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Vatican moves to address sex abuse problem


Against the backdrop of a dramatic papal apology for sex abuse by clergy, a joint body of Vatican officials and leaders of religious communities has heard new proposals to address the sexual exploitation of nuns by priests.

The ideas set before that group, the Council of 16, include financial and human support for struggling diocesan communities of nuns, and the development of policies, procedures and sanctions, by religious orders and by conferences of bishops, to deal with cases of abuse.

Meanwhile, the seriousness of the problem of sexual abuse of women religious by priests found fresh confirmation in an interview with a Vatican adviser published in the October issue of a leading missionary journal.

Though discussed in the Council of 16 and elsewhere since at least 1994, detailed information about the abuse of women religious by priests was first brought to public attention in the March 16 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.

The confidential reports obtained and published by NCR suggest such abuse is a global phenomenon, though the documents focused on the Third World, above all on Africa.

The strongly worded papal apology came in Ecclesia in Oceania, the concluding document of the December 1998 Synod for Oceania, which includes Australia, New Zealand, the Malay Archipelago, Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. The document was presented Nov. 22 in Rome. John Paul II had hoped to travel to the region for the ceremony, but the 20-hour plane trip was judged too arduous for the ailing 81-year-old pontiff.

Instead the pope released the text on the Internet, pushing a button on a laptop at midday in the Vatican’s “Sala Clementina” to send it via e-mail to the dioceses of Oceania.

Damaging to church

The 123-page text is devoted to a variety of topics, loosely unified by the theme of evangelization. It was the language on sexual abuse, however, that made headlines.

“Sexual abuse by some clergy and religious has caused great suffering and spiritual harm to the victims,” John Paul said. “It has been very damaging in the life of the church.”

The pope stressed that, “Sexual abuse within the church is a profound contradiction of the teaching and witness of Jesus Christ.”

Participants in the synod, he said, wish to “apologize unreservedly to the victims for the pain and disillusionment caused to them.” They also want “open and just procedures to respond to complaints in this area” and want to offer “compassionate and effective care for the victims, their families, the whole community and the offenders themselves.”

Like many regions of the Catholic world, Oceania has been hit hard in recent years by lawsuits related to sexual misconduct by priests and religious. At least one order, the Australian branch of the Christian Brothers, had to sell property to settle judgments.

The new proposals for dealing with the sexual exploitation of nuns by priests came in a Nov. 16 report by Sr. Adele Brambilla, superior of the Comboni Sisters, a missionary congregation with a strong presence in Africa.

Brambilla’s document, a copy of which was obtained by NCR, represents the first clear indication of what sort of strategies church officials are pondering.

“The problem has been recognized and verbalized,” Brambilla told the Council of 16 in mid-November. “Now the hour has arrived for finding paths to confront and prevent it.”

The Council of 16, so called because it has 16 members, is a tripartite body of representatives from the International Union of Superiors General, the umbrella group for women’s congregations; the Union of Superiors General, the companion body for men; and the Vatican congregation overseeing religious life.

Brambilla’s paper focuses on women’s communities that belong to a specific diocese, rather than forming part of a larger international order such as the Dominicans or the Franciscans. Members of these communities, often small and lacking resources, were identified in the reports published by NCR as especially vulnerable to sexual abuse and other problems.

Lack of financial support

“Many of these institutes are experiencing serious difficulties. I have experienced this personally during my numerous travels, especially in Africa,” Brambilla wrote.

Brambilla said that the lack of financial support sometimes induces sisters in these communities to take jobs, even to cultivate fields, rather than to pursue spiritual formation and professional training.

A related problem, Brambilla wrote, is that when sisters from these communities are sent away for studies, they often lack financial support or a residence, and hence become vulnerable.

Brambilla proposes:

  • Assistance for communities that suffer from a lack of direction, funds, formation and education, focusing in the first instance on basic goods needed for subsistence;
  • Greater oversight by bishops in creation and supervision of diocesan congregations;
  • Development of codes of ethical conduct, policy, procedures and appropriate sanctions by religious orders and bishops’ conferences to deal with abuse, as well as indications of principles to be used in formation;
  • Creation of a list of sisters who are available and prepared to offer assistance in formation;
  • Creation of a “solidarity fund” by the International Union of Superiors General to support initial formation of members of diocesan communities;
  • Partnerships between younger communities and more established women’s orders that can help to guide development.

Brambilla points to one initiative already in existence: the Jubilee Community Center, a “house of welcome” for sisters from various countries studying in Rome. The facility is at the headquarters of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

Brambilla did not respond to NCR requests for comment. The full text of her report may be found on the NCR Web site at www.natcath.org/ncr_onli.htm under “documents.”

A member of the Council of 16 told NCR that “virtually everyone” in the group agrees that diocesan women’s communities should have better oversight, beginning with the local bishop. The member said that while the sex abuse issue is part of this picture, it is by no means the only problem faced by diocesan communities.

The member said Brambilla’s paper was “well received” by the group.

Anger over disclosures

The seriousness of the sexual abuse problem was underscored in the October issue of Nigrizia, a missionary journal published in Italian by the Comboni order. It contained an interview with Sr. Giuseppina Tresoldi, who visits diocesan communities in East Africa on behalf of the Vatican.

Tresoldi said she was in Africa when the NCR reports first appeared, and “at first I was almost rejected” by African nuns angry over the disclosures. “They felt almost betrayed by us European sisters.”

The authors of the documents cited by NCR were European and American nuns as well as one American priest.

“With the intention of helping and obtaining justice, we brought attention to a difficult situation they are experiencing,” Tresoldi said.

She added, however, that roughly one-third of the African nuns said, “We’re content that these things came into the light, because at least now the church will have to do something.”

As for the problem itself, Tresoldi said some priests tell members of diocesan communities: “Celibacy means not getting married, but that does not exclude sexual actions for which the sisters must … help. Otherwise it would be necessary for the priest to go to other women, with all the associated risks.” Tresoldi said, “This is said openly.”

Tresoldi said that in 1999 in an East African country a group of young nuns took a course on the meaning of consecrated life. Afterward they wrote to their bishops’ conference: “We are sick and tired of ideologies that entice us to misunderstandings on what the life of chastity means, because there is too much sexual activity in our convents.”

Yet, Tresoldi said, such problems continue.

“In my last visit, I found two dioceses where an unfortunately high number of women religious had to be expelled because they were pregnant. Meanwhile, nothing happened to the priest,” she said.

Tresoldi said that most cases of sexual relations between a member of a diocesan community and a priest involve “psychological,” not “physical” pressure. “These are not true abuses, and in fact, the priests spoken about obtain the consent of the sister,” she said.

Tresoldi suggested greater economic support for diocesan congregations and more attention to formation, both for young nuns and also for seminarians.

The same issue of Nigrizia contained an article by African writer Elochukwu Uzukwu arguing that the NCR story on sexual abuse, and the documents on which it was based, reflect racist bias.

“It’s curious that in Africa, where ‘the culture does not favor celibacy,’ there is such an increase in priests and men and women religious who work, live and die celibate,” Uzukwu wrote.

The reports, Uzukwu said, “have obtained the result of condemning the African clergy, men and women religious and the African church to carrying the added burden of being smeared as a church led by predators and persons who abuse their colleagues.”

John L. Allen is NCR’s Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2001