Revelations that a prominent U.S. cardinal sexually abused and harassed his adult seminarians have exposed an egregious abuse of power that has shocked Catholics on both sides of the Atlantic. 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 Associated Press analysis has found.
An examination by the AP shows that cases of abused nuns have emerged in Europe, Africa, South America and Asia, demonstrating that 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 now finding their voices, buoyed by the #MeToo movement and the growing recognition that even adults can be victims of sexual abuse when there is an imbalance of power in a relationship. The sisters are going public in part to denounce years of inaction by church leaders, even after major studies on the problem in Africa were reported to the Vatican in the 1990s.
“It opened a great wound inside of me,” one nun told the AP. “I pretended it didn’t happen.”
Wearing a full religious habit and clutching her rosary, the woman broke nearly two decades of silence to tell AP about the moment in 2000 when the priest to whom she was confessing her sins forced himself on her, mid-sacrament.
The assault — and a subsequent advance by a different priest a year later — led her to stop going to confession with any priest other than her spiritual father, who lives in a different country.
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 religious congregation in Chile went public on national television with their stories 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 periodically; in 2013, for example, a well-known 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 apologized in May.
“I am so sad that 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, told AP in an interview.
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 is up to local church leaders to sanction priests who sexually abuse sisters.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the issue, said the church has 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 told AP. “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, until recently executive director of the church’s Center for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University, the church’s leading think tank on the issue.
“They (the priests) can always say ‘she wanted it,’” Demasure said.
Demasure said many priests in Africa, for example, struggle with traditional and cultural beliefs in the importance of having children. Novices are particularly vulnerable because they often need a letter from their parish priest to be accepted into certain religious congregations.
“And sometimes they have to pay for that,” she said.
And when these women become pregnant?
“Mainly, she has an abortion. Even more than once. And he pays for that. A religious sister has no money. A priest, yes,” she said.
There can also be a price for blowing the whistle.
In 2013, the Rev. Anthony Musaala in Kampala, Uganda, wrote a letter to members of the local Catholic establishment about “numerous cases” of alleged sex liaisons of priests, including with nuns. He was suspended until he issued an apology in May, even though Ugandan newspapers regularly report cases of priests caught in sex escapades.
Archbishop John Baptist Odama, leader of the Ugandan conference of bishops, told the AP that allegations against individual priests should not be used to smear the whole church.
“Individual cases must be treated as individual cases,” he said.
The reports in the 1990s were prepared by members of religious orders for top church officials. In 1994, the late Sr. Maura O’Donohue wrote about a six-year, 23-nation survey, in which she learned of 29 nuns who had been impregnated in a single congregation.
Nuns, she reported, were considered “safe” sexual partners for priests fearing infection with HIV from prostitutes or other women.
The reports were never meant to be made public, but the U.S. National Catholic Reporter put them online in 2001. To date, the Vatican hasn’t said what, if anything, it ever did with the information.
Sister Marie told of nuns who worked long hours to cook and clean for cardinals and bishops, without being asked to break bread at the same table.
Sister Paule pointed out that many nuns did not have registered contracts with the bishops, schools, parishes or congregations they worked for, “so they are paid little or not at all.”
Sister Cécile said that “nuns are seen as volunteers to have available at one’s calling, which gives rise to abuse of power.”
These stories — told by sisters using pseudonyms — were revealed Thursday in an exposé about how nuns are exploited by the leaders and institutions of the Roman Catholic Church. The article, by the French journalist Marie-Lucile Kubacki, was published in the March edition of Women Church World, the monthly magazine on women distributed alongside the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.
he stories amount to a distress signal about the unfair economic and social conditions many nuns experience, as well as the psychological and spiritual challenges that many face.
“In the eyes of Jesus we are all children of God,” said the nun identified as Sister Marie, “but in their concrete life some nuns do not live this, and they experience great confusion and discomfort.”
The article was part of an issue dedicated to “Women and Work,” which touched on subjects already familiar to readers of the women’s magazine, like maternity and women in the church, but also the gender pay gap and unpaid domestic work.
It came about after discussions with nuns and observations about how they were treated in the Vatican, where they often provide “subordinate services,” said Lucetta Scaraffia, a feminist intellectual and the editor of Women Church World, which was introduced under Pope Benedict XVI.
Though convents also depend on the money generated by the sisters living there, many nuns, unlike priests, are not paid, or are poorly paid, when they attend conferences or when they preach, she said.
But the article, “The (Nearly) Free Work of Sisters,” noted that it was not just a question of money. A bigger problem, the article pointed out, is that many sisters say that while male vocations are valued, the work of women is not.
“Behind all this is still the unfortunate idea that women are worth less than men, and above all that the priest is everything while sisters are nothing in the church,” Sister Paule said in the article.
Still, some efforts are underway to address the problem. The annual Voices of Faith conference, which aims to showcase the “underutilized potential of women to exercise leadership at all levels of the Catholic Church” will take place at the Vatican on March 8.
And a “Manifesto of Women for the Church,” also published in the March issue of Women Church World, calls for giving women “roles that are coherent with our competences and capacities.” The document has circulated on social media and is being shared by women who are active in church institutions and parishes throughout Italy.
Pope Francis, who is said to read the magazine, has raised the matter of women’s roles in the church before, but his concerns have yet to be translated into concrete changes.
At an audience in May 2016, Francis was asked by one of the 900 leaders of female religious orders and congregations who form part of the International Union of Superiors General why the organization was not given a bigger say in the operation of the church.
Francis said at the time that “very often I find consecrated women who perform a labor of servitude and not of service,” and he urged the sisters to “have the courage to say no” when their superiors “asked for something that is more servitude than service.”
Sisters should be in the streets, in schools and with the sick and poor rather than carrying out errands for a parish priest, he said.
The pope has said that his concerns apply to women in the church in general. In its Friday edition, which came out Thursday, L’Osservatore Romano published a preface written by the pope for a Spanish-language book on Francis and women.
The pope wrote that he was concerned about a chauvinist mentality that persists in societies that leads to acts of violence. “And I am concerned that in the church itself, the role of service to which every Christian is called, often, in the case of women, slides into roles of servitude rather than service,” he wrote.
Paola Lazzarini Orrù, a sociologist and one of the authors of the manifesto in the magazine said some parishes had begun to invite women to speak during Mass. “Priest have begun to understand this is an issue that can no longer be ignored,” she said.
In the article, Sister Cécile said it was time for nuns to speak out. “Now when I am invited to hold a conference, I no longer hesitate to say I want to be paid, and how much I expect,” she said.
“It’s a question of survival for our communities,” she added, because she and her sisters live off this income.
But “change is difficult,” Ms. Scaraffia said. “Many prelates don’t want to hear these things, because it is easier to have nuns” who play subservient roles.
When Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Mary Ellen Merrick was struggling with alcohol addiction in the late 1970s, there weren’t a lot of options for Catholic women religious.
“There was nothing for sisters,” Merrick said.
The then-28-year-old middle school teacher spent three months at Alina Lodge, a treatment center in Blairstown, New Jersey.
“People didn’t expect me to have issues with God or issues as a woman,” said Merrick, now executive director of the women’s program at Guest House, a residential treatment facility in Lake Orion, Michigan, for priests and religious.
She was hesitant to share her innermost thoughts with the laywomen in the program at Alina Lodge.
“It did help me, but there were areas like my spirituality and my sexuality that I didn’t feel comfortable mentioning because no one expected me to need to discuss these areas,” Merrick said.
Public accounts of mental health disorders and addictions among women religious have been rare, as have details of treatment and recovery. That may in part be because of the pervasive shame those illnesses can elicit, as well as a historical tendency for those who struggle with them to be directed only to spend more time in solitary prayer.
That is changing as knowledge and attitudes about mental illness evolve. Though difficult to establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship, it’s become clearer over time that addiction and mental health disorders are pegged to a combination of factors, including chemical imbalances and possibly brain abnormalities. Some individuals have also experienced grief and depression as they watch their communities cope with declining numbers and aging membership.
There’s “still such a strong stigma in mental health,” said Franciscan Sr. Dorothy Heiderscheit, CEO at Southdown, a treatment center in Holland Landing, Ontario, that now is open to men and women in Christian ministry. “It’s in part the belief system that ‘If I’m helping people, I can’t be weak.’ It’s embarrassment and probably shame.”
For a time, she said, “most of our facilities, us included, kept a low profile to protect the people we have. [But] more and more of us are saying that doesn’t counteract the stigma.”
Overlooked and underserved
This newer sensibility has led to a quiet revolution in mental health care tailored to the needs of women.
“When we started our program, it was clear that women religious tend to be underserved by the medical community,” said Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, a priest and psychologist who headed the St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland, and now teaches at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. “Women were trained not to take care of their own needs, not to complain and to look after everyone else … especially women religious.”
Changes in how the church now approaches mental health issues among its own can be traced back about 70 years (though well before the clergy sex abuse crisis became public knowledge), when Catholic religious congregations became more rigorous in the way they approached vocational discernment.
“Others supported Ripley’s pursuit but eventually favored a center that would serve ‘all professionals,’ ” Gardner said. “Ripley’s insistence on a priests-only facility removed him from the venture, but he continued to pursue his mission to open a Guest House for alcoholic priests.”
The Guest House program for clergy and men religious was launched in the 1950s, and a program for women on the Lake Orion campus opened in the 1990s. (Hazelden, founded in 1949 and with 17 locations in the country, was an early resource for women religious and other people of faith.)
Sister Frances (not her real name), then a schoolteacher, arrived at Guest House more than a decade ago because her provincial leader told her she needed to get help. Frances is now part of a different community.
During her nine months at Guest House, Frances said, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Previously treated for depression and part of a 12-step program, Frances said that when she arrived, she was “not very far from drinking again because of the difficulties I was having, whether they were my moods or my relationships. That confused me: Why was I being sent to a treatment center?”
Part of the reason Frances spent such a long time at Guest House was the challenge of weaning her off the medications she’d been prescribed and finding a new treatment baseline, said Merrick, head of the women’s program there who has stayed in touch with Frances.
At the end of her treatment, Frances had discovered, as she grew to trust the staff and her companions, that “I was lovable. I’m able to love and be loved because I’m Frances.”
Mental health screening for candidates considering religious life wasn’t generally practiced before the 1960s, says Georgetown University medical ethicist and research scholar Daniel Sulmasy, who spent more than 25 years as a Franciscan friar. “People who were very quiet and talked about seeing angels were considered mystics and moved along in the system. Only after taking vows were they considered mentally ill and sent to places like state mental hospitals.”
Vatican II: questioning convention
The reforms that came in the wake of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s were a watershed moment for Catholic sisters. They modified their dress, pursued professional degrees, went out to eat, and applied for their own credit cards. But for those who might have a mental disorder or a suppressed addiction problem, the new freedoms brought potential danger as well as opportunity.
It was a time when many who had embraced religious vocations in a top-down, highly controlled structure actually became adults, says Southdown’s Heiderscheit. Some left religious life to get married or because they determined it wasn’t for them.
Many stayed, but some struggled with the transition, she said: “People who had entered religious life at a very young age in communities with a controlling, authoritative style didn’t trust their judgment as adults.”
While this story focuses on women, men religious and clergy grapple with the same issues.
“When you look at the pathology rate around the world, including the United States, we see that women and men are similar, but they also have psychological and spiritual differences,” Rossetti said.
Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, a 1988 graduate of the Guest House program, is candid about his sobriety — but he doesn’t parade it. That’s because of his belief, he said, that the journey away from addiction “isn’t my recovery, and isn’t my achievement. It’s a gift from God. I’m gratefully testifying to what I’ve been given. But I also think that AA and other 12-step programs have a very healthy suspicion of [self-] promotion.”
Rates of depression are higher for women, who are more likely to be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, Rossetti said, while men have higher rates of sociopathy and malignant narcissism.
Treatment protocols for women also differ, he said. When the women’s program at St. Luke began three decades ago, Rossetti turned to the women in management, both members of religious orders and laypeople, for help. “It was very different, with a greater emphasis on group work and treating pathologies more prevalent in women as well as time for communal prayer and Scripture.”
While women were very supportive of each other, sometimes they needed to be able to challenge one another and learn to use their anger in a positive way, he said. The St. Luke program integrates single- and mixed-gender sessions, Rossetti said.
A piano teacher and, later, a music therapist, Kinney, who would use the money she made to buy booze for herself, recalled that parishioners at the time were “delighted to give you a bottle” of liquor as a gift.
In the early 1970s, when Kinney was seeking help for her addiction to alcohol, “it was treated in the mental health field and not as the brain disease it is,” she said.
Though she saw mental health professionals, she didn’t make progress. Instead, she became hooked on medication. While a stint at Hazelden was helpful, she said, “I couldn’t sustain it. I was too intellectual for AA. I couldn’t picture myself in it. I didn’t want anyone to know I had this awful disease.”
Kinney applauds the creation of specialized programs for women, saying they do better in community-based settings. When she and program co-founder Sr. Letitia Close began their work in the 1970s, the main addictions for sisters were alcohol and prescription drugs. Eventually, their network expanded to include eating disorders.
Now, sisters in the support system are grappling with shopping, spending, gambling and hoarding. Looking ahead, Kinney said, “We haven’t yet seen the full-blown effect of the internet on the brain.”
She said she and Close launched their network in part to counter the isolation that can come with fighting an addiction. They gave their first workshop in a convent infirmary, concerned that older sisters would think their subject matter was scandalous. As it turned out, she said, most of their seniors knew someone who had died of alcoholism.
“Like anything else, the more a substance becomes accessible, the more the addiction shows up, but it’s still always there.” She tells of a contemplative sister she knows who said she never bought alcohol for herself — but fermented it in her cell.
While they didn’t focus specifically on mental health, many women’s congregations have long emphasized a proactive approach to overall wellness, Heiderscheit said.
A battery of psychological tests has been a pre-entrance requirement for more than 40 years among the Adrian Dominicans, says Sr. Patricia Siemen, the congregational prioress. In the year she’s been in leadership, she’s taken part in two mental-health-related interventions in her 641-woman community.
After meeting Merrick at a conference last year, Siemen attended one of the Guest House “Walking with the Wounded” seminars for sisters in leadership.
“One of the things we hope to do as congregational leaders is to open up the topic of addiction and educate our women. It could happen to any of us, depending on our DNA,” she said.
Merrick and other Guest House staff work closely with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, attend professional meetings to publicize their work, and are invited to give workshops around the country.
At Guest House, many female residents are treated for addictions like alcohol or overeating. Men are more likely to be abusing drugs such as heroin and cocaine or becoming enmeshed in sex addiction, Merrick said.
The treatment center and congregation jointly work out ways to make care possible.
“We run $2 million in the hole each year,” Merrick said. “We take care of it by doing fundraisers and through donations. Somehow, God provides.”
A typical Guest House stay includes individual therapy once a week, group meetings four times weekly, and a spirituality group, as well as informal time with other sisters.
“I look for balance being restored in a person’s life,” Merrick said. “Some of the best therapy happens after the staff goes home.”
Facilities for the Guest House female clients include private suites, a dining hall and their own chapel.
When a sister is ready to return home, a Guest House staff member helps reintegrate her back into her community by doing a workshop focused on the disorder or addiction, Merrick said. Sisters may return to the center every three to six months for a week’s refresher.
Now provincial superior for the Sisters of Notre Dame, Sr. Mary Anncarla Costello was the vicar for religious for the Los Angeles Archdiocese when she heard about the Guest House program. When she became leader of her community, she attended an introductory seminar with other team members and has referred sisters to the treatment center.
“One of the unique things about Guest House is that it provides care and support with an understanding of the religious life,” including prayer and access to the daily liturgy, Costello said. “We talk about being holy sisters, brothers and priests, but we also want to be whole.”
The long view
Religious communities can face a more general mental-health challenge as vocations ebb and friends, many advanced in age, get sick or die. Since she became congregational prioress last year, Siemen said, 41 members of her order have died.
“Women’s congregations are dealing with a tremendous amount of loss,” she said, including the end of a ministry, death or departure of sister colleagues and friends, and depletion of energy. If they aren’t doing the necessary work of grieving or are doing it alone, their depression is liable to increase, she said. “We know that grief is better accomplished together and not as a solitary.”
Heiderscheit says the sadness runs deep and has myriad causes.
“There’s always a debate over whether it’s depression or anger that we have shoved underground into depression about our future,” she said.
But somehow, the work will continue, she said. “The charism will be passed on to somebody else. We need to be gracious and gentle women and let it go.”
While loss may cast a shadow on their lives, women religious continue to rely on spiritual and communal resources, mining the latest insights from science.
Levo now consults on well-being and how to promote it, within both congregations and individuals. “What does that look like across the board: physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally? This is a personal journey, but it’s also a social and a communal journey.”
Tobin takes the long view. It’s worth remembering, he said, that priests and religious are emerging from an “anomalous” period in religious life in the United States — one that in the 19th and 20th centuries saw a surge of vocations. A sense of loss (he said he feels it sometimes himself when he visits fellow religious in a medical center and sees the “great men of my generation so weak and feeble”) can lead to diminishment and depression, or it can result in a greater sense of divine care and providence.
Though there has been an “ebb and flow, religious life will always be a part of the church,” he said.
Others who have spent decades as counselors, administrators and researchers also see reason to be encouraged.
The use of psychological testing and other screenings, as well as extensive time in formation before taking vows, has resulted in priests and sisters who are often healthier than the general population, Rossetti said. Living in community, helping others and embracing the discipline of spiritual practice all promote sound living, he said.
“As women move toward equal standing [in society], then they can be more proactive about dealing with their mental health. People are beginning to realize that women have a right to be helped when they need it.”
Heiderscheit said she sees a positive trend in the work that goes on at Southdown.
“A lot of what’s turning the tide are the new things we are learning about addiction and mental health,” she said.
“My part is to help other women religious be healthy and well; then I think I’m doing what God wants me to do in this part of my life.”
The Vatican authorized Sr Pierrette Thiffault of the Sisters of Providence to officiate at a wedding in a rural diocese in western Quebec. And in spite of her initial apprehensions, the ceremony went well.
By Mélinée Le Priol
Cindy and David had their religious wedding on Saturday, July 22, celebrated by… a woman.
The exceptional ceremony took place in a Catholic church at Lorrainville, 650 km west of Montreal in Canada.
In the rural diocese of Rouyn-Norand in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region, the lack of priests is such that the bishop called on the assistance of Sr Pierrette Thiffault of the Sisters of Providence.
Why Sr Pierrette?
“You need to ask my bishop,” she smiles, explaining that in this zone several priests are responsible for up to seven or eight different parishes each.
“I was happy and proud to be able to provide this service for my diocese,” she says.
Authorized by Rome
Although rare, such an event is in fact authorized by canon law.
“Where there is a lack of priests and deacons, the diocesan bishop can delegate lay persons to assist at marriages, with the previous favorable vote of the conference of bishops and after he has obtained the permission of the Holy See,” says Canon 1112.
“A suitable lay person is to be selected, who is capable of giving instruction to those preparing to be married and able to perform the matrimonial liturgy properly.”
Hence, on May 23, Sr Pierrette received the necessary mandate in the form of an authorization from Rome after her name was proposed by the Congregation of Divine Worship and for the Discipline of Sacraments.
A member of the Sisters of Providence the past 55 years, Sr Pierrette is a pastoral worker in the parish of Moffett, which neighbors Lorrainville, where the wedding took place on July 22.
In fact, it was as a catechist that she came to know David, the husband when he was a high school student.
During the three months prior to the ceremony, she met the couple on three occasions.
“It was a mission of evangelization, that’s for sure,” Sr Pierrette comments, noting how she had had to explain various aspects of the ceremony to the gathering.
Unable to conceal her joy at being able to celebrate the wedding, she says she was proud of her bishop’s decision.
“It is a beautiful step forward for women in the Church.”
However, she is equally proud of the couple she wed, and even “a little” proud of herself. And in spite of her initial apprehensions, the ceremony went well.
She is now ready to do it again whenever requested and she has no doubt that in future lay people will be called to play an increasingly significant role in the liturgy.
Catholic activist Sister Simone Campbell suggested senior clergy at the Vatican are more preoccupied with power than confronting issues that affect the faithful, like clerical sexual abuse.
The U.S. nun, leader of the “Nuns on the Bus” campaign that toured America during recent election cycles, spoke frankly in an interview ahead of a conference being held at the Vatican on Wednesday to celebrate women’s contributions to peace.
“The institution and the structure is frightened of change,” Campbell told Religion News Service. “These men worry more about the form and the institution than about real people.”
Referring to Marie Collins, who last week resigned from the panel appointed by Pope Francis to look into allegations of past Vatican obstruction of child sex abuse investigations, Campbell said: “Blocked by men. Isn’t this the real problem within the church?”
“The effort to keep the church from stopping this sort of thing is shocking,” she added. “It is about male power and male image, not people’s stories. The real trouble is they have defined their power as spiritual leadership and they don’t have a clue about spiritual life.”
Campbell said she was shocked, and also moved, to have been included on the guest list for the Vatican conference.
She was among the American nuns targeted in the controversial investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious that was authorized in 2012 under then-Pope Benedict XVI. The Vatican investigators charged the American sisters were straying too far from traditional doctrines, but Pope Francis, who was elected in 2013, put an end to the investigation in 2015.
Campbell noted that senior members of the Curia, or Vatican administration, were at a spiritual retreat outside Rome all this week and so unable to attend the women’s conference.
“I don’t know if it’s a slap in the face or evidence of how much power they think we have,” she said.
Campbell heads Network, a social justice organization currently lobbying U.S. legislators in both houses of Congress to protect and maintain affordable health care.
She acknowledged the church was changing but said it was “outrageous” that it was failing to respond to the sex abuse crisis more effectively. While noting that Francis was seeking to create a more inclusive church, Campbell expressed concern about the church hierarchy and the response to clerical abuse.
“Most of the guys who run this place haven’t dealt with an ordinary human being who’s been abused, an ordinary woman or a boy who has been abused,” she said.
“If you don’t deal with the people you don’t have your heart broken open. The bureaucracy is so afraid of having their heart broken that they hide.”
No Vatican officials are scheduled to speak at the conference, which has drawn leaders and activists from around the world.
At a media conference on Monday, Kerry Robinson, an American who is global ambassador of the Leadership Roundtable, said her foundation, which promotes best practices and accountability in Catholic Church management and finances, was working to help churchmen solve challenges and ensure women advance in the church.
“I think the conversations we are having with cardinals are having an impact,” Robinson said.
This is the fourth consecutive year that the Vatican has held the women’s event to coincide with the U.N.-sponsored International Women’s Day.