Priests' sexual abuse of nuns not dealt with by Catholic leaders


Yesterday was the feast of the Annunciation, which ended a week of revelations about Catholic priests sexually abusing nuns. The reports were carried in the US National Catholic Reporter, whose cover story the week before had lamented the lack of progress on women priests in the Catholic Church.

The wonder is that the nuns' reports were prepared at all, as what they describe does not appear to be a recent phenomenon.

Some see it as a case of the sisters doing it for themselves.

Nuns are taking the brunt of the vocations crisis within the Catholic Church. They are ageing, forced to relinquish convents, schools, hospitals and various social programmes as their numbers dwindle. Their role and status are diminishing, and nothing much is being done about it at senior church levels.

There are 10,987 Irish nuns at home and abroad, down from 14,130 in 1990; 16,361 in 1980; 18,662 in 1970. There were just 21 admissions in 1999, compared to 227 in 1970.

Such figures have fed a restiveness in many nuns, particular those who are older, at home and abroad. These children of Vatican II embraced its innovations with enthusiasm and, more importantly, its thinking.

They have not become as calcified by the past 20 years of Rome rule as male clergy. They have not succumbed to the institutional mindset now dominant in the public church.

So a Clare woman who has been a nun and a doctor for 45 years, serving the acutely needy in Africa, is less likely to be fobbed off by the seeming impregnable indifference of senior male clergy to a scandal where nuns are the ongoing, helpless victims of male clergy.

Sister Maura O'Donoghue, who made the first report to Rome on this abuse in 1994, did not do so lightly. She began the "strictly confidential" memo to the Vatican by saying she was doing so, "after much profound reflection and with a deep sense of urgency since the subjects involved touch the very core of the church's mission and ministry". In February 1995 she met Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation of the Institutes of Consecrated Life and for Societies of Apostolic Life (with responsibility for religious) to discuss the matter.

She told him that what she had learned since she had presented her report 12 months before "confirmed in every respect the deep concerns already expressed in the report". Local religious in the various countries had "pleaded with us to bring these matters directly to the attention of the Holy See", she said. And there it rested again.

In November 1998 a Scottish nun, Sister Marie McDonald of the Missionaries of Our Lady of Africa, presented a paper titled The Problem of Sexual Abuse of African Religious in Africa and Rome, to a meeting in Rome which included the superiors-general of the religious orders and representatives of Cardinal Somalo's office.

She told them "disturbing stories" about the "sexual harassment and even rape of sisters by priests and bishops", which she said were "allegedly common". Nuns who came to study in Rome were being sexually abused by "seminarians and priests [in return] for help in writing essays", she said.

She warned against "the conspiracy of silence" surrounding the issue. When she had raised it three years ago at a meeting of African bishops they considered "it was disloyal of the sisters to have sent such reports outside their own dioceses". The nuns had made such complaints locally "time and time again", she said.

Nothing much seemed to happen following that meeting in Rome either.

Last November Sister Esther Fragman, an American Benedictine, raised the matter at a congress of 250 Benedictine abbots in Rome. The abbot primate of the order, Father Nokter Wolf, who has made many trips to Benedictine institutions in Africa, has since commented: "I don't believe these are simply exceptional cases".

In her report Sister McDonald said "the inferior position of women in society and in the church" was a contributory factor in the abuse. Sister O'Donoghue pointed to "the low status of women in some regions of the world" as a factor.

"Catholic tradition teaches young women to be receptive, to be patient, to wait for the angel's next visit," began that National Catholic Reporter cover story of March 9th.