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Abuse of nuns relagated to synod sideline

Though charges of sexual abuse of religious women by priests, reported in NCR’s March 16 issue, made global headlines, so far there have been only two references to the issue in the Synod of Bishops.

Both came Oct. 6 in speeches by members of women’s religious communities who are serving as auditors to the synod.

Sr. Mary Sujita Kallupurakkathu, superior general of the Sisters of Notre Dame in India, dedicated her talk to empowerment of women in the church. “Women religious need to be seen and accepted as more than just the work force in the church,” she told the bishops.

In the context of these remarks, Kallupurakkathu called for a mechanism to deal with the problem of abuse.

“Under the guidance of the bishops, can there be a redressal forum to deal firmly and fairly with the increasing experiences of exploitation and abuses of women in general and women religious in particular?” she asked.

The other reference, even more indirect, came in the intervention of Sacred Heart Sr. Rita Burley, president of the International Union of Superiors General, the largest umbrella group for women religious.

Burley spoke about diocesan religious institutes, which are common in many parts of the world. In the documentation reported in NCR, the problem of sexual abuse appeared to be especially acute for diocesan communities. In contrast to international religious communities, which generally come under Vatican jurisdiction, diocesan communities are governed by a local bishop.

Burley never mentioned the sexual abuse issue, but called for greater protection for these diocesan communities.

“Many of these institutes experience serious difficulties,” she said. “They often lack appropriate opportunities for an all-round human, spiritual, religious and pastoral formation. Frequently the sisters do not have the necessary professional training to become autonomous in the management of their works and sources of income. They may not have contracts which respect their religious duties nor even receive an adequate remuneration for their pastoral ministry.”

She recommended the creation of a new structure to monitor diocesan communities.

“Perhaps thought could be given to the development of a supra-diocesan structure, which, while respecting the rights of the local bishop, could give practical advice on these initiatives,” she said.

Both Burley and Kallupurakkathu declined NCR requests for further comment, explaining that their statements were intended for the synod.

At an Oct. 12 news conference, NCR asked for responses to Kallupurakkathu’s intervention from a panel of bishops assembled to comment on the synod at its halfway point.

“As far as I know, this problem [of sexual abuse of religious women] hasn’t come out in India, though the reports listed it as one of the countries where it happened,” said Cardinal Ivan Dias of Bombay, India. “It is a problem perhaps in certain countries, though I don’t have facts and figures.”

Dias said, however, that where sexual abuse occurs it should be addressed.

“It’s a question of the human rights of the women,” he said. “There should be preventive measures and also remedial action.”

Cardinal Bernard Agré of the Ivory Coast complained about an overemphasis on sexuality in modern culture, saying that the church’s problems with sexual behavior are not necessarily widespread or uniform.

“In the United States and Canada there are some priests who cannot catechize children because people think they are homosexual or pedophiles,” he said. “This is not fair. Religious men and women should have a positive image, not a negative one.”

-- John L. Allen Jr

This article was originally posted October 12. It has been updated with new information and retitled.

National Catholic Reporter, October 26, 2001