Recently, Pope Francis publicly acknowledged that numerous nuns in the Catholic church have been systematically sexually abused, many for years. This abuse has come at the hands of an unknown number of priests and bishops. As a former nun myself for many years, I was horrified by this revelation, and that it has taken so long for the church to acknowledge it.
Allegations of Sexual Abuse Worldwide
In recent years, nuns in India, Africa, Latin America and Italy have made accusations of sexual abuse, and a new issue of Vatican magazine even acknowledged that these consecrated women have had abortions or have given birth to children as a result of their rapes. It’s not that the sexual abuse of nuns is something new. In fact, many have tried for years to draw attention to their situation. However, thanks to the #MeToo movement, it’s only now that, under tremendous pressure, Pope Francis has admitted the rape and assault of nuns is a part of the long-standing sexual abuse scandal plaguing the Catholic church. The magnitude of the problem astounds me.
I fear that it’s not only women in the Catholic church that have suffered sexual abuse. Some abused women may be affiliated with other religious orders in our country. Too many consecrated women who have been, or continue to be sexually abused, suffer from abject shame, humiliation, fear and desperation, and from spiritual and emotional
confusion. How often have they been told that they must endure sexual abuse to save souls, and are left alone in their appalling situation?
Nuns who have been subjected to sexual abuse are also extremely afraid to come forward, and when they do, they are ignored, punished and told to offer their situation to God for the sins of mankind. This continuing situation is dark, ugly and suffocating.
According to an article in the New York Times, in November, the organization representing the world’s Catholic women’s religious orders, the International Union of Superiors General, publicly denounced the “culture of silence and secrecy” that contributed to their sexual abuse, and urged nuns to report rape and assault to law enforcement. That’s a start, but I don’t think it’s enough.
How to Respond to Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church
It’s critical that churches develop the necessary tools for emotional rehabilitation, healing and protective programs to keep all religious orders immediately informed, educated and protected on the subject of the sexual abuse of women. Abused nuns especially need to be helped with pregnancy, and given all the necessary support with their babies. In addition, I strongly feel that all religious communities need to welcome back sexually abused nuns and shut down those convents where they have been, and continue to be, violated. There may be many religious orders eager and willing to accept these women, and to help them in their healing process.
I also believe it is imperative that nuns be in the company of another individual when they are in the presence of any man of the cloth, including in the confessional where sexual abuse often takes place.
In a couple of weeks, according to The Washington Post, Pope Francis is due to host a gathering of bishops and cardinals to address the broader global issue of clergy sexual abuse — including, largely for the first time, adult victims and accountability for those at the top of the church who mismanage and cover it up.
Sadly, the church has always considered sexual abuse only a sin, but not a crime that should result in mandatory prison sentences. I am convinced that men of the cloth are not above the law, however, because priests and bishops have gotten away with these crimes for decades, it sadly continues, much to my horror.