HINSDALE, Ill. — Sister Donna Quinn referred to herself as a “peacekeeper” when she escorted women into a Chicago-area abortion business to shield them from pro-life advocates.

But leaders of her Sinsinawa Dominican community, saying they fully support Church teaching on abortion, have told her that her actions violated her profession as a religious sister.

Now, Sister Donna may be facing further discipline as the bishops of Madison, Wis., and Joliet, Ill., and the archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, consider whether she formally cooperated with abortions by volunteering at the business. Under canon law, the penalty for formal cooperation with abortion is automatic excommunication. Three jurisdictions are involved because the Sinsinawa Dominicans are based in the Madison Diocese, Sister Donna resides in the Chicago Archdiocese, and the business is in the Joliet Diocese.

Canon law also provides for dismissal from a religious community for a sister who has been an accomplice to an abortion or has given “grave scandal arising from culpable behavior,” according to canon lawyer Edward Peters, writing on his blog, In the Light of the Law.

Madison Bishop Robert Morlino’s spokesman said the bishop has begun the necessary conversations regarding Sister Donna’s situation, but as of now, the process remains in the hands of the Sinsinawa Dominicans.

In a statement, Bishop Morlino said: “The teaching of the Catholic Church regarding the grave evil of abortion and formal cooperation with abortion is clear. At this point, private conversations about a personnel matter must take place before anything further can be said to the press or to the mass media by my office.”

On Nov. 2, the Sinsinawa Dominicans issued a statement saying, “We do not engage in activity that witnesses to support of abortion.” The congregation’s leaders also said they regretted that Sister Donna’s actions have created controversy and public scandal. They have declined further comment.

Ann Carey, author of Sisters in Crisis: The Tragic Unraveling of Women’s Religious Communities (Our Sunday Visitor), called the Sinsinawa response the first tangible sign that women religious in the United States are taking seriously the Vatican’s apostolic visitation of women’s religious communities.

Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist Kieran Foley, assistant for communications for the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the Unived States, declined to respond to questions about Sister Donna, saying the visitation’s mandate is to gather data and report back to the Holy See, not to comment on the circumstances of individual religious.


Defending Her Role

Sister Donna has since stopped serving at the business, where she had been an escort for the last six years. The Sinsinawa community said she is not giving interviews, although she did tell the Chicago Tribune that it was her decision to suspend her role as a “peacekeeper” outside the ACU Health Center and that she looked forward to continuing dialogue with her congregation “as a way of informing my actions as well as educating the community.”

She also told the Tribune that a private meeting to talk about her situation had been scheduled and that she was disappointed the process had been circumvented. “As a peacekeeper,” she said, “my goal is to enable women to enter a reproductive health clinic in dignity and without fear of being physically assaulted. … I am very worried that the publicity around my presence will lead to violations of every woman’s right to privacy and expose them to further violence.”

Sister Donna’s work at the business came to light through a LifeSiteNews.com story, but it is hardly her first foray into public disagreement with Church teaching.

Carey said Sister Donna was among the 26 women religious who signed a 1984 ad in The New York Times saying Church teaching on abortion was not the only “legitimate Catholic position” on the subject.

Sister Donna also has been a leader of Nuns for Choice and, as a member, has taken part in the pro-abortion-rights March for Women’s Lives in Washington. In addition, she was a founder of Chicago Catholic Women, a since-dissolved group that supported abortion “rights,” homosexual rights and the “ordination” of women, and an active member of the National Coalition of American Nuns, which has taken similar stands.

According to records in the Women and Leadership Archives of the Ann Ida Gannon, BVM, Center for Women and Leadership at Loyola University in Chicago, Sister Donna is an “avowed feminist” who has espoused such causes as “reproductive choice” and homosexual rights.

For the last 30 years, according to the Sinsinawa Dominicans, she has been an “advocate for social justice.” The community’s website currently lists her as a member of the Sinsinawa Women’s Network, which was begun in 1983 as the Task Force on Women in Church and Society, a group focusing on feminine consciousness.


Reasons for the Visitation

According to the website, the network “includes those who are willing to work toward a feminist vision of inclusivity and justice for all peoples and respect for all creation.” Among its goals are “to achieve full participation for women in the Church and society by striving to eliminate sexism, racism, classism and heterosexism; and to challenge and change patriarchal behavior and structures.”

Carey, who recently spoke about the apostolic visitation on EWTN’s “The World Over,” said revelations about Sister Donna’s activities are particularly timely because her case demonstrates exactly why the Vatican chose to conduct the visitation. Her case, she added, should quiet the visitation’s critics.

Cardinal Franc Rodé, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, said in a recent Vatican Radio interview that the final decision to hold an apostolic visitation was made during a symposium on religious life at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., in September 2008. He said the wide variety of presentations helped him see the extent of the problems facing religious life.

“Above all,” he said in the interview, “you could speak of a certain secularist mentality that has spread among these religious families, perhaps even a certain ‘feminist’ spirit.”

Indeed, Carey said, “Sister Donna is not the only high-profile sister who is openly dissenting from various Church teachings and causing public scandal.”

In the past, Carey said, women religious have been able to engage the Vatican in “dialogue” to address situations like the one involving Sister Donna. For example, she said, in the case of the 1984 New York Times ad, despite a Vatican order that the sisters who signed the ad recant or face dismissal, only two of the 26 signers left their communities. “Most of the rest, including Sister Donna,” she said, “went right on actively supporting abortion rights.”

Judy Roberts writes

from Graytown, Ohio.