e-mail us

Abused nuns: Reaction

Readers respond to reports of abuse

As the national organizations that represent the leadership of U.S. Catholic sisters, religious priests and brothers, we feel compelled to comment on the reports of sexual abuse of nuns by priests in Africa. We are dismayed to learn of the abuse of any woman, be she a Catholic sister or not, and are deeply disturbed by the content of the recent media coverage.

Our conferences have represented our leaders’ concerns on abuse to the appropriate Vatican offices. We have been advised that the Vatican offices responsible continue to take steps to investigate the matter.

In any culture or situation, those in power have an ethical responsibility not to exploit others for personal gains. Further, in all cases of abuse, the victim is never to blame. We can only have compassion for those injured and seek to understand those who perpetrate such abuse, while seeking justice for the victims.

The horrible nature of the reported sexual abuse is undeniable. However, it is important to keep these instances in the larger perspective of religious life. We affirm that the vast majority of priests, brothers and sisters live lives fully committed to justice and dedicated to the service of the vulnerable in society. As sisters, priests and brothers, members of the same religious family, we are all betrayed by this violation.

We commend the Vatican for acknowledging the problem and communicating the efforts it has made to date. We are continuing to follow the issue and trust that further appropriate action will be taken. United in our call to do justice, we believe that bringing the truth of this situation out of darkness into the light illuminates the path toward the mercy of God, healing and reconciliation.

Silver Spring, Md.

Marianist Br. Stephen Glodek is president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men. Sister of St. Agnes Mary Mollison is president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

* * *

As a Catholic and African from the region affected, I would like to express my shock at such a report. I do not dispute the contents in terms of facts, but rather the tone of the whole issue. I am only surprised that the persons who made this report were pointing a finger at Africa alone concerning the issues of celibacy and the repercussions involved with it. Is it truly just an African problem? Do these people mean to tell the world that it is only Africans who have problems with celibacy? I am more surprised that even one of those interviewed, Benedictine Fr. Nokter Wolff, who is a common frequenter of Africa, confirms this report without qualification. Is he sure that it is just an African problem?

I have lived as a religious and do not want to see my former brothers and sisters in the life being isolated and maligned. It is not in good spirit that Africans who have experienced such suffering in the past under discrimination of all kinds should keep tolerating such blatant racism and hypocrisy.

I was also surprised to read that the Catholic church authorities have acknowledged such a report the way it is. I still ask, is it just an African problem this issue? The report, to say the least, was racist and hypocritical. I still stress that the African church has a duty to reflectively answer this report. If they receive it lightly, such abuses will continue.

As far as I know, this problem is not a merely African one. It is human and so it should be addressed as a human one. The church, our church, should come up clearly and discuss this issue.


* * *

As a former Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa, I would guess that the horrors happening in African convents and rectories have everything to do with the clash of cultures.

The extended family relationships that Africans value so much are being seriously eroded by urbanization and mass emigration -- so seriously that the church has got to begin working with the family-based culture, rather than against it, in building on what is good in Africa. I feel sad to think that in promoting “the consecrated life” as a more blessed path to sanctity than marriage, the church’s message (that family ties are not so important) probably contributes to corrupting the African clergy and religious.

Oil City, Pa.

* * *

Thank you for airing this. It is rather sad that an American liberal journal for Catholics must be left by the hierarchy to expose such dishonorable behavior, but in the current climate within our church who else would do so? In 1995, Pope John Paul II apologized for the past historical injustices toward women, but his bureaucracy obviously has selected its own contrary interpretations of his dictums. I pray that your exposé will embolden others in Rome to speak out and to take action against such behavior against women innocents.

Prescott, Ariz.

* * *

As I read your chilling story of the sexual abuse of young nuns by priests, I was reading Scott Peck. Citing Jung, Peck said that human evil is not the shadow itself, but the refusal to meet this shadow, which Peck defined as “militant ignorance.”

This is a telling characterization of how the institutional church has generally treated the growing awareness of the shadow side of mandatory celibacy: denial, minimization, blaming the victim or the courageous messenger.

I’m reminded again of what Cardinal Franjo Seper observed at the 1971 synod in Rome. He said that he was “not at all optimistic that celibacy was in fact being observed.” He was right then. Sadly, tragically, his honest observation is even more accurate 30 years later. May God have mercy on us all for our willful blindness, our arrogance -- and our silence.

Cassadaga, N.Y.

* * *

You have done a vital service to the church, to the nuns and priests who feel they must keep the church’s most terrible secrets, and to the women who suffer profoundly from the professional, financial and personal inferiority to which the church has sentenced them. Until women become equal in the church, none of this will change.

Tuckahoe, N.Y.

* * *

The fact that this appalling and evil behavior has been going on and being reported to the Vatican for the last seven to eight years, and yet the Vatican apparently has done little to stop the evil, is further evidence of the moral sickness among Vatican bureaucrats and among bishops who protect each other and their priests. Using the evidence available, the pope should go to St. Peter’s Square today and publicly denounce the priests and bishops involved -- and those priests and bishops should be appropriately punished by the church and by the civil courts.

Instead I read in an Associated Press story, “The solution to the problem was focused education for priests, impressing the importance of celibacy, Cervellera added.” Education? Do priests not know that rape is wrong? Do they not know that abortion and contraception is wrong -- mortally sinful? Are they not taught this in the seminaries? Where is the strong and courageous church leadership on this travesty? Where is the pope and other bishops? They are silent. Strong church leaders would not stand for this -- and it would not have taken seven years and a newspaper story for action finally to be taken.

Alexandria, Va.

* * *

The issues discussed in the article by John L. Allen Jr. and Pamela Schaeffer are grave and cannot be wished away or dismissed with a wave of the hand. However, reading between the lines, one discovers that the intention of the authors of the article is malice and a calculated attempt to further tarnish the image of the priesthood and religious life, which have failed to lose their dignity and appeal despite the efforts of some frustrated, disgruntled, disenchanted members of the church.

The authors of the article commit the same fallacy of overgeneralization that most American and European writers commit whenever they write about Africa and her problems. Africa is a large continent and as such using isolated incidences to blanket this great continent of hope and promise is a great act of disservice to Africans and the Catholic church.

The report paints a horrible picture of African priests and nuns as moral degenerates, ignorant of the teachings of the church, who do not respect the rights and dignity of women and do nothing else than to go about fornicating while the Vatican turns the other way. But this is not true. It is not a surprise, however, that such insidious attack should come from some Americans who have always seen Africa as a continent of disease, hunger, war and death -- a continent that should be helped by God’s “ordained messiahs” from Europe and America. It is also curious that these self-appointed messiahs always claim to love Africa and the church.

It is also curious that none of the originators of the reports agreed to an interview to authenticate them. I keep wondering when Africa’s so-called friends and sympathizers, who incidentally are the architects of African problems, will leave Africa alone. Solve first the problems of sexual abuse by priests and nuns in your continent first before you move to Africa. Besides, is there nothing good in Africa to report?


* * *

The article was an eye opener to many over what the missionaries we support do out there in Africa. Our missionaries, who instead of preaching and bearing witness to the gospel, turn themselves into spies, recording and reporting sins of priests and nuns in a huge continent that is as large as North America and Europe combined. There is no doubt in my mind that our missionaries have failed in their mission and as such should pack up their bags and come home in shame.

I would rather intensify my support to hard-working African priests and religious than give a dime to our holier-than-thou missionaries. I am not suggesting that there are no sexual abuses, but we are no better than the Africans. White missionaries should know that their mission is over. Let us wait for the African missionaries to come and re-evangelize us.

New York

* * *

Your article about the sexual abuses by clergy on religious women is excellent. I had heard about this for the first time in Gmunden, Austria, during the 1996 European Women’s Synod. Dina Cormick, a former Carmelite sister from Durban had told us about it. But we had no proof. Thank you so much for doing such a good job!

Versailles, France

* * *

Are we really still teaching our nuns that obedience to men is their highest calling? Are we really putting men in priestly robes who think the convent is their private access to “clean” sex? Join the priesthood and enjoy clean sex, says the seminary brochure. Celibacy? Not to worry -- it means you can’t have a wife, but children are OK.

Or in the United States: Celibacy? Not to worry -- it means avoiding sex with women (you don’t like women anyway), but all other kinds of sex get the official wink.

Has this situation finally struck your gag reflex like it has mine? Then it’s time to find our voices and tell anyone who will listen what a rotten core we have developed.

Mount Sterling, Ky.

* * *

Celibacy is difficult enough, even when embraced as an ideal. When imposed as a condition for something else (ordination) it is nearly impossible. When will Rome finally wake up?

Johannesburg, Mich.

* * *

I understand the need to publish these disturbing reports of sexual abuse of nuns by priests. Much needs to be done to aid the victims, punish the abusers and prevent future occurrences.

Yet I cannot help but echo the Vatican’s fears that these appalling acts will be used to discredit the good work and heroic chastity of so many nuns and priests in Africa and elsewhere. These scandals never seem to end, and the witness of so many good and heroic nuns and priests is ignored. I would like to believe optional celibacy is the answer, but even then I can picture articles on clerical spousal abuse and adultery!

There is no encouraging word from our culture for we priests and nuns who keep working. Perseverance in the face of scandal and ridicule seems to be the only avenue open to all who care about the priesthood and religious life. What is threatened by these continual scandals is not only celibacy itself but the very idea of virtue of any kind. The church seems submerged in one long Lent. I hope Easter comes soon!

Whitney Point, N.Y.

* * *

The report on the abuse of women religious meshed with what I heard from sisters in South Africa -- the fallacious interpretation of celibacy begins in seminary days. Silence and secrecy are destructive plagues for any institution, especially religious institutions.

While the issue is multifaceted, it would appear to me that one of its roots is in the longstanding hierarchical concept of power in the church with its focus on absoluteness and control. Others are the persistent refusal to examine fully with candidates the meaning of sexuality in their lives and its spiritual connections.

When the patriarchal model of church is superimposed upon male-dominated societies, sexual abuse is very likely.

Columbus, Ohio

* * *

I hope the official church will realize that its own policies regarding the status of women have somewhat created a tolerance for such outrageous happenings. It is good that the Vatican has now publicly acknowledged that there is a problem, although I am sure the problem is more widespread than Rome would like to think, or wants the world to know.

What a mockery this entire situation makes of the church’s obsession with the sexual behavior of married people practicing birth control, divorced persons seeking remarriage without annulment, and priests seeking laicization who have realized they are called to ministry but not to celibacy. It is time for the church to value sexuality as the gift it is and to emphasize its positive contribution to Christian life.

Roeland Park, Kan.

* * *

Concerning the sad story about priests sexually abusing nuns and minors, the church must act without delay and with great decisiveness in dealing with this situation. Although such action is generally not in the nature of the church, failing to do so will only make the problem worse. John Paul must ensure that where there is sufficient evidence against a priest, the offending priest must immediately and permanently become an inactive or ex-priest.

I know that there is a feeling among some in the church that she should show mercy and compassion toward the offending priests. The people who hold this view are confusing mercy and compassion with standards and the good of the church. Removing rapists from the ranks of the priesthood does not deny them mercy through repentance and reconciliation. For those ex-priests who take their faith seriously, they will seek reconciliation. For those who do not seek reconciliation, we do not need them as priests in the first place.

By appearing to take no serious action, the church simply provides more ammunition to those who would hate her. The cumulative effect of these incidents takes an obvious toll on the church and her faithful. While the faithful recognize that priests, as humans, are sinners just like those of us in the pews, we the faithful will not accept priests who are rapists or in any way have sexually abused nuns or minors.

Tacoma, Wash.

* * *

I suspect that the reaction of most NCR readers to this tabloid journalism was, “This filth is just what we don’t need.” For NCR to report an assertion that “sexual abuse of nuns by priests ... is a serious problem ... in Africa and other parts of the developing world” is much more demeaning to your publication than it is to the priests and religious here and abroad, most of whom are above reproach.

Birmingham, Mich.

* * *

You insinuate that the leadership of the church in Africa does not understand as a value the celibate life. How much does the group of American married priests who sought a re-admission into the ministry just a few years ago from the Vatican understand celibacy and consecrated life? How much do the American clergy and religious understand celibacy in the face of the increasing fall in vocations and the rise in the number that leave?

Abortion is foreign to the traditional African culture that accepts children born out of wedlock without social stigma. Africans do not enslave a productive woman by keeping her on the pill. The African believes that a human being is greater than wealth. The strength of the African soil is its people, so they believe in having many children. Americans believe in wealth and power.

A priest or a nun who loses his or her vocation in Africa is stigmatized socially. The reason is that at ordination or profession, the whole community gets involved and that brings a great joy to them. So when one called to this vocation quits, the whole community is equally thrown into trauma. They feel as if God has deserted them.

The article is a disservice to the continent that is religiously blessed with the sense of the divine, which makes an African a truly religious man in all his actions. The concept of atheism is foreign to Africans. If we changed so badly as not to respect the religious personality, it is then a result of a wrong transmission of the Christian religion and the influence of colonization.

Africa is the hope of the church of this millennium, given that atheism has become the preferred option among the young in the developed world. But let it be noted that we cannot be subjected to cosmetic engineering to make us Europeans or Americans, neither physically nor mentally. The joy of humanity should be in the differences of human cultures. It is appalling to note that a team that claims to love a continent can spend precious time to castigate the same people.

Madrid, Spain

* * *

The March 16 article on priestly seduction/abuse of nuns in Africa reminded me of two things. First, you mentioned the priests are highly educated in theology and can use false arguments such as “Celibacy means we have promised not to marry. However, we can have sex together without breaking our vows.” Compare that with the popular book The Sexual Celibate, by Donald Goergen, a U.S. Dominican provincial: “It would be the exception if … genital love worked to the advantage of celibate love. Only after counseling, prayer and spiritual direction could one conscientiously make such a decision.” When fornication is not seen as wrong always, expect many people to consider themselves exceptional.

Secondly, Gabon has flourishing missions of the Society of St. Pius X and also the Vatican-approved Institute of Christ the King. These priests are known for three things: wearing a cassock, saying “a real Mass” (popular with many Gabonais) and not keeping women. Catholic Africa is in certain respects like Europe often was before Trent. It needs a St. Pius V, St. Charles Borromeo and St. Vincent de Paul.

St. Benedict, Ore.

* * *

I worked in two of the African countries cited in the report for over 12 years as a missionary sister, teaching in girls’ schools. How often girls would come to me saying they thought they were going to hell because they “told a lie in confession.” When I asked them why they felt that way, it was invariably that during the confession the priest would ask about sexual customs performed commonly among certain African ethnic groups. Girls are conditioned to never speak about anything sexual with a man. So the girls denied practicing these customs, although in truth, they did. I tried to reassure them that there was no sin if they did not willingly choose to offend God.

It was during these years working with African girls and women that I became more and more convinced that there is a crying need for women priests to minister to the girls and women in Africa and other countries where females are conditioned not to speak with men about sexual matters. Mother Dengel founded the Medical Missionaries to work with women in India, because by custom women were forbidden to go to male doctors. That was for the good of the women’s bodies. I think there is also an urgent need for women priests to care for the women’s souls. Who but indigenous women could understand the culture of their sisters? And who else would have the ability to reassure, comfort and instruct them appropriately?

If there had been women priests in Africa to minister to the girls and women, rape and abuse of young African nuns and other women would certainly have been greatly reduced. These and similar atrocities are crying out for redress. The ordination of women in the Catholic church will not take place soon. But the church, especially those in positions of authority, must take swift action and listen to the plight of these “little ones” of Christ and deal justly with the perpetrators. Please, no cover up!

Silver Spring, Md.

National Catholic Reporter, April 6, 2001