When young nuns at a convent in Eastern Europe told their Mother Superior that a priest had tried to molest them, she retorted that it was probably their fault for “provoking him.”
When African nuns in Minnesota asked why it was always they who had to shovel snow they were told it was because they were young and strong, even though white sisters of the same age lived there too.
As the Roman Catholic Church pays more attention to the closed world of convents, where women spend much of their time in prayer and household work, more episodes of psychological, emotional and physical abuse are coming to light.
A new book, “Veil of Silence” by Salvatore Cernuzio, a journalist for the Vatican’s online outlet, Vatican News, is the latest expose to come from within and approved by authorities.
Cernuzio recounts experiences of 11 women and their struggles with an age-old system where the Mother Superior and older nuns demand total obedience, in some cases resulting in acts of cruelty and humiliation.
Marcela, a South American woman who joined an order of cloistered nuns in Italy 20 years ago when she was 19, recounts how the indoctrination was so strict that younger sisters needed permission to go to the bathroom and ask for sanitary products during their menstrual periods.
“You are always complaining! Do you want to be a saint or not?” Marcela, who later left the convent, quotes the Mother Superior as shouting when she suggested changes in the daily routine.
Therese, a French woman, was told “you have to suffer for Jesus” when she asked to be spared physically demanding chores because of a back condition.
“I understood that we were all like dogs,” recounted Elizabeth, an Australian. “They tell us to sit and we sit, to get up and we get up, to roll over and we roll over.”
Last year, Father Giovanni Cucci wrote a landmark article about abuse in convents in the Jesuit journal Civilta Cattolica, whose texts are approved by the Vatican.
He found that most of it was abuse of power, including episodes of racism such as in the Minnesota convent. Cucci said the problem needed more attention because it had been overshadowed by the sexual abuse of children by priests.
In 2018, the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano exposed the plight of foreign nuns sent by their orders to work as housekeepers for cardinals and bishops in Rome with little or no remuneration.
It later chronicled a “burnout” syndrome, where younger women with good educations were held back by older superiors reluctant to relinquish a boot camp-style tradition of assigning them menial tasks, ostensibly to instill discipline and obedience.
“Whatever may have worked in a pyramidal, authoritarian context of relationships before is no longer desirable or liveable,” wrote Sister Nathalie Becquart, a French member of the Xaviere Missionary Sisters and one of the highest-ranking women in the Vatican.
Becquart wrote in the book’s preface of the “cries and sufferings” of women who entered convents because they felt a calling from God but later left because their complaints too often fell on deaf ears.
Some were stigmatized as “traitors” by their orders and had great difficultly getting jobs in the outside world.
Last year, Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, who heads the Vatican department that oversees religious congregations, revealed that Pope Francis had opened a home in Rome for former nuns abandoned by their orders.
The cardinal, who has launched investigations into a number of convents, told the Vatican newspaper he was shocked to discover that there were a few cases where former nuns had to resort to prostitution to live.
In December 1992, Phil Saviano was at the lowest point of his life. He was 40 years old, out of work and dying of AIDS. Leafing through the Boston Globe, looking for some last-minute Christmas gifts, he saw a small item that contained a familiar name.
He read that a Catholic priest, David A. Holley, had been arrested for abusing boys in the 1970s at a church in New Mexico.
“It was a life-changing moment,” Mr. Saviano later told the British newspaper the Daily Mail. “It was the day all the bells went off for me. I suddenly saw how naive I had been in assuming he had only done this to me.”
Almost three decades earlier, beginning when Mr. Saviano was 11, he had been repeatedly molested by Holley at St. Denis Catholic Church in Douglas, Mass. The abuse went on for a year and a half, until Holley left the parish.
With a strength born of desperation, Mr. Saviano found his voice and told his story to the Globe, becoming one of the first victims of sexual abuse by a priest to go public. In 1995, he reached a financial settlement with the diocese of Worcester, Mass., that amounted to $5,700 after attorney fees. He turned down a larger payout that would have required him to keep silent about his childhood trauma. He believed the only reason he didn’t have to sign a confidentiality agreement was that no one expected him to live.
“If I had not been dying of AIDS, I would not have had the courage to come forward,” Mr. Saviano told the Globe in 2009, “but at that point my career was over, I was on my way out physically, my reputation was shot in the eyes of many people, and I didn’t have a lot to lose. This was a final opportunity to effect some change and address this thing that happened to me when I was a kid.”
Soon afterward, he received a new HIV/AIDS treatment that helped him regain his health. He found a new sense of purpose as an activist and whistleblower and began to research sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. In 1997, he founded a New England chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
With a background in public relations, Mr. Saviano approached the Globe with his evidence in 1998, but the paper passed on the story. But beginning in 2002, under a new editor, Martin Baron (later the executive editor of The Washington Post), a group of Globe investigative reporters called the Spotlight team published a series of stories detailing predatory behavior by dozens of Boston-area priests, coupled with a concerted effort by top church officials to conceal their misdeeds.
The Globe won the Pulitzer Prize for its articles, which formed the basis of the 2015 film “Spotlight,” in which Mr. Saviano was portrayed by actor Neal Huff, who became a close friend. Mr. Saviano advised writers on the screenplay and was onstage at the Oscars, along with the film’s director, producers and actors, when “Spotlight” won the Academy Award for best picture. (It also won for best original screenplay.) Executive producer and co-writer Josh Singer called him a “true hero.”
Mr. Saviano was 69 when he died Nov. 28 at a brother’s home in Douglas. He had announced on his Facebook page in October that doctors could no longer treat his gallbladder cancer. In the preceding months, he had also had heart surgery and a stroke. The death was confirmed in a statement by his brother Jim Saviano.
After speaking out, Mr. Saviano channeled his harrowing childhood experience into an effort to address wrongdoing in the church. By the time the Globe began its investigation, he had already identified 13 predator priests and hundreds of victims in the Boston area. When he examined church documents, he learned that many of the priests had been transferred to other parishes around the country without being punished. (The number of priests accused of sexual assault in New England eventually grew into the hundreds.)
Initially, as a gay man challenging the authority of the Catholic Church in the early 1990s, Mr. Saviano faced a backlash from church loyalists and even from members of his own family. His father “was angry and accused me of bringing the scandal to our hometown,” Mr. Saviano later said.
During his childhood in Douglas, a small town about 55 miles from Boston, Mr. Saviano enjoyed fishing and hiking. He also delivered newspapers, and one of the stops on his paper route was the rectory of St. Denis Church, where Holley had been newly installed as a priest.
Then in his 40s, Holley was popular with boys in the church, showing them card tricks and making faces behind the backs of nuns teaching Sunday school. When the priest asked Mr. Saviano and another boy to help move boxes of hymnals or do other odd jobs at the church, they felt honored. They received 50 cents apiece.
“He was grooming us,” Mr. Saviano told the Daily Mail in 2015. “The priest figures out ways to get closer to either the child or the parents. That gives him an opportunity to know what is going on in our family and in school. I felt pretty lucky that this guy was taking an interest in me. For us, he was God’s representative on earth, who could perform magic like turning wine into the blood of Christ and forgiving sins.”
Then one day when Holley was doing card tricks, the deck of cards contained pornographic images of people engaged in sex acts. When the 11-year-old Mr. Saviano tried to run away, the priest grabbed his wrist and held him back. Years later, Mr. Saviano could still recall “the coolness of the dark church basement, the smell of his sickly, sweet cologne” and “the sense of being completely trapped.”
Over the next 18 months, Mr. Saviano was repeatedly coerced into performing sexual acts on Holley. The priest once assaulted him behind a door as parishioners walked past, just feet away. Another time, Mr. Saviano saw the priest forcing himself on another boy at the church altar.
“How do you say no to God?” Mr. Saviano’s character says in “Spotlight.”
Mr. Saviano did not speak of his experiences until he was 40. Holley, in the meantime, went on to work at churches in New Mexico, Texas and Colorado before receiving a 275-year sentence in 1993 for the sexual assault of eight boys in New Mexico. He died in prison in 2008.
The Globe’s revelations, made possible in part by Mr. Saviano’s research, shocked people around the world and reverberated throughout the Catholic Church. One of the church’s most powerful figures, Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, admitted that he had reassigned priests accused of child abuse and did little to stop the scourge. He resigned in 2002.
“Finally, victims are being first of all believed,” Mr. Saviano told the Globe that year. “And they’re being respected instead of ridiculed and criticized. Most of all, they’re seeing there is power in joining together and speaking out, and you can have results. Laws are being changed, [attorneys general] have perked up their ears around the country. These are changes that victims, myself included, could only have dreamed of.”
Philip James Saviano was born in Douglas on June 23, 1952. His father was an electrician, and his mother was a homemaker.
Mr. Saviano majored in zoology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, from which he graduated in 1975. He settled in Boston and received a master’s degree in communications from Boston University in 1980. He worked in public relations and fundraising for a Boston hospital and later had a concert production company from 1982 to 1991. He also collected and sold Mexican folk art.
His survivors include three brothers.
In addition to forming a New England chapter of SNAP, Mr. Saviano ran the organization’s national website for several years and served on its board of directors. He was also on the board of BishopAccountability.org, which documents sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. He traveled widely to give speeches and counsel other survivors. He appeared at the 2019 Vatican summit on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
“Every step they’ve taken,” he said of church leaders, “they’ve done it begrudgingly.”
Mr. Saviano’s experiences with the church caused him to lose all religious faith, and he considered himself an agnostic.
“I find myself envious sometimes of people who do have a strong faith,” he said in 2002. “And I don’t know what that’s like. There are days when I can’t do this on my own.”
Mr. Saviano received a diagnosis of AIDS in 1984, then in 2009 learned that he needed a kidney transplant. When no one in his family was a proper match, he asked for help from the network of survivors of clergy abuse. Several people volunteered, and he ultimately received a kidney from a Minnesota woman who said she had been sexually abused in high school by a former nun.
Among people who had been victimized by priests and church leaders, Mr. Saviano was seen as a valiant, eloquent and courageous champion who refused to be silenced. He also found respect closer to home and, at long last, had a warm reconciliation with his father.
“All those years ago,” his father told him, “you were right. Give them hell.”
To those who stood up against an act of cruelty and bias, thank you for your bravery. To those who participated in it or stood by silently, please listen to my story
by Paul Banach
While on a lunch break, I scrolled upon the Baltimore Brewarticle that shares the story of a 7th grader being told to remove her pride shirt at St. Francis of Assisi Church.
I’m a travel nurse currently working in Seattle, but I spent three years attending grad school and working in Baltimore.
In an Intensive Care Unit breakroom on the opposite side of our country, I was moved to tears by the St. Francis of Assisi community’s response to this event:
At mass the following Sunday, classmates, parents and other members of the parish showed their support for the girl by wearing rainbow-striped gay pride Covid masks and tee shirts declaring, “I AM A CHILD OF GOD.”
They expressed their clear message of inclusion in front of the priest who, witnesses said, directed the school to have the student remove her pride shirt in front of her peers before being called to the principal’s office
I grew up in a strict Catholic family in Connecticut. We never missed a Sunday mass or holy day. Catholic teachings ruled our world view.
There was no room for me as a gay person in our church. Same sex attraction was never discussed during my entire Catholic education, up through confirmation.
I don’t have a memory of anyone explicitly saying it was wrong to be gay because it was so taboo, so foreign, so sinful that it warranted no discussion.
I received the message from my Catholic community clearly: it is wrong to be gay. I knew something was very wrong with me.
I was a gentle child who loved nature and animals. A wooden plaque depicting St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, hung over my bed.
I was polite, obedient, a good student and active in my home parish. I was indifferent whether my soccer team won or lost. I enjoyed the sport, but I knew the score really didn’t matter in the end.
What mattered was being kind to people, helping those who are struggling or hurting and using my life to make a positive impact on the world.
These Catholic values lead me to become a nurse and pursue a master’s degree in public health with the intention of combating barriers to health in disadvantaged communities.
As a child, I always realized I was different, but I tried hard to fit in. In 8th grade I realized my feeling of unbelonging was because I was gay. There was no room for me as a gay person in my family or in my church. Gay people simply did not exist in these worlds.
For the next five years, I struggled silently and alone trying to find my path. In my church community, I was guarded and defensive. I believed God did not want me as I was. The darkness was unbearable. I welcomed death.
I now see my early childhood circumstances as a gift that has made me more empathetic.
After five years of planning my ultimate escape route, I figured I may as well try to accept myself as a gay person before I made such a permanent departure from my life.
I allowed my Catholic lens of what was right and wrong in the world to crumble, and I came out.
In coming out to the friends who supported me, I once again found a will to live, help others, and make a positive difference in this world.
I now see my early childhood circumstances as a gift that has made me more empathetic and more motivated to help others.
Kids Showing Courage
The student who wore her pride shirt, the children of St. Francis Assisi School, the lector, the youth and education coordinators, and the parishioners of the church brought me a moment of relief and clarity I have been searching for my entire life.
We are the church. I do belong.
I have done much that I am proud of in my life, but nothing as brave as this community’s demonstration of love for their neighbor. These 7th graders took a story of adversity and turned it into the most uplifting story of 2021.
To each of them: I am so inspired by you. Through your actions, you sent a message of love and hope to people facing adversity everywhere.
When I think of my childhood St. Francis of Assisi plaque, I will now think of you.
You have refilled my cup to continue to care as a neighbor and a nurse for all members of my community, especially those who, through no fault of their own, feel like they don’t belong.
You are an example to the world of the greatest Catholic virtues: to love others and stand up for what is right, always.
When I think of my childhood St. Francis of Assisi plaque, I will now think of you. From all of the people who used to feel like me, thank you.
Message for the Adults
In closing, here’s something I want to say to Catholic priests, educators, parents and leaders in the church:
There are children like my former self in your parishes and in your schools suffering alone in silence today. Innocent, perceptive children who just want to be good, yet feel cursed for being different.
Your messages to remove symbols of inclusion are heard by them loud and clear. Your silence on the matter is heard loud and clear.
These children deserve to exist. I welcome them into our complicated and beautiful world as their fullest God-created selves.
For more than a century, Indigenous children in Canada were forced to attend residential schools, where many endured abuse. Thousands were never seen again and survivors were long ignored. We followed a team of archaeologists who came to the Muskowekwan First Nation to search for the graves of these lost children.
Michael J. O’Loughlin’s ‘Hidden Mercy’ is an essential historical addition
BY Daniel Walden
Books about gay people struggling with their faith are more common than they ought to be. Most take the form of self-therapy for their authors and, as such, are concerned mostly with the interior life of the author. Unfortunately, in these late post-Stonewall days, we gays are by and large a pretty boring and well-assimilated bunch, and our interior lives tend to have all the magnetic fascination of a pair of pleated khakis. It was with no small amount of gratitude, then, that I read the introduction to Michael J. O’Loughlin’s book, in which he eschews such navel-gazing and instead reckons with his Catholic faith by giving his readers an oral history titled Hidden Mercy: AIDS, Catholics, and the Untold Stories of Mercy in the Face of Fear.
O’Loughlin has spent nearly 12 years as a correspondent for America magazine — an explicitly Catholic magazine run by the Society of Jesus, popularly known as the Jesuits. His background is immensely helpful here, because he intuitively grasps a principle that eludes a lot of reporters on the Catholic Church in the U.S., namely: the Catholic Church is very, very large, to a degree that there’s no real way to wrap your head around all of it, and the combination of that size and its division into dioceses run by bishops who answer only to the Pope renders it nearly ungovernable. This means, above all, that there is almost never a single “Catholic response” to a social question, only responses by Catholics. Perhaps the greatest strength of O’Loughlin’s oral history approach is that, by keeping close to the experiences of people both inside and outside the official Church hierarchy, he allows the tensions and contradictions that characterized the Church’s reaction to the AIDS crisis to emerge and to stand as they are, without trying to impose a structure or resolution that doesn’t exist.
Hidden Mercy is the latest in a series of high-profile histories of the AIDS crisis, and the first one to deal in any sustained fashion with the Church as a major player in the events of the period. The American cultural memory of AIDS has been shaped largely by two works of dramatic fiction: Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Both are powerful artistic responses written in the midst of the crisis, and both take severe liberties with the historical record to score their dramatic points. They are valuable records in their own way, but neither makes much time — Kushner none at all — for the role of the Catholic Church in the crisis, despite its inescapable influence on the lives of everyone in New York, where both plays are set. You don’t even have to be Catholic for the Church to shape your life in ways large and small — Catholic nonprofits operate some of the largest hospital systems in the United States, and in New York, many people still give silent thanks for the annual suspensions of alternate-side parking rules on the Church’s major feast days.
The two other recent books on the AIDS crisis, Sarah Schulman’s Let the Record Show and Peter Staley’s memoir Never Be Silent, are concerned primarily with ACT UP and its protest campaigns, in which the Church often appears as an opponent. But even Schulman and Staley’s books hint at a more complicated picture: their pages are full of Catholics at odds with bishops or pastors, and as O’Loughlin ably shows, even the thoroughly institutional elements of the Church were often at odds with one another. The stories he shares illuminate how people both inside and outside the hierarchy of the Church reckoned with their place in this institution that so often seemed both powerful and helpless at the same time.
Indeed, of all the narrative threads through which O’Loughlin moves, the two most prominent are stories of care. The first of these is Sister Carol Baltosiewitch, a Franciscan religious sister from Illinois who flew to New York to learn about treating AIDS patients; the second is Father William Hart McNichols, a Jesuit priest who began celebrating healing Masses for people with AIDS and continued ministering to them both officially and unofficially until 1990, when his Jesuit superiors asked him to step back from his AIDS work due to the stress it was putting on his health; though he left the Jesuits in 2002, he remains a priest. We also meet David Pais, a man who got involved with Gay Men’s Health Crisis and HIV education; and Ramon Torres, a physician who worked with AIDS patients and struggled against the restrictions placed on him by his working for a Catholic hospital; Michael Hanrak, a former member of the radical Catholic Worker movement, convinced the Diocese of Oakland to convert a home intended for sick priests into a home for low-income people with AIDS.
Institutions also emerge as characters: much of the action in New York revolves around St. Vincent’s, the hospital that was both the largest center for AIDS care in the country and the target of repeated protest actions for its official insistence that its doctors ought to provide top-shelf medical care to men who contracted AIDS through unprotected gay sex but could not under any circumstances tell those men to make condoms a part of their sodomitical recreation. And on the West Coast, O’Loughlin devotes an entire chapter to Most Holy Redeemer, a parish in the heart of the Castro that reinvented itself as a spiritual home for gay Catholics and developed the best homeless ministry in the Bay Area, because it turns out that concentrating San Francisco’s supply of hairdressers, salon workers, and childless physicians in one place gives you lots of ways to help people feel healthier and more dignified.
O’Loughlin is at his most effective in showing how the care and advocacy work of these people and these places was opposed at nearly every turn by other actors in the Church. There is no shortage of historical evidence on either side: American Catholics are politically divided in nearly identical proportions to Americans in general, and plenty of Catholics remain unashamed of the Church’s hostility to LGBT people and to AIDS protestors. They certainly don’t suffer from the moral amnesia that overtakes so many avowedly liberal institutions when asked about their conduct during the AIDS crisis. On top of this, since Catholic institutions are extremely long-lived and generally keep records, O’Loughlin can render these tensions and conflicts in much sharper relief than is usually available for other parts of the AIDS crisis. Indeed, given the outsize role of the Church in coordinating AIDS care in major gay epicenters like San Francisco, Chicago, and New York, it may very well be the largest institutional holder of healthcare records from a time when methods and standards of care seemed to change almost monthly. It can be tempting to center AIDS history on large, highly visible protest actions and on the internal drama of the groups who organized them, treating other histories as sideshows. O’Loughlin’s subject matter is clearly not a sideshow: this book is an essential historical addition.
That said, this is still AIDS history, and that means there are gaps in our knowledge that can never be filled because so many are dead and those who knew them are dead or dying. Late in the book, O’Loughlin recounts being at a reception at a Vatican museum, where he spotted John Quinn, the former Archbishop of San Francisco who oversaw the archdiocese’s mobilization of resources for AIDS care and who strongly supported the gay outreach efforts at Most Holy Redeemer. Quinn was in his eighties at the time, but he seemed very supportive when O’Loughlin described his project. “‘Yes, there are so many stories,’ he replied, a note of sadness in his voice. ‘So many young people died.’” Then the bishop recounts a story of a young man who, after finding out he had HIV, told his mother he was gay to prepare her for what lay ahead. “‘Twenty-two years ago, my only mistake,’ the mother said, wrapping her arm around her son, ‘was not having an abortion.’” These stories, too, are worth preserving, and this one survives only through a chance encounter with a very old man. In one of the book’s most sobering moments, Quinn offers to talk with O’Loughlin again once they’ve both gone home to the U.S. Their conversation never happened: the archbishop fell a few days later and was admitted to the hospital. Within six months he was dead, and another link to history was broken.
This is one of the book’s two real brushes with the Catholic hierarchy, whose members lurk for the most part in the background of its narratives, stymieing the protagonists with unappealable decisions, like the 1986 letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the central body that adjudicates questions of Catholic doctrine — think Supreme Court meets Académie Française meets DMV, but with better robes and many more closet cases) that withdrew all official support for any LGBT Catholic organization that didn’t loudly proclaim the evils of sodomy. But at one point, Fr. Bill McNichols recounts encountering Cardinal John O’Connor, the Archbishop of New York, whom Fr. Bill thought responsible for cancelling a conference where he was to present. It turned out that the cardinal knew nothing about it, and for the most part approved of Fr. Bill’s AIDS ministry. The picture we get, through Fr. Bill, is of a figure trapped by his office: less a Prince of the Church and more an affable company man. Certainly O’Connor, by all accounts, did care deeply about the suffering of AIDS victims, having visited thousands individually in the hospital.
Nice, caring people make superb functionaries for inhuman bureaucratic machines: they give a human face and voice to the whole enterprise, and so long as you keep suffering abstract and distant, they can run their pen over scores of ruined lives with a clear conscience. O’Connor was a kind man who responded humanely to the suffering that he saw; to what he couldn’t or wouldn’t see, he had no response at all. It simply didn’t cross his mind.
On my first read, I did wish that O’Loughlin had grappled more with the action and inaction of the hierarchy. That’s probably my own frustration coming to the surface, and a testament both to the effectiveness of the book’s presentation and to O’Loughlin’s disciplined refusal to abandon the concrete experiences of his subjects for easy polemic. The story of bishops’ misdeeds is the story of powerful men fucking up other people’s lives: that story has already been told. O’Loughlin would rather give us the daily struggles of ordinary people who tried to do some good, and who sometimes failed, and learned, and a few times really got it right. Those moments of grace, when transcendence breaks through and transforms the daily toil of mercy, illuminate why his subjects did this work: because the hungry needed to be fed, the sick cared for, the naked clothed, the dead buried. God seems to think that’s all very much worth doing, and O’Loughlin had the good sense to see that it was also worth writing down and remembering. I have to concede that he’s probably right. The virtues of ordinary people are often more interesting and more illuminating than the vices of the powerful, and I’m grateful that Hidden Mercy is unsparing about the costs, trials, and rewards of such virtue.