Pope Spotlights Sexual Abuse of Nuns

The disturbing issue is now part of the Church’s broader discussion about how to curb the plague of clerical abuse.

(photo: 2017 photo, Lucía Ballester/CNA)

NAIROBI, Kenya — An African woman religious was completing her undergraduate degree at a local university when the unthinkable happened: A religious brother pressured her to have sex.

The issue that led to their routine contact was seemingly benign, but the outcome was anything but.

The young nun “lacked a laptop and had no money to take her work to a typing pool,” said Sister Grace Candiru, of the Missionary Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church, who works with the Association of Consecrated Women in Eastern and Central Africa, a regional body for women religious in 10 African countries.

“For some time, the religious brother agreed to help her with his laptop, and she used it on the university premises,” she said.

“But one day, when she had an urgent assignment and asked to borrow his laptop, he told her to come by his community,” said Sister Grace, who had heard about the young sister’s plight from a contact. “It so happened that the other members of the community were not around. This brother took advantage of this sister, who later conceived.”

After enduring the abuse and a resulting pregnancy, said Sister Grace, the woman religious had no choice but “to leave the congregation.” The story highlights a tragic reality faced by women religious, mostly in parts of the developing world. Missionary religious orders there may struggle to provide sufficient financial independence and formation to effectively safeguard their members from manipulative and predatory clerics.

This problem is not new, but it could become a key priority for Pope Francis, who made headlines after he acknowledged that women religious had been victims of sexual abuse by priests during a news conference on his flight back from his Feb. 3-5 visit to the United Arab Emirates.

“Mistreatment of women is a problem,” said Francis, after a reporter asked him to comment on recent articles about the abuse of nuns by priests and bishops published in Women, Church, World, a monthly magazine distributed with L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s newspaper.

“Some priests have been removed [from ministry] because of this,” he said. “Do we need to do more? Yes. Is there the will to do more? Yes. But it’s a path that takes time.”

It was the first time a pope squarely confronted the shameful treatment of nuns by clerical predators, said critics of the Vatican’s reportedly weak response to a problem brought to its attention by women’s religious orders in the 1990s.


Unclear Scope

In the February 2019 issue of the magazine, Lucetta Scaraffia, the director of Women, Church, World, wrote an article that denounced the sexual abuse of nuns by priests and said that some victims had been forced to have abortions to cover up the misconduct.

Scaraffia’s article, which has not been translated into English, echoed previous claims that the mistreatment of sisters was especially serious in Africa during the peak of the AIDS crisis. At that time, reports alleged, sexually active priests viewed nuns as “safe” partners, and some religious orders found it difficult to protect their members.

The scope of the problem in Africa and other countries is unclear, and Scaraffia told Crux in an interview that the allegations she cited dated back years and even decades, and it would be difficult to corroborate them.

Meanwhile, little formal research has been conducted on the topic, and the reports that have circulated are largely anecdotal.

One well-placed source in Africa told the Register that she was unaware of reports that sisters had been singled out during the AIDS crisis.

Analysts contend that the Vatican has done little to effectively address the practice or penalize offenders, but few specifics about previous meetings between religious orders, researchers and Vatican officials have been disclosed.

A request for clarification submitted to the Vatican Press Office in early February was acknowledged, but no information has been forthcoming.

“As far as is known, the Vatican did not do anything officially till now to stop the abuse,” Karlijn Demasure, the former executive director of the Center for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University, told the Register.


Problems Surface in 1990s

Irish-born Medical Missionary Sister Maura O’Donohue, who died in 2015, is widely cited as the first authority to raise the alarm in Rome. In 1994, Sister Maura provided a report on the sexual abuse of women religious by priests to Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo, then the prefect of the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

Gleaned from her work and travels as the HIV/AIDS-response coordinator for the London-based Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, her findings included an alarming allegation: Women religious had been infected with the AIDS virus HIV, as a result of sexual abuse by priests.

With the assistance of trusted physicians and priests, Sister Maura compiled a list of 23 countries where sisters faced sexual abuse by clergy and provided that information to Cardinal Martinez.

In 1998, Missionary Sister of Our Lady of Africa Marie McDonald submitted a four-page report on the same issue to the International Union of Superior Generals and the Vatican, strengthening the case for decisive action from Church leaders. Three years later, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls confirmed the abuse of nuns was a serious challenge in Africa and said the Vatican was working with local bishops and religious orders to address it, according to a report in The Irish Times.


‘A Lot of Pain’

But if Rome appeared to react too slowly, women’s religious orders also struggled to confront the problem. Benedictine Sister Esther Fangman, now the prioress of Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Atchison, Kansas, recalled her own surprise and horror after fellow Benedictine sisters from the developing world began to share their stories during international gatherings in the 1990s.

“I thought, ‘I can’t believe this is true,’” Sister Esther told the Register. It was enormously difficult, she remembered, for affected communities to explain what had happened and articulate their emotions.

“They were in a lot of pain about it,” said Sister Esther. “Finally, with others, I worked out a way to talk about it, to help in some way, and to say, ‘This is happening.’”

In 2000, she spoke about the abuse of women religious at a gathering of Benedictine abbots from the United States and Mexico.

“This was not about boundary issues,” she said. “It was a culture in the priesthood and religious life that said, ‘You had to do what the priest wanted.’ You couldn’t say ‘No’ because of finances.”

“The whole community could suffer if one religious said ‘No,’” she said.

And though some specialists have flagged the abuse of nuns in Africa, she told the Register that the problem was “not confined to one part of the world,” as similar dynamics applied in India, Mexico and elsewhere. Generally, Rome had no direct jurisdiction over these cases, she noted. The religious orders were “under the bishop.”


Addressing the Issue

Yet almost two decades later, the extent of this problem is still unknown, and religious orders have just begun to take a more public stand.

Last November, the International Union of Superior Generals urged individual sisters to come forward with their own stories of abuse, “so that they can have the care they need,” said Demasure.

And in the wake of the Women, Church, World article, the U.S.-based Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) publicly apologized for its failure to give this issue greater attention. Reports detailing the “harassment and rape of sisters” have been noted in the developing world, but also the West, including the United States, read a statement released Feb. 7 by the LCWR.

“We regret that when we did know of instances of abuse, we did not speak out more forcefully for an end to the culture of secrecy and cover-ups within the Catholic Church that have discouraged victims from coming forward.”

The surge of outrage over the abuse of sisters has already prompted demands for practical reforms modeled on U.S. safeguarding programs that are designed to protect minors from abuse.

The LCWR urged the organizers of the Vatican’s Feb. 21-24 summit on the sexual abuse of minors by clergy to promote practices that will also benefit vulnerable sisters.

“The plague of sexually abusive clergy manifests itself in different ways in different ecclesiastical contexts,” said George Weigel in a Feb. 20 column for First Things.

In the West, the majority of victims appeared to be “young men,” while “Africa faces serious challenges with the sexual exploitation of women by clergy.”

In the week before the summit, “Voice of Faith,” a group advocating for women sexually abused by clergy organized a news conference to raise the profile of this issue at the summit.

But Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, the president of the Center for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University, had already clarified that the meeting would focus on the protection of young people.


Taking Action

Looking ahead, it is likely that the scandal of priests abusing religious sisters will give new energy to Catholics seeking an expanded role for women in the Church.

The LCWR statement called for changes that would “refashion the leadership structures of the Church to address the issue of clericalism and ensure that power and authority are shared with members of the laity.”

Scaraffia pushed for the transformation of Church structures in her article for Women, Church, World.

“The differences in power, the difficulty in reporting [the abuse] out of fear — well founded — of retaliation, not only against herself, but also against the order she belongs to, explains the silence that has covered this exploitation for years,” wrote Scaraffia.

Meanwhile, Demasure and other analysts stress the need for more research on the number of women affected and the conditions that foster abuse.

Based on her own experience, Sister Grace has found that problems can crop up when priests offer sisters spiritual guidance.

And she flagged “work relationships where the priest grooms the victim to the point where the line between seeing it as an abuse and ‘seeing it as normal’ wears thin.”

Both Sister Esther and Sister Grace stressed the importance of improving religious orders’ finances.

“If congregations have the financial resources they need to sustain their sisters and their mission,” the rate of abuse would decline, Sister Grace said.

The Association of Consecrated Women in Eastern and Central Africa is working on that problem, she said, as part of a larger regional effort to strengthen women religious’ orders.

“One key issue covered in our program is governance, which is aimed at promoting effective leadership in congregations,” said Sister Grace.

“The formation programs are aimed at empowering religious orders to become self-sustaining with well-formed members ... and strong leadership teams that are able to support their members to live a life of commitment.”

If Church leaders and lay Catholics are concerned about ending the abuse of women religious by priests, she said, they should support strong formation.

“We need the support of donors,” she said, to “empower sisters.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.