In February, Pope Francis acknowledged a longstanding dirty secret in the Roman Catholic Church — the sexual abuse of nuns by priests.
It’s an issue that had long been kept under wraps, but in the #MeToo era, a #NunsToo movement has emerged, and now sexual abuse is more widely discussed.
The Vatican’s wall of silence was first broken in Women Church World, a supplement of the official Vatican daily, L’Osservatore Romano. An article in the February issue by editor Lucetta Scaraffia — a history professor, mother and feminist — blamed abuse of women and minors on the clerical culture of the all-powerful priesthood. The piece was based on hundreds of stories she heard from nuns.
It’s very hard for a nun to report she has been raped by a priest, says Scaraffia, because of the mindset that, in sex, women can always say no.
“These nuns believe they’re the guilty ones for having seduced that holy man into committing sin,” she says, “because that’s what they’ve always been taught.”
Adding to the trauma, she says, raped nuns who get pregnant become outcasts from their orders.
“These poor women are forced to leave their order and live alone raising their child with no help,” she says. “Sometimes they’re forced to have abortions — paid by the priest because nuns have no money.”
“We are unobserved, invisible, ignored and not respected”
Sister Catherine Aubin, a French Dominican nun who teaches theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas in Rome, says the abuse is the result of male domination in church leadership.
“The Vatican is a world of men,” she says. “Some truly are men of God. Others have been ruined by power. The key to these secrets and silence is … abuse of power. They climb up a career staircase toward evil.”
Aubin, who also works on Women Church World, describes women’s treatment inside the male Vatican world this way: “We are unobserved, invisible, ignored and not respected.”
The first extensive report on abuse of women in the church was in 1994 by an Irish nun, Sister Maura O’Donohue. Her report covered more than 20 countries — mostly in Africa, but also Ireland, Italy, the Philippines and the United States.
In the report, O’Donohue, who died in 2015, linked sexual abuse of nuns in Africa to the AIDS epidemic: Religious sisters were considered less likely to carry the virus.
She cited a 1988 case from Malawi, where a bishop dismissed the leaders of a women’s religious order because they complained that 29 nuns had been made pregnant by local priests. She also reported that a priest arranged for a nun to have an abortion; the nun died during the abortion, and the priest then officiated at her funeral.
O’Donohue briefed Vatican officials on her findings, but the document was shelved. Its contents were made public only in 2001 by the National Catholic Reporter, which also publicized another report, from 1998, titled “The Problem of the Sexual Abuse of African Religious in Africa and in Rome.”
A “culture of silence and secrecy”
In St. Peter’s Square on a recent Sunday morning, a Mexican nun, Sister Silvia Lopez, was thrilled the pope had made public what, among nuns, has long been a painful secret.
“The pope spoke out about abuse of nuns, and now the whole church must also denounce these terrible things,” she said.
Last fall, the International Union Superiors General, the organization that represents the world’s female Catholic religious orders, urged sisters to defy a “culture of silence and secrecy” and speak out.
In India, a nun has reported a bishop to police, accusing him of raping her more than a dozen times. He’s out on bail, awaiting trial. In Chile, the Vatican is investigating a small order of nuns after a national TV channel revealed some sisters had been kicked out after reporting sexual abuse by priests.
An investigation by The Associated Press last summer found the Vatican had not punished offenders for abuse of nuns in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America.
“I think the movement of #MeToo has absolutely an influence on the fact that the abuse of nuns comes into the press and on the public forum,” says Karlijn Demasure, a Belgian expert on sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults who teaches at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
There’s no data on the issue, she says, but anecdotal evidence indicates rape of nuns happens not just in the developing world. Media attention, says Demasure, is helping shed light on a longstanding taboo.
“It’s the first time that it is accepted in the public forum that adult women can be victims of men,” she says. “And this is very important because before you had [society] blaming the victim” and seeing the woman as the one “who was seducing.”
Sister Bernardine Pemii from Ghana, who works as a teacher in Nigeria, recently completed a course at the Pontifical Gregorian University on protection of children and vulnerable adults. On her return home, she says she’ll focus on abuse of women.
“I am going to empower the nuns,” says Pemii. “I want to give them a forum to talk about it. If such a thing has happened to them, they should let us know. I would guarantee them that their voices will be heard.”
“I don’t want to be dependent on church leaders again”
At a recent press conference in Rome, Doris Wagner, a German former nun, was among those making their voices heard.
Wagner, who also goes by her married name, Reisinger, has written about being raped by the male superior of her convent when she was 24. After that, she says, another priest made sexual advances on her during confession.
When scandals over clerical abuse of minors hit Germany in 2010, Wagner was inspired to report the abuses she’d suffered to her mother superior.
“She became furious,” says Wagner. But the fury was not at Wagner’s abusers.
“She was literally jumping on her feet,” says Wagner. “She was shouting at me. The first question she was able to ask was, ‘Have you used contraceptives?’ And it was then that I understood that she just refused to understand.”
Her former confessor, the Rev. Hermann Geissler, later became chief of staff of the Vatican doctrinal office that handles sex abuse allegations. In January, after Wagner went public with her accusations, he stepped down but denied the accusation against him.
Wagner, now married and a mother, works as a headhunter for a German company and says she will never work again for the Catholic Church.
“I don’t want to be in a vulnerable position,” she says. “You know, I don’t want to be dependent on church leaders again.”
Wagner is calling for full investigations of all cases known to the Vatican — that it identify, convict and punish the perpetrators. She also wants compensation for victims, especially nuns who become pregnant.