Victim, experts tell of abuse by nuns
By LOUIS ROM
Myra Hidalgo was 12 when she met Sr. Cheryl Porte, a young, charming nun who was her teacher at Opelousas Catholic Middle School in Southwest Louisiana.
Porte, a member of the Marianites of the Holy Cross, taught her about theology, the Beatles, Carl Jung and social justice, said Hidalgo.
And, after earning her trust, Porte taught her about sex -- coaxing the 12-year-old into a sexual relationship that lasted more than two years.
It would generally start with her requesting that I rub her back or stomach, Hidalgo said. Then she would take over, guiding my hand over her body. When I would pull away from her, she would cry. In guilt, I would reach out to comfort her, and again the sexual contact would start.
Hidalgo thought her experience an aberration, a chance occurrence between a single deviant nun and a naïve young girl.
Experts on abuse by church figures say the scenario has played out at convents, Catholic schools, churches and orphanages across the country. Over the last decade, at least a dozen lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by nuns have been filed, and cases in Minnesota, Vermont, New York and Michigan have been settled. None of them are known to have been prosecuted.
Leading experts on clergy abuse, and an author of a book on abusive nuns, have said that over the years theyve been contacted by more than 100 people who claim nuns sexually abused them.
In the annals of abuse by church leaders, as in society in general, women sex abusers remain the exception. Studies show they comprise no more than 5 percent of all abusers. Currently, womens orders have no national standard to guide their handling of sexual abuse complaints against sisters and instead rely on each congregation to implement and follow its own policies regarding abuse.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a national organization with more than 1,000 elected leaders who represent about 76,000 sisters in the United States, declined to adopt the bishops Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, adopted in Dallas in June, saying that they had no hand in writing the document, and that its original title referred only to clerics, not women religious.
Gary Schoener is a Minnesota-based therapist who has consulted on thousands of abuse cases, including hundreds involving clergy. Over the years, Schoener learned of 20 nuns who were accused of sexual abuse. He said most of them had multiple victims.
Ashley Hill, who researched the subject for eight years for her book Habits of Sin, (Xlibris Corp.), understands societys inclination to dismiss such allegations.
Its so hard to believe that women do this, said Hill, who said she was abused as a 7-year-old student in a New Hampshire parochial school.
Hill said during her research she heard from people claiming to be victims of sexually abusive nuns in 24 states, as well as in Ireland, Canada and Australia. She has corresponded with more than 40 victims who said nuns sexually abused them. Six of those cases involved male victims.
A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former Benedictine monk with more than 35 years of experience working with clergy sex abuse, said he has handled dozens of sexual abuse cases in which nuns were the abusers. Sipe said societys comfort level with intimate touching between women and children enables female abusers to initiate contact far more easily without suspicion.
In addition, many experts -- including Sipe, Schoener and Hill -- have said a higher percentage of abusive nuns tend to be severely disturbed. Some are paranoid schizophrenics; others suffer from hallucinations and delusions.
With women ... theyre not predators per se, but theyre not well put together, said Schoener.
Schoener said that the stereotype of the abuse victim -- shy, insecure, craving attention -- has never been altogether accurate. But he said Hidalgo and many other victims shared one trait that may have made them the perfect mark for this type of abuse.
They were devout, said Schoener. The more devout, the easier the target.
And Hidalgo, who once considered a religious vocation, was a dutiful Catholic. Today, she devotes herself to her own recovery and the healing of others.
In 1980, the year her relationship with Porte was revealed -- a neighbor saw Hidalgo and Porte kissing in a car outside the convent and reported it to the Marianites -- Hidalgos older sister, Mona, shot herself in the head. Five years later, her mother died of heart problems after angioplasty. Weeks later, her father shot himself. Over the next 18 months, Hidalgo attempted suicide three times.
After several years as the recipient of psychiatric counseling, Hidalgo recently set up practice as a clinical social worker in New Orleans.
Shes thankful for the nosy neighbor who spotted her and Porte in that car and for a chance to share her story with other survivors of abuse by church leaders.
After the abuse was reported, Porte was removed from the school. For years, Hidalgo thought Porte had been taken out of ministry. This June, Hidalgo learned Porte is still a member of the order, that after the abuse was discovered she was assigned to another parish and that the Marianites have no documentation that Porte ever abused her. Porte did not return calls and e-mails for comment on this story.
In a June 18 letter, Hidalgo wrote to Sr. Mary Kay Kinberger, the Marianites congregational leader. She requested that the order adopt the same zero-tolerance policy the U.S. bishops adopted in their Dallas charter and become a leading advocate to promote sociological and psychological research on sexual abuse by Catholic religious. She further asked the order to financially compensate her for total out-of-pocket expenses for mental health services from 1987 to 1993.
She met with Kinberger and her assistant in July. Hidalgo described the spirit of the meeting as open and honest -- at one point the assistant began to cry in sympathy at Hidalgos story. Though a recent investigation by the order could not confirm that Hidalgo had been sexually abused, the Marianites did acknowledge that there had been an inappropriate relationship. Hidalgo said, I felt they wanted to say more but couldnt because of the situation. But it was a good meeting. Very healing.
Now Porte speaks occasionally at church functions at a parish in OFallon, Ill., a small town 20 miles east of St. Louis. More often than not, Hidalgo is comfortable with that.
I do recognize its important to identify her, said Hidalgo, but at the same time while I dont really care to protect her I dont want the rest of her life to be ruined either.
Louis Rom is city life editor of The Times of Acadiana, Lafayette, La. A longer version of this story, published in the Aug. 7 issue of that weekly newspaper, can be found at the newspapers Web site at www.timesofacadiana.com/nuns
National Catholic Reporter, November 01, 2002