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Protestors demand Vatican action on abuse of nuns

Special Report Writer

Demanding that the Vatican act to end sexual violence against nuns by priests, about 150 demonstrators marched July 14 from United Nations headquarters in New York to the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See on East 39th Street. The protesters also asked that the Vatican cooperate with a proposed independent fact-finding commission.

In a letter and petition addressed to Pope John Paul II, the group seeks punishment of priests who engage in such violence and reparations to nuns who have been victimized. The protesters also seek medical care for nuns and other women who have been infected with HIV/AIDS by Catholic clergy, and urge the Vatican to cooperate with civil authorities so that sexual abuse cases can be tried in the nations where the abuse occurred.

Calling themselves the Call to Accountability Campaign, the group included 25 nuns, many former nuns, members of women’s rights and human rights organizations and some 20 men from the United States and abroad. The demonstrators tried to deliver the petition to the pope via Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Renato Martino at the Holy See Office.

Martino informed campaign organizers July 11 that he would be unable to meet with them. In his letter, the apostolic nuncio said he shared their concern and assured them that “all those who are convicted of such offenses will be held accountable. I am also certain that concrete measures will be taken to prevent such abuse in the future,” he wrote, adding that the group should join him in praying that priests “embrace lives of virtue.”

Demonstrators slid their petition -- signed by more than 180 organizations, including 80 Catholic groups -- between the gates of the Vatican mission. Later 75 of the demonstrators traveled to Washington where they held an evening prayer vigil outside the Vatican Embassy.

Speakers in New York said that the Vatican has known since 1995 of several cases of sexual abuse of nuns by priests, but has failed to act. The Vatican first acknowledged the problem in March after NCR published detailed accounts of sisters who were forced to have sex with priests and were, in some instances, coerced into having abortions after becoming pregnant. Some of these nuns were expelled from their orders.

Yvonne Maes, a former Canadian sister, told how the church did nothing after she was raped by her supervisor, an Irish priest, during a retreat in Durban, South Africa, in April 1985. A nun for 24 years at the time of the assault, Maes’ superiors imposed a gag order on her after the rape.

“The Vatican claims the church is addressing the problem, but it is not,” Maes said. In her case, “there was no investigation of my allegation or others against the same priest. There were no real consequences for him, except his receiving a suspension for a few weeks,” she said, adding that her attacker continues to work as a priest in England.

“It is hard to get the true story about such sexual violence into the open. The nuns fear the priests. The only way to speak out about this is to leave the church,” said Maes.

While much of the abuse has taken place in 14 African countries, cases have also been reported in Europe, Asia, Latin America and the United States. Kenyan theologian Pauline Muchina told the group: “When violence against women is tolerated by a society, any sector can practice sexual harassment and get away with it. It is important to realize that many church traditions generally treat women as inferior to men,” she said.

Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said she found the “hypocrisy” of the church hierarchy “astounding. … The Vatican leads the campaign against abortion and birth control under the guise that sex is only for procreation at the same time that some priests rape and impregnate women, sometimes forcing them to use contraceptives or to have abortions.”

The Feminist Majority, along with the Women’s Ordination Conference, WATER (Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual) and Catholics for a Free Choice are major sponsors of the campaign. In addition to the Washington vigil, candlelight vigils in solidarity with the New York demonstrators took place July 14 in St. Louis, San Francisco and in 11 other cities around the world. In Mexico City scores of demonstrators marched to the Vatican Mission office.

Organizers told NCR that the next phase of the campaign would be to establish an independent fact-finding commission to examine the reported abuses.

National Catholic Reporter, July 27, 2001