president promised — Trump said he wanted agents “to take people out and take them back to their countries” — several sisters who work with immigrants said they have seen a lingering fear grip their communities.
“It’s so much worse now. So much worse than we’ve ever seen it, and every day my stomach sinks when something new comes out,” said Sister JoAnn Persch, 85, a Chicago nun with the Sisters of Mercy. “But you know what I’ve learned? I’ve learned that nuns have power. And that’s why we’re here.”
Persch and Sister Pat Murphy, 90, began working with immigrants in 1990, when they took over Su Casa, a Chicago refuge for Central American women, children and torture survivors. In 2007, they began sitting vigil outside the Broadview Detention Center, an ICE facility near Chicago that is often a last stop before immigrants are sent back to their home countries.
They return every Friday — no matter the weather — to pray the rosary.
“Those little children and their mothers and fathers coming across the border, those who are here in the United States, are maligned, called names. It’s rude, crude, disgusting,” Murphy said. “The climate in the country now is very sad, and it’s scary. It’s a scary time.”
The sisters were among about 50 nuns who participated in Thursday’s act of civil disobedience.
As police officers led the last group away, hands zip-tied behind their backs, the demonstrators sang a hymn.
All that remained were photographs of the deceased children, scattered across the Capitol’s hard, cold ground.
Sister Joan Chittister, a well-known American nun, feminist and scholar, was looking forward to speaking at a Catholic education conference in Australia next year, figuring there would be plenty to discuss in a country where Catholic schools educate roughly one in five children.
But then Sister Joan, 83, received an email a few weeks ago effectively telling her not to come, saying that the Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, had not endorsed the invitation.
No reason was given, she said. But to Sister Joan and her supporters, the message was clear: The leaders of the church don’t like her ideas — especially her call to empower women and laypeople — so they plan to suppress them.
“It is pathetic,” Sister Joan said on Monday in an interview from Erie, Pa., where she has lived and worked with the needy for most of her life. “These teachers for the next generation of thinkers are being denied the right to pursue ideas.”
“I see it as a lot bigger than one conference,” she added. “I see it as an attitude of mind that is dangerous to the church.”
The dispute over her invitation, unreported until now, arrives at a time of division and tension for Australia’s Catholic Church.
Cardinal George Pell, a former archbishop of Melbourne who also served as the Vatican’s treasurer, will soon learn whether the appeal of his conviction in December for molesting two choir boys in 1996 has been successful. Cardinal Pell, the highest-ranking Catholic official found guilty of criminal charges in the church’s child sexual-abuse crisis, was sentenced to six years in prison.
But close observers suggest the cardinal has a good chance of winning his appeal, which would ignite another round of anger among Catholics who believe the church is not doing enough to loosen priests’ grip on authority, contributing to a culture of secrecy that allowed the sexual abuse problem to fester.
The rejection of Sister Joan is fuel for the fire.
“The archbishop has made a serious mistake,” said Gail Grossman Freyne, a family therapist, author and friend of Sister Joan’s in Melbourne. “This ban will in no way hinder Sister Joan in pursuing her apostolate. In fact, it will only increase the number of people in Melbourne, in all of Australia, who will come to hear her speak and buy her books. What kind of threat is this 83-year-old Benedictine who has spent her life preaching the gospel?”
The Archdiocese of Melbourne did not respond to requests for comment.
Jim Miles, acting executive director of Catholic Education Melbourne — one of the groups organizing the National Catholic Education Commission’s annual conference, where Sister Joan had expected to speak in September 2020 — characterized the dispute as a communications failure. He said no one, including Sister Joan, had yet been formally invited to address the gathering.
“It is regrettable that Sister Joan Chittister may have been given the impression that she was invited to speak at the conference,” he said. “The conference organizing committee is working to ensure that this type of miscommunication does not occur again.”
Sister Joan, however, said that she had clearly been invited, and that she later received an apologetic email rescinding the invitation.
“I am very saddened to say that while our organizing committee strongly supported the inclusion of Sr Joan as a speaker at the conference, the Archbishop of Melbourne has failed to endorse her inclusion,” the email said.
Catholic scholars said they were not surprised by the dispute; Archbishop Comensoli is a conservative moral theologian who previously served as an auxiliary bishop in Sydney under Cardinal Pell when he was the archbishop there.
His views generally reflect the widening divide between the church’s leadership and many everyday Catholics. On issues like the role of women and acceptance of homosexuality, priests and bishops steeped in the doctrinal and social conservatism of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI continue to be opposed by Catholics who have moved to the left, and want to see the church change with the times.
The current pontiff, Pope Francis, has tried to bridge this divide, calling for the church to be more inclusive, while upholding church teachings that prohibit gay marriage and ordaining women as priests or deacons. He has taken only modest steps on both the sexual abuse crisis and broader reforms. On Monday, he cracked open the door to ordaining married, elderly men as priests in remote areas of the Amazon, where the shortage of priests is dire.
In Australia, as in many countries, the divisions have contributed to the faith’s steep decline: Just over 10 percent of Catholics in Australia attend church weekly, down from 74 percent in the 1950s. And while the country’s Catholic schools are still well attended, thanks in part to government funding, they are also the forum where the Church’s generational and cultural rifts are most apparent.
Young Australians who identify as Catholic, for example, are far more liberal than the leaders of their faith. According to an independent study from the Australian National University, eight in 10 Catholic teenagers in Australia support same-sex marriage, and roughly the same percentage support the right of L.G.B.T. students to express their sexuality in schools.
“There is often a misalignment between the laity and the hierarchy, particularly with anything considered socially progressive,” said Andrew Singleton, an associate professor of sociology at Deakin University near Melbourne who worked on the study. “The hierarchy takes its lead from Rome, whereas the laity takes its lead from a wide array of sources, not just the Church.”
Sister Joan is familiar with the fault line. In 2001, Vatican officials directed her order, the Benedictines, to keep her from speaking at a Women’s Ordination Worldwide conference in Dublin. Her religious community refused, and she spoke anyway.
She has gone on to say that the ordination of women — which is not allowed in the Catholic Church — is not her main concern. But for educators in particular, Sister Joan’s acts of resistance make her a rich source of discussion about both the Church and activist faith in general.
For more than 50 years, she has combined Scripture with stories of modern inspirational figures and demands for equality. Friendly and relentless, she rose to prominence in the 1980s with her opposition to nuclear proliferation. Through countless lectures and more than 50 books, she has developed a worldwide following for highlighting the role of women in religious orders, for calling on the church to change and reconnect with the faithful, and for providing a model of spiritual leadership focused on social justice.
Her most recent book, “The Time Is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage,” is in many ways a cri de coeur against the status quo and for a bold spirituality to fight injustice.
On Holy Thursday, a solemn day in the most sacred week in the Catholic calendar, St. Miriam’s felt like any other Catholic church: The altar featured a crucifix draped with white fabric and a tabernacle, and the Rev. James St. George, also known as Father Jim, was preparing the Flourtown church for a foot-washing ceremony, with towels and washbasins placed on the altar.
But St. Miriam’s is not Roman Catholic, nor affiliated with the Vatican: It’s catholic — with a lowercase c.
It’s one of at least four independent Catholic parishes that cropped up around Philadelphia between 2005 and 2010, nourished in part by the advantages of social media and email. Now with more than 600 parishioners, St. Miriam’s has become perhaps the largest such congregation; like the others, drawing Catholics eager for new ways to practice an old faith.
Its pastor last week noted the sad parallels between the worldwide Roman Catholic Church and the Paris blaze that seemed to rage untouched until it had already consumed part of its historic Notre Dame Cathedral.
“They don’t admit they’re on fire until it’s too late,” St. George said. “And now the whole church is burning.”
The Roman Catholic Church is still the biggest religious institution in the United States — and the world, with about 1.3 billion adherents, according to the Vatican. But fewer and fewer Americans are identifying as Catholic. The clergy sex-abuse scandals, conversion to other faiths, and declining religiosity in general all play a role, according to polls. A Pew study found that between 2007 and 2014, the Catholic Church lost more members than any other religious institution, by a wide margin.
“If ex-Catholic was a religion, it’d be the third-largest in the United States,” said Julie Byrne, a professor of religion at Hofstra University whose book, The Other Catholics: Remaking America’s Largest Religion, explores independent catholicism.
Alternative Catholic churches have existed for centuries. The Orthodox Catholic Church, which split with the Roman Catholic Church in 1054 and today maintains its seat of power in Istanbul, has more than 100 million members.
And not all are alike. Some are conservative, offering Mass in Latin. Others are characterized by an openness to concepts and stances that the Roman Catholic Church eschews, including female priests and gay marriage — both of which a majority of U.S. Catholics support, according to the Pew poll.
But most independent Catholic churches are filled with congregants steeped in the traditions of the religion. Byrne said 60 percent to 70 percent of parishioners at the independent Catholic churches she studied had come from Roman Catholic churches.
She said such a conversion comes at a price: The Rome-led Catholic Church has made sure to convey that independent parishes aren’t “the real thing,” suggesting that joining one could jeopardize a Catholic’s salvation.
A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia last week declined to wade into the debate, instead noting that though the church has been “uneven in fidelity to Christ and His word,” it is “the only place where Christ and His word continue to be passed on in all of its fullness and clarity.”
St. George said he encountered that sort of resistance in St. Miriam’s first year, when a listing for the church’s Catholic services in a local Roxborough paper triggered a letter from Roman Catholic clergy suggesting its use of the word Catholic might “mislead” people. Instead, attention from Roman Catholic churches only helped grow his congregation, he said.
Almost every year since, members of St. Miriam’s have worked to build its infrastructure — painting walls, restoring the stained glass windows, and maintaining the graves on the 12-acre campus along Bethlehem Pike that it inherited from a Lutheran church.
St. George began his path to priesthood at a Roman Catholic seminary, St. Mark’s in Erie, but said he had long felt unsettled by parts of church doctrine, including its positions on LGBT people and women. Such stances had even resonated inside his family’s Italian Catholic home in northwestern Pennsylvania.
“My sister couldn’t serve the altar or read at Mass,” St. George said, “and she would come home and cry.”
Now he’s a bishop in Old Catholic Churches International, part of an independent Catholic movement that split from Rome in 1870 and dates to an 18th-century Dutch separatist movement.
Mother JoEllen Werthman confronted the same kind of conflicts when she grew up Catholic on Long Island decades ago and then, in the 1980s, felt a religious calling.
“I couldn’t figure out how to have a boyfriend and be a nun,” said Werthman.
When it became clear the Roman Catholic Church would not accept women as clergy in her lifetime, Werthman began to look elsewhere, and found a seminary at the Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch to ordain her.
“What will I say to God when I die?” she asked. “Did I follow the rules, or did I answer the call?”
These days, the 73-year-old cleric is married, and leads St. Mary Magdalen in Bensalem, a congregation of about two dozen people out of a building owned by an Episcopal church.
At Werthman’s church, her homily is followed by an open discussion with parishioners. The congregants appreciate being treated “like adults,” Werthman said.
“Most people have never been given the opportunity to explore their questions once they get past being a kid,” she said.
St. George said his church saw an increase in attendance after the wave of clergy sex-abuse scandals in the early 2000s. His parish, which also runs a preschool and kindergarten, has a program called KidSafe, a set of policies concerning child welfare.
Lorraine Cuffey joined the Flourtown church on Palm Sunday six years ago after learning that the church she had been attending failed to remove two priests accused of child abuse. Now, she’s the president of St. Miriam’s board of directors.
Her Episcopalian husband used to avoid Sunday Mass because he couldn’t receive communion with Cuffey. But now that they can receive communion together, “he comes every Sunday,” she said.
For Lewis Salotti and his wife, Ramona, who joined St. Miriam’s three years ago, the independent Catholic church is a perfect mix of tradition and flexibility.
“It was comforting to come here and see the same service and be familiar with it,” Salotti said. But with clergy who can marry and have families, he said, “they are living in the world just like us, and I think that really makes a difference.”
St. George says his church is about bringing everyone together under the “Catholic fold.”
“When the doctrine of the church harms people, you need to look at it again,” he said. “The church shouldn’t hurt people.”
The Indian authorities on Tuesday charged a bishop with repeatedly raping a nun in the southern state of Kerala, the first case of its kind in the country and a development that comes just weeks after Pope Francis acknowledged a continuing problem with sexual abuse of nuns in the Catholic Church.
Vijay Sakhare, the inspector general of police who oversaw a monthslong investigation, said Bishop Franco Mulakkal had been charged with raping a nun nine times over a two-year period starting in 2014. The bishop, who faces a maximum punishment of life imprisonment, has denied the accusations.
The filing of charges on Tuesday “enters the annals of history as a rarest of rare incident, when a bishop is going to face trial in a court based on the complaint of a nun who is a subordinate to him,” read a statement from Save Our Sisters, a group of members of India’s Roman Catholic Church.
The charge sheet includes statements from 83 witnesses, including a cardinal, three bishops, 11 priests and 25 nuns, the group said in its statement.
Nuns have tried for years to call attention to sexual exploitation in the Catholic Church. They have recently stepped forward to accuse clerics of abuse in India and Italy, as well as in African and Latin American countries.
But they have also struggled to move the conversation forward among church leaders. In November, the International Union of Superiors General, the organization representing the world’s Catholic women’s religious orders, said a “culture of silence and secrecy” was partly to blame.
A new front was opened in February, when Francis publicly addressed sexual abuse of nuns by clerics for the first time. Asked about the issue during a news conference aboard the papal plane, Francis said that the Vatican was taking reports of sexual abuse and “sexual slavery” seriously. Some priests had already been suspended for their behavior, he said.
“Should more be done? Yes,” he said. “Do we have the will? Yes. But it is a path that we have already begun.”
In Kerala, the nun’s accusations against Bishop Mulakkal, 55, were largely sidelined by the church until several other nuns rallied to her side and cast aside what they described as intense pressure to stay silent.
In official police complaints, the nun’s family accused Bishop Mulakkal of raping her multiple times over a two-year period starting from May 5, 2014. The assaults occurred at the nun’s convent, the St. Francis Mission Home, in a forested part of Kerala, which is home to many of India’s 20 million Catholics.
The nun first approached the church authorities about the abuse in January 2017. She contacted nearly a dozen church officials. Some told the nun that the church would take action; others dissuaded her from going to the police, her family said.
“No sooner I reached the room than he pulled me toward him,” the nun wrote in a letter to Archbishop Giambattista Diquattro, the pope’s representative in India, on Jan. 28, 2018. “I was numbed and terrified by his act. I took all efforts to get out, but in vain. He raped me brutally.”
But the church did not take action until last fall, when five nuns protested at Kerala’s High Court after hearing about the assaults while staying at the St. Francis Mission Home. They sat in front of a large poster depicting Virgin Mary holding a nun’s lifeless body. One placard read, “Justice for nuns.”
Last September, about two weeks after the protests started, the Kerala police arrested Bishop Mulakkal and the Vatican asked him not to conduct Mass.
Still, Bishop Mulakkal’s detention did not last long. When he was released on bail in October, his supporters cheered and showered him with flower petals. He returned to his diocese, where a banner offered him a “hearty welcome.”
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In recent weeks, pressure to charge the bishop had intensified. Last month, the five nuns who protested approached the police in the district of Kottayam, where the convent is, and asked them to speed the investigation.
Hari Sankar, the police chief in Kottayam, said the charges were filed Tuesday afternoon in a district court. Apart from rape, Bishop Mulakkal has been charged under laws against intimidation, illegal confinement and unnatural intercourse. He faces at least 10 years in prison.
More charges against clerics may come in Kerala. Earlier this year, the police said they were looking into reports that leaders of India’s Catholic Church had abused other nuns, and that four priests in Kerala had blackmailed women during confession to force them into sex.
Sister Anupama Kelamangalathuveli, one of the five nuns to push for the charges, said the group was “extremely happy and grateful,” but realistic about challenging days to come. It was their unity, despite the odds, that had gotten them this far, she said.
“We will not disband,” she said. “We will stay together and fight together to the finish.”