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Vatican says it knows nuns are abused

By NCR Staff

In a highly unusual public statement, the Vatican has acknowledged the problem of sexual abuse of women religious by priests. The Vatican’s declaration on the matter was released March 20 by papal spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls.

The problem of sexual abuse of nuns by priests, particularly in AIDS-plagued Africa, has been known to the Vatican for at least five years and was made public through an extensive article in the March 16 issue of NCR.

The Vatican statement reads:

“The problem is known, and is restricted to a geographically limited area.

“The Holy See is dealing with the question in collaboration with the bishops, with the Union of Superiors General and with the International Union of Superiors General.

“The work has two sides, the formation of persons and the solution of single cases.

“Certain negative situations cannot cause to be forgotten the frequently heroic fidelity of the great majority of male religious, female religious and priests.”

The Vatican statement was apparently triggered by an article on NCR’s March 16 report in the Italian daily La Repubblica. The article, by Marco Politi, the newspaper’s leading Vaticanologist, summarized the NCR story and provided Italian translations of some of the documents prepared by the Adista news agency.

The statement, released in Italian, did not specify what geographic area is involved or what was being done to deal with the problem.

A Vatican press office official told NCR March 21 that Navarro-Valls was unavailable for further comment.

The Union of Superiors General and the International Union of Superiors General are umbrella groups for leaders of men’s and women’s religious communities, respectively. Both groups are based in Rome.

In a joint statement March 21, the groups underscored their awareness of the problem and said they were taking steps to address it.

Sr. Rita Burley, president of the International Union of Superiors General and superior general of the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, said the steps included tougher standards for admission into religious life, a focus on human development in formation, and resolution of specific cases of abuse.

The dimensions and geographical extent of the sexual abuse are still largely unknown, the groups said, and are complicated by sometimes overlapping issues of cultural practice and simple failure to live celibacy vows.

The NCR story was based on five reports on the sexual abuse of women religious by priests written by a priest and three members of women’s congregations. The reports had been discussed in the Vatican and within various meetings of men and women religious.

MISNA, a Rome-based missionary news service, said that while the instances of sexual abuse “cannot and must not be denied or justified,” they represent “a marginal phenomenon” in comparison to the “arduous and courageous work” of many missionaries, often in situations of great hardship.

Fr. Bernardo Cervellera, director of Fides, the Vatican’s missionary news service, said the problem was limited to sub-Saharan Africa and related to negative cultural views there of women and of the value of celibacy. These are not cases of “psychopathic” violence against women, but instead a “cultural way of living” that is common throughout the region, he said.

To combat ingrained cultural mentalities, many priestly formation programs in sub-Saharan Africa emphasize the value of celibacy and “of love given without expecting anything in return,” he said. But the education has not always succeeded, he said, prompting some bishops in extreme cases to close problem seminaries.

The relatively high number of young priests in Africa is another contributing factor, a senior official of a missionary congregation said. Africa has few priests “in the middle age group who would be mentors,” a role once filled by Western missionaries, said the official, who asked not to be identified.

Fr. Henk C.J. Bonke, procurator general of the Missionaries of Africa, said that the problem was not limited to Africa and extended even to the United States. He said he thinks that in religious orders worldwide “people are aware that it happens and that something needs to be done, both for the victims and for those who commit these kinds of things.”

Sr. Marie McDonald, one of five authors of documents on which NCR’s story was based, said March 20 she was “very pleased” the Vatican had issued a statement. McDonald is superior general of the Missionaries of Our Lady of Africa.

“I agree with what they say, that whatever we said in our talks, which were confidential, were pointing to problems, and problems are not the whole of life,” she said.

“It’s not the whole story of the church in Africa or anywhere else,” she said.

The March 16 story, along with the full texts of the reports, are available on the NCR Web site at www.natcath.org

Catholic News Service contributed to this report.

National Catholic Reporter, March 30, 2001