Vatican meets #MeToo: Nuns denounce their abuse by priests

VATICAN CITY (AP) – The nun no longer goes to confession regularly, after an Italian priest forced himself on her while she was at her most vulnerable: recounting her sins to him in a university classroom nearly 20 years ago.

At the time, the sister only told her provincial superior and her spiritual director, silenced by the Catholic Church’s culture of secrecy, her vows of obedience and her own fear, repulsion and shame.

“It opened a great wound inside of me,” she told the Associated Press. “I pretended it didn’t happen.”

After decades of silence, the nun is one of a handful worldwide to come forward recently on an issue that the Catholic Church has yet to come to terms with: The sexual abuse of religious sisters by priests and bishops. An AP examination has found that cases have emerged in Europe, Africa, South America and Asia, demonstrating that the problem is global and pervasive, thanks to the tradition of sisters’ second-class status in the Catholic Church and their ingrained subservience to the men who run it.

Some nuns are now finding their voices, buoyed by the #MeToo movement and the growing recognition that adults can be victims of sexual abuse when there is an imbalance of power in a relationship. The sisters are going public in part because of years of inaction by church leaders, even after major studies on the problem in Africa were reported to the Vatican in the 1990s. The issue has flared in the wake of scandals over the sexual abuse of children, and recently of adults, including revelations that one of the most prominent American cardinals, Theodore McCarrick, sexually abused and harassed his seminarians.

The extent of the abuse of nuns is unclear, at least outside the Vatican. Victims are reluctant to report the abuse because of well-founded fears they won’t be believed, experts told the AP. Church leaders are reluctant to acknowledge that some priests and bishops simply ignore their vows of celibacy, knowing that their secrets will be kept.

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.

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. And the sister in Europe spoke to the AP to help bring the issue to light.

“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 the AP in an interview. “I hope that now actions will be taken to take care of the victims and put an end to this kind of abuse.”

Taking victims seriously

The Vatican declined to comment on what measures, if any, it has taken to assess the scope of the problem globally, what it has done to punish offenders and care for the victims. A Vatican official said it is up to local church leaders to sanction priests who sexually abuse sisters, but that often such crimes go unpunished both in civil and canonical courts.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the issue, said only some cases arrive at the Holy See for investigation. It was a reference to the fact that the Catholic Church has no clear measures in place to investigate and punish bishops who themselves abuse or allow abusers to remain in their ranks – a legal loophole that has recently been highlighted by the McCarrick case.

The official said the church has focused much of its attention recently 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 the 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. “It is also difficult to get rid of the opinion that it is always the woman who seduces the man, and not vice versa.”

Demasure said many priests in Africa, for example, struggle with celibacy because of traditional and cultural beliefs in the importance of having children. Novices, who are just entering religious life, 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 on the problem.

In 2013, the Rev. Anthony Musaala in Kampala, Uganda wrote what he called an open letter to members of the local Catholic establishment about “numerous cases” of alleged sex liaisons of priests, including with nuns. He charged that it was “an open secret that many Catholic priests and some bishops, in Uganda and elsewhere, no longer live celibate chastity.”

He was sanctioned, even though Ugandan newspapers regularly report cases of priests caught in sex escapades. The topic is even the subject of a popular novel taught in high schools.

In 2012, a priest sued a bishop in western Uganda who had suspended him and ordered him to stop interacting with at least four nuns. The priest, who denied the allegations, lost the suit, and the sisters later withdrew their own suit against the bishop.

Archbishop John Baptist Odama, leader of the local Ugandan conference of bishops, told the AP that unverified or verified allegations against individual priests should not be used to smear the whole church.

“Individual cases may happen, if they are there,” he said Thursday. “Individual cases must be treated as individual cases.”