Vatican confirms nuns' reports of sexual exploitation by priests


The Vatican senior spokesman, Dr Joaquin Navarro-Valls, yesterday confirmed US and Italian reports that sexual abuse of nuns by priests is a serious problem, especially in Africa and other parts of the developing world. The allegations in the US weekly, National Catholic Reporter (, were partially reproduced yesterday by the Rome daily, La Repubblica. The National Catholic Reporter claims several reports, written over the last decade by senior members of women's religious orders and by an American priest, agree that "sexual abuse of nuns by priests, including rape, is a serious problem".

These reports focus mainly on developing countries, although one report by an Irish nun, Sister Maura O'Donohue, names 23 countries including Ireland, Italy and the United States.

The reports allege that some Catholic clergy exploit their financial and spiritual authority to gain sexual favours from religious women, many of whom in developing countries are culturally conditioned to be subservient to men.

Furthermore, the reports suggest, especially in AIDS-ravaged Africa, that young nuns are seen as safe targets of sexual activity.

In some cases, priests are believed to have encouraged women made pregnant by them to have abortions and many young nuns have been encouraged to go on the Pill.

Sister O'Donohue, who has worked as AIDS co-ordinator for the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development in London, recounts one incident where a nun, who had been taken for an abortion by a priest, died during the operation. The same priest later officiated at her requiem Mass.

Sister O'Donohue's report, presented to Cardinal Martinez Somalo, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for Consecrated Life, in February 1995 also points out that celibacy may have different meanings in different cultures. Her report quotes a vicar general in one African diocese who said that "celibacy in the African context means a priest does not get married but does not mean he does not have children".

Not surprisingly, all the reports argue that among those factors which give rise to the sexual abuse of nuns by priests is that of "a poor understanding of consecrated life, both by the sisters and also by bishops, priests and lay people".

In reply to questions about the reports, Dr Navarro-Valls yesterday commented:

"The problem is known. It is restricted to a specific geographic area. The Holy See is dealing with the matter in collaboration with the bishops, the Union of Superiors General (male orders) and the International Union of Superiors General (female orders).

"The problem is being approached both from the educational viewpoint and from that of individual cases. Some negative incidents, however, should not detract from the often heroic loyalty of the vast majority of priests and nuns," he said.

Some 116 million of the world's billion Catholics, about 12 per cent, live in Africa.