Saintly, Seductive or Sadistic?

— Why We Can’t Make Up Our Minds About Nuns.

Sydney Sweeney (center) in the 2024 movie “Immaculate.”

In uncertain times, religious sisters are often invoked as vessels for collective doubt.

By Amanda Fortini

From Chaucer’s supercilious Madame Eglantine in “The Canterbury Tales,” with her spoiled lap dogs and secular French airs, to Ryan Murphy’s ruthless Sister Jude in 2012’s “American Horror Story: Asylum,” a woman who wears a red negligee under her habit and is not above indulging in some communion wine, fictional portrayals of nuns have long captured and confounded the imagination. How could it be otherwise? The sisters’ vows of chastity and poverty and the air of secrecy that shrouds their cloistered lives are all intriguingly antithetical to modern Western values of sex, money and fame. Many of us have also encountered nuns in our actual lives — I spent much of fourth grade facing a corner of the classroom at the punitive behest of Sister Rosalia — and are left with what I’d call a primal fascination. But if the aesthetic interest in nuns is an enduring one, it’s also true that every few years, like fashion trends or viral flus, nuns have a particularly concentrated cultural moment. We’re living in one now.

Perhaps the starkest, knottiest contemporary depiction of nuns is the playwright John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt: A Parable.” First staged on Broadway in 2005, it recently wrapped another run there, directed by Scott Ellis. (Three of the cast members have been nominated for Tony Awards.) The play tells the story of the iron-fisted Sister Aloysius (Amy Ryan in Ellis’s revival), the principal of a Bronx Catholic school in 1964, who, based on the hunch of a guileless novice, Sister James (Zoe Kazan), accuses Father Flynn, the parish priest (Liev Schreiber), of making advances toward the school’s only Black student (whose mother was played by Quincy Tyler Bernstine). It’s a detective drama with no resolution, a morality tale with an insoluble ambiguity at its heart. Ellis says he was drawn to stage the play because its titular emotion feels more crucial than ever in our increasingly polarized world. “Given everything that we are in society right now, the black and white of it all, the red and the blue,” he says, “doubt is the most important place to live.”

Liev Schreiber dressed as a priest with a collar standing behind Amy Ryan, in a black robe with a hood.
Liev Schreiber as Father Flynn (left) and Amy Ryan as Sister Aloysius in the recent Broadway production of “Doubt: A Parable” by John Patrick Shanley.

Rebecca Sullivan, the author of the 2005 book “Visual Habits: Nuns, Feminism and American Postwar Popular Culture,” says that “in times of deep doubt,” we tend to see cultural representations of nuns crop up. She notes that the cascade of nunsploitation films of the 1960s and ’70s — a campy, provocative, mostly European cinematic subgenre in which nuns are sexualized, tortured or possessed — occurred at a time of great social upheaval. Second-wave feminism was afoot, secularism was on the rise and the Second Vatican Council, held between 1962 and ’65, had ushered in numerous church reforms: Nuns, for example, were encouraged to get out of the convent and serve the community and were no longer required to wear habits. The liminal status of sisters — they were independent women who also exhibited a “subversive subservience,” as Sullivan puts it, to a patriarchal institution — made them rich and complex symbols, ciphers for exploring the era’s feelings about women at large.

We’re in another profound period of disruption, particularly when it comes to women’s rights and roles: Roe v. Wade has been overturned; tradwifery is a trend. And thus we’ve seen a new spate of arty nunsploitation films, with “Immaculate” (2024), starring Sydney Sweeney, being the latest. (Others include Paul Verhoeven’s 2021 erotic lesbian nun satire, “Benedetta,” and Rose Glass’s taut 2019 psychosexual horror, “Saint Maud.”) Directed by Michael Mohan, “Immaculate” follows a devout Midwestern novice, Sister Cecilia, who arrives at a gloomy convent in the remote Italian countryside and mysteriously becomes pregnant, leaving church elders to conclude that she’s carrying the savior. In a turn reminiscent of “Rosemary’s Baby,” the sinister Father Tedeschi more or less imprisons Cecilia in the dark, labyrinthine building. For all its gory, sexy-nun fun, the film raises all-too-familiar questions about female bodily autonomy in oppressive male institutions. But this nun, a feminist heroine for the 21st century, is the agent of her own destiny: Unlike so many sisters in the first wave of nunsploitation films, she frees herself.

A nun holds a shirtless boy with bandaged hands in her arms.
Cate Blanchett and Aswan Reid in the 2023 film “The New Boy.”

​It’s a fantasy of escape; the plight of young women imperiled by the church has usually been much darker. The legacy of Ireland’s Magdalene laundries and mother and baby homes — in which women and girls were made to labor without pay, or even surrender their children, often under the direction of nuns — is the subject of two new cinematic productions. “The Woman in the Wall,” a gothic six-part BBC drama, which aired in the United States earlier this year, follows a traumatized survivor (played by Ruth Wilson) as she searches for her missing daughter. And “Small Things Like These,” the film adaptation of the Irish writer Claire Keegan’s 2020 novella of the same name, stars Cillian Murphy as a coal merchant in a small Irish town who discovers that the local convent is a Magdalene laundry and is forced to make a fateful choice. A third, “The New Boy,” a quiet, dreamlike movie released last year, likewise highlights the misdeeds of the Catholic Church, but in 1940s Australia. It features Cate Blanchett as Sister Eileen, a wimpled, tippling nun on a mission to assimilate her young Aboriginal charges, who have been forcibly removed from their families by the state.

For years, the Magdalene laundries, which operated from the mid-18th century until 1996, were met with a “code of silence,” says Joe Murtagh, the creator of “The Woman in the Wall.” But in recent decades, the Irish government and the Catholic Church in Australia have both publicly apologized for these chapters of their respective pasts, joining Catholic institutions throughout the world in grappling with centuries of abuse. This reckoning is arguably why real-life nun horror stories are surfacing now: In these depictions, inspired by actual events, nuns are no longer cartoonish saints or sexualized victims but often perpetrators of violence. As a genre for exploring this history, “horror comes to mind naturally,” says Murtagh, “because it’s horrific.”

Complete Article HERE!

Victims of Catholic nuns rely on each other after being overlooked in the clergy sex abuse crisis

Gabrielle Longhi


On Wednesdays, the support group meets over Zoom. The members talk about their lives, their religious families and their old parochial schools. But mostly, they are there to talk about the sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of Catholic nuns.

The topic deserves more attention, they say. The sexual abuse of children by Catholic sisters and nuns has been overshadowed by far more common reports of male clergy abuse. Women in religious orders have also been abuse victims — but they have been perpetrators too.

“We’ve heard so much about priests who abuse and so little about nuns who abuse that it’s time to restore the balance,” said the group’s founder, Mary Dispenza, herself a former nun, in a speech to abuse survivors last year.

Dispenza, who endured abuse from both a childhood priest and a nun in her former order, started the online support group five years ago with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. More victims had been contacting her in the wake of #MeToo, as they reassessed past sexual abuse. She has since seen a growing awareness of abusive nuns at former Catholic orphanages and Native American boarding schools.

“The general public would rather not consider the fact that religious women rape, molest and torture children,” Dispenza told The Associated Press. Women are seen as nurturers and caregivers, an assumption only heightened with the “spiritual halo” of religious women.

“It’s something most of us don’t want to entertain or really believe,” she said.


Before she found the support group and its 10 or so members, Gabrielle Longhi had spent years looking for someone with a story like hers, once posting in the comments of SNAP’s website: “I never hear about abuse by nuns.”

Now 66 and living in Los Angeles, Longhi was a sophomore at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Maryland, when she alleges a teacher, who was then a Catholic sister with the Society of the Sacred Heart, sexually abused her in an office.

Unlike most child sexual abuse victims, she spoke up right away. She told other teachers, her sister and friends that Sister Margaret Daley had tried to sexually force herself on Longhi. Neither her parents nor the police were notified.

“She also kind of retreated after that. She became more closed down,” said her sister, Carol O’Leary, who was then a student at Stone Ridge’s middle school. The sisters say they were soon asked to leave Stone Ridge.

Longhi always wondered if there were other victims. Daley, her alleged abuser, left the order in 1980 and died in 2015.

Last year, Longhi learned from another support group member that Maryland was removing its civil statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims. After the new law went into effect, Longhi sued her former school and the religious order.

Stone Ridge, which has educated Kennedys and the daughters of other Washington luminaries, sent a letter to its community about the allegations last fall. The school declined to comment further on active litigation.

The Society of the Sacred Heart declined to discuss the allegations, but issued a statement saying the order and its schools have implemented robust child protection policies. “We are deeply saddened,” the statement read. “Our prayers go out to all involved in this matter, and to all survivors of sexual abuse.”

An anticipated constitutional challenge to Maryland’s law is pending, but the policy change “makes all the difference in the world,” Longhi said. “Before you have no case and now you do.”


Paige Eppenstein Anderson is still hoping for her day in court. Like many group members, it took her decades to see that what happened to her was abuse, and once she did in 2020 at age 40, the statute of limitations had run out on her claim in her home state of Pennsylvania.

“It was abuse. I interpreted it as love,” she said of the sexual relationship she had as a student with a Catholic school teacher, who later joined a religious order.

As a teenager, she spent much of her free time with her teacher. Their bond was so noticeable that a yearbook entry from a friend called her the woman’s “companion.”

“It was very confusing to me,” Eppenstein Anderson said.

Anne Gleeson was also nearly 40 and in therapy before she understood that she was sexually abused for years, starting at age 13, by a nun who was 24 years her senior. She received a settlement from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in 2004.

“The nun brainwashed me into thinking we were head over heels in love,” she said. “God’s love, that’s why no one else could know about it — it was so special.”

A longtime SNAP activist in St. Louis, Gleeson had felt that the advocacy group’s name — which only mentioned those abused by priests — neglected victims like her.

The nun abuse group brought “a great sense of relief,” she said.


Few dioceses or religious orders publicly list abusive nuns — a fact group members want to change. The advocacy group Bishop Accountability lists 172 Catholic sisters who have been accused of sex abuse.

“I feel that it’s vastly underreported,” said Marya Dantzer, a group member who settled her nun abuse case in Michigan in 1996.

Dantzer noted that nuns, especially as teachers, arguably spend more time with young people than priests.

For years, Dispenza and others have been asking without success for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious — which represents two-thirds of U.S. Catholic sisters — to allow nun abuse survivors to speak at their annual meeting.

“We agree with SNAP that women religious need to keep working for the healing of victims and the prevention of further abuse and that hearing directly from survivors is essential,” said Sister Annmarie Sanders, LCWR spokesperson, in an email.

Sanders said the LCWR meeting was not “the proper venue for discussion on this issue.” Victims should instead contact their abuser’s religious order.

Each of the more than 400 U.S. religious institutes for women is relatively autonomous.

In a 2019 speech about Catholic sex abuse, LCWR’s then-president Sharlet Wagner acknowledged “that in some instances, our own sisters have been perpetrators of the abuse.”

That speech followed an apology for abuse from an international organization of Catholic sisters, as well as Pope Francis’ creation of an abuse reporting system, which includes nuns.

The support group members would like the church to accept more responsibility, and for all religious orders to expel known abusers from their ranks.

In the meantime, the support group continues to welcome new members, even as others move on. It remains mostly women, many over age 60.

Dispenza recently stepped back from facilitating the group, with Dantzer taking over as leader.

After seeing a growing need, Dispenza opened a second group in 2022 that includes international victims of nun abuse, and she will focus her efforts there.

Members of the international cohort are contemplating the launch of nun abuse support groups in Peru and the Balkans. They have put their contact information on the SNAP website, there for anyone looking for stories like their own.

Complete Article HERE!

‘In the name of the Mother, Daughter and Holy Spirit’

— Catholic women advocate change

Participants at the conference titled “Women Leaders: Towards a Brighter Future,” to mark International Women’s Day 2024, listen to a speech by Cristiane Murray, deputy director, Holy See press office, at the Vatican, March 6, 2024.

Women meeting in Rome this week to promote female leadership in the Catholic Church are challenging the hierarchy’s resistance to change and its theological emphasis on ‘natural’ gender divisions.


In the week leading up to International Women’s Day, Catholic women gathered near the Vatican and online to promote female leadership in the Catholic Church, demanding equality and visibility while urging the institution to set its fears about change aside.

“It’s so important that the Catholic Church be engaged in this issue, not just internally, but also externally given the contribution they make in the education sphere and the health care sphere,” Chiara Porro, Australia’s ambassador to the Holy See, told Religion News Service on Wednesday (March 6).

Acknowledging that in her four years in Rome the Vatican has taken significant steps forward, with high-ranking Vatican positions being filled by women, Porro represents a country that “has a very strong agenda in empowering women and women in leadership,” she said, “including in our own foreign service, which like the Catholic Church has been very male dominated for a very long time.”

She said her female colleagues — the number of women ambassadors to the Vatican has risen to 40 — talk about the issue of women’s influence often. “It’s an incredible group, an informal group, and we come from many different areas of the world. We support each other, we share ideas, we network,” she said.

Pope Francis has supported the trend, she said, meeting with the female ambassadors last year on International Women’s Day.

Chiara Porro. (Photo by Penny Bradfield AUSPIC/DPS)
Chiara Porro.

Porro works closely with the International Union of Superiors General, the leaders of the world’s religious orders, to put a spotlight on the work nuns do, especially in the poorest places in the world. But their focus goes beyond Catholicism. This week, the embassies of Australia, France and the Netherlands, all woman-led, sponsored “Women Sowing Seeds of Peace and Cultivating Encounter,” a conference of Christian,  Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu female faith leaders.

“When we talk about interfaith dialogue, when we talk about religious leaders coming together, we find that a lot of the religions around the world are led by men, so it’s really important to bring female faith leaders together,” Porro said.

On Thursday, women theologians, experts and leaders met for a one-day discussion on female leadership, asking the tough questions facing the Catholic Church on the issue. In her presentation, ordained missionary and theologian Maeve Louise Heaney questioned Catholic theology that attempts to “essentialize” women. “They speak of complementarity and name the contribution of women as essentially different to that of men,” she explained, “pitching love, spirituality and nurturing against authority, leadership and intellect.”

Heaney challenged Catholics to reconsider their idea of God and the Holy Spirit as neither male nor female, quoting her “yoga-loving” niece who prays to “the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And the Mother, the Daughter and the Holy Spirit.”

A 2022 survey of 17,200 women in 104 countries by the international forum Catholic Women Speak found that two-thirds of women in the church support “radical reform,” with 29% saying they will consider leaving the church if women aren’t given more prominence.

In her interview with RNS, Heaney recognized that the church, “like any big ship, moves slowly,” adding, “We don’t have a time frame.” She took encouragement, she said, from Francis’ Synod on Synodality, born from a massive consultation of Catholics on hot-button issues including female empowerment and LGBTQ inclusion, which will hold its second session at the Vatican in October.

Pope Francis poses for a picture with participants of the Synod of Bishops’ 16th General Assembly in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican, Oct. 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
Pope Francis poses for a picture with participants of the Synod of Bishops’ 16th General Assembly in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican, Oct. 23, 2023.

She also supports the discussions underway at the Vatican about allowing women to be ordained as deacons, who can preach at Mass but cannot perform some other priestly functions, such as consecrate Communion or hear confessions.

“I think the people have a right to hear women preaching,” Heaney said. “There are spaces in which the best person to speak on a theme would be a woman. And I think a theological, doctrinal and canon law structure could open spaces for that to happen.”

According to Heaney, there are no theological barriers to ordaining women as deacons, nor would women deacons present any difficulty in terms of the church’s organization. What stands in the way, she said, is the fear that allowing women deacons would bring women closer to the altar, the priests’ dominion.

“Fear is a bad adviser,” she said. “What if we gave the church that? What if we allowed spaces for women to preach? Under the authority of the bishop, in collaboration with the parish priest, with the proper formation like all the rest of the ministry. You might find that the issue of priesthood changes in color if we have different kinds of leadership.”

While theologians push the envelope on female leadership, women who have climbed up the Vatican administration have learned to have patience about penetrating the male-dominated bureaucracy.

“It’s a long process that has to be continued,” said Sister Nathalie Becquart, the first female secretary of the Vatican’s Synod office and a leading figure in the pope’s synodal process. “They will need more time,” Becquart said, while teasing that the Vatican might soon announce a new development on this front.

On Thursday, the Catholic charity network Caritas published “Equality, Encounter, Renewal,” a pamphlet urging its 162 affiliated Catholic charities to create spaces for dialogue about women’s leadership. In an introduction, Sister Alessandra Smerilli, the secretary of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, laments that the “systematic social and cultural exclusion of women can also be seen when looking at the face of leadership in the world today.”

Francis, meanwhile, continues to use language that reinforces the role of women as mothers and caregivers. Speaking to organizers of the conference “Women in the Church: Builders of humanity,” taking place in Rome this week to recognize the contributions of 10 female saints, the pope said “the church is female” and women have a “unique capacity for compassion” that allows them “to bring love where love is lacking, and humanity where human beings are searching to find their true identity.”

But some women in Rome this week said that Catholic theology can often emphasize too much women’s natural inclinations, which it sees as reflecting the relationship that Christ has with his church. The women asked how this view affects the roles men and women occupy in the church.

Heaney said: “It is not easy to broaden our understanding of the One who brought us to life, as no one image will work. But we owe it to the future generations.”

Complete Article HERE!

Former nuns call on pope to launch inquiry into priest they say sexually abused them

— Mirjiam Kovac and Gloria Branciani want independent inquiry into Marko Rupnik, who was expelled from Jesuit order in 2023

Gloria Branciani, left, and Mirjam Kovac reported Rupnik to senior Catholic church officials in the early 1990s but say they were rebuffed and dismissed.


Two former nuns have called on Pope Francis to initiate an independent investigation into a once-prominent Jesuit artist-priest who they allege sexually abused them, including by forcing them to have threesomes and making them watch pornography so they would “grow spiritually”.

Speaking publicly for the first time, Mirjiam Kovac and Gloria Branciani said the wall of silence surrounding Marko Rupnik, who has been accused by several women of sexual, psychological and spiritual abuses dating back three decades, had finally “crumbled”.

The women are former members of the Ignatius of Loyola community, an order co-founded by Rupnik, whose mosaics adorn the walls of some Vatican chapels and other churches.

“We were all young girls, full of ideals,” Kovac said during a press conference in Rome. “But these very ideals, together with our training in obedience, were exploited for abuses of various kinds: of conscience, of power, spiritual, psychic, physical and often sexual.”

Both women reported Rupnik to senior Catholic church officials in the early 1990s, but claim they were repeatedly rebuffed and dismissed.

Rupnik was excommunicated in 2020 for absolving a woman with whom he had sex; the absolution of a “sexual accomplice” is among the most serious crimes under canon law. But he was reinstated two weeks later after he repented.

In 2022, allegations against Rupnik made by nine women were dismissed by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), citing the canonical statute of limitations.

It was only later that year, after it was reported in the press that Rupnik had been treated with “kid gloves” by the church, that the Jesuits issued a public call for victims to come forward. Rupnik was finally expelled from the order in June 2023 after the “degree of credibility” of the allegations against him was found to be “very high”.

Rupnik, however, remains a priest and was accepted into a diocese in Koper, in his native Slovenia, in October 2023. That same month, Pope Francis ordered the DDF to reopen the case, although Laura Sgrò, a lawyer representing Kovac and Branciani, said she had received no information relating to the new investigation.

Branciani alleged on Wednesday that she and another nun were forced to have a threesome with Rupnik “because he said it was like the [Holy] Trinity”.

The incident allegedly occurred in the home of a friend of Rupnik in Gorizia, a city in northern Italy. “The most terrible aspect of this threesome was that afterwards, we never spoke to each other about it,” she said. “We were both completely blocked … I was very tired, I felt empty and could no longer feel feelings of any kind other than a deep pain and sense of failure.”

Anne Barrett Doyle holds up printed pictures of Marcial Maciel, Theodore McCarrick and Marko Rupnik.
Anne Barrett Doyle, a co-founder of BishopAccountability, at the press conference. She said the church’s handling of the allegations bore the earmarks of ‘an old-time cover-up’.

Branciani also alleged to journalists that Rupnik forced her to watch pornography “to help me ‘grow spiritually’”.

Rupnik has not publicly commented on the accusations. The Guardian did not receive a response to an email sent to the Aletti Centre, a religious art centre in Rome founded by Rupnik with which he is still associated. Maria Campatelli, the director of the Aletti Centre, said last year that the accusations were “defamatory and unproven”.

The Koper diocese said it was unable to provide a statement on Wednesday, and referred to one made in October last year which said: “So long as Rupnik is not found guilty in a court of law, he enjoys all the rights and duties of a diocesan priest.”

A Holy See spokesperson, Matteo Bruni, told journalists the Vatican was gathering “all available information on the case” to “determine which procedures it would be possible and useful to implement”.

In February 2019, Francis became the first pontiff to publicly admit that priests had sexually abused nuns and pledged to do more to fight the problem.

Anne Barrett Doyle, a co-founder of BishopAccountability, which tracks alleged clergy sexual abuse cases, said the church’s “secret” handling of the allegations against Rupnik bore all the earmarks of “an old-time cover-up”, similar to that of Theodore McCarrick, a former archbishop whom the Vatican defrocked in 2019 after finding him guilty of sexually abusing children.

“This case represents not only the church’s continued protection of powerful abusers, but its particular indifference to the sexual abuse of adult women,” said Doyle. “The pope made abuse of vulnerable adults a church crime, but we see little evidence that the new rule has made a difference.”

It is rare for nuns to speak publicly about alleged abuse by priests, an issue that has blighted the Catholic church for decades. There is also scant care for abused nuns, many of whom have been thrown out of their orders and made homeless. Some have claimed to have become pregnant by priests and then forced to have abortions.

Complete Article HERE!

Pope, cardinals continue discussion of role of women in the Church

Pope Francis and his international Council of Cardinals continue their discussion of women’s role in the church at the Vatican Feb. 5, 2024.

By Cindy Wooden

With the help of a woman Anglican bishop, a Salesian sister and a consecrated virgin, Pope Francis and his international Council of Cardinals devoted the first morning of their February meeting “to deepening their reflection, begun last December, on the role of women in the church,” the Vatican press office said.

Matteo Bruni, director of the Vatican press office, said Feb. 5 the pope and cardinals heard from Bishop Jo Bailey Wells, deputy secretary-general of the Anglican Communion; Salesian Sister Linda Pocher, a professor of Christology and Mariology at Rome’s Pontifical Faculty of Educational Sciences “Auxilium,” and Giuliva Di Berardino, a consecrated virgin and liturgist from the Diocese of Verona, Italy.

The pope and council were to continue meeting the afternoon of Feb. 5 and all day Feb. 6, focusing on other themes, Bruni said.

The Vatican has not shared details about the discussions on the role of women in the church nor the texts of presentations made at the meeting.

Cardinal Gérald C. Lacroix of Québec was present at the meeting; in Jan. 30 video message said he would “temporarily withdraw from activities in my diocese” after he was accused in a civil lawsuit of inappropriately touching a 17-year-old girl on two occasions in the 1980s. He has denied the allegations.

The Vatican press office did not comment on the cardinal’s participation in the council meeting.

In addition to Cardinal Lacroix, those at the February meeting included Cardinals Juan José Omella Omella of Barcelona; Seán P. O’Malley of Boston; Fridolin Ambongo Besungu of Kinshasa, Congo; Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state; Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, India; Sérgio da Rocha of São Salvador da Bahia, Brazil; Fernando Vérgez Alzaga, president of the commission governing Vatican City State; and Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg.

Complete Article HERE!