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Church in Crisis

Women religious address abuse within their ranks


Although incidents of abuse of minors by religious sisters are extremely infrequent, nearly all religious congregations have established policies to deal with allegations when they do arise, the executive director of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious told NCR.

“To the best of my knowledge, about 99 percent already have established policies about abuse and have been updating them,” School Sister of Notre Dame Carole Shinnick said.

The sexual abuse crisis in the church first began making national headlines in January. Since then, Shinnick said, many of the congregations have closely scrutinized their policies, and have received help in their revisions from canon lawyers made available to them from the Legal Resource Center for Religious in Silver Spring, Md.

Because the leadership conference, commonly called LCWR, is not a governing body, it has not attempted to draw up a document similar to the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” approved by the U.S. bishops in Dallas last June, she said. So when Shinnick read a letter Aug. 17 from Myra Hidalgo, a victim of child sexual abuse by a nun, asking that the conference develop comprehensive sex abuse policies at its annual assembly that began that very day in St. Louis, Shinnick told NCR that Hidalgo was assuming the conference had jurisdiction over its members that it has never had.

The letter to Shinnick, copied to NCR by Hidalgo, said, “I believe that the LCWR now has an opportunity and an obligation to prevent further abuse of children and vulnerable adults by women religious through a combined effort to educate the lay and religious communities on issues of sexuality, boundaries, and professional expectations for behavior and to develop effective and comprehensive policies and procedures for coping with member misconduct.”

After the assembly was over, Shinnick wrote to Hidalgo to say that the conference didn’t have the authority to create the sort of comprehensive policy she’d called for.

However, Shinnick told NCR, the sisters who attended the assembly in St. Louis did discuss the crisis. “We provided the resources to have the conversation,” she said. That conversation led to a written statement, which the conference published as a full-page paid advertisement in NCR Sept. 20:

“We are outraged by the harm done to anyone, especially children, abused by Catholic clergy, brothers or sisters,” the statement said. “We ask the members of LCWR to do all within their power to assure that such harm will never recur.”

While Shinnick said the conference does not know how many women religious have faced credible charges of sexual abuse of minors, the research of one of its former presidents sheds some light on the question.

Adrian Dominican Sr. Donna Markham, a psychologist, now serves as chief executive officer and president of the Southdown Institute, a psychiatric center in Ontario, Canada, that has for years treated troubled priests and members of religious communities. In what Markham calls “a modest study,” she has reviewed the clinical data of “hundreds of women religious treated for emotional disorders” over a period of nine years, and found that only .7 percent had sexually abused a minor.

While Markham was unavailable for comment on this story, she wrote in a short report called “Some Facts about Women Religious and Child Abuse,” made available to NCR by the leadership conference: “It is important to note that this is not a random sample of all religious. In that case, the percentages are likely to be even smaller.”

Gill Donovan is an NCR writer. His e-mail address is gdonovan@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 01, 2002