Stories we may not want to hear

This story appears in the Abuse of sisters feature series. View the full series.

by Jeannine Gramick


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This is not a feel-good article, so you might want to stop reading right now. With the report from the Pennsylvania grand jury about the sexual abuse of children by priests and the scandal of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick's sexual advances toward seminarians and youth, you may feel saturated by horrific stories and want to shut out any further disgusting accounts that should never have occurred. I know I feel that way. If you want to read no further, I sympathize with you. I, too, am exhausted by all the talk about sexual abuse. I feel weary of seeing article after article in almost every newspaper I pick up. I want to scream, "Enough already!"

But maybe not enough yet, because sexual exploitation has been perpetrated not only on boys and men, but also on women and nuns. In 1994, the late Sr. Maura O'Donohue submitted the results of a 23-nation survey about African nuns who were impregnated by priests who, in their fear of contracting AIDS, preyed upon nuns for safe sexual encounters. Unfortunately, O'Donohue's reports, which were made public by the National Catholic Reporter in 2001, were never acted upon by the Vatican.

This year, a former superior general of the Missionaries of Jesus in India charged Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar, India, with sexually molesting her for several years. She took this action only after receiving no response from the Indian bishops and the apostolic nuncio in India.

"Why are our Catholic leaders not listening?" asked Chantal Götz, managing director of Voices of Faith. "The seeming indifference of the hierarchy to acknowledge or put to justice predator priests is beyond belief. We now have to make it clear that Voices of Faith are taking steps for change and will speak up where truth is needed, even when it hurts."

To commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, Voices of Faith will host a forum Nov. 27 in Rome to shine light on the stories of women and nuns who have been sexually violated by clergy.

"In the course of preparations for the event, I have heard and read many stories from religious sisters abused by priests," said Petra Dankova, advocacy director of Voices of Faith. "These stories were shockingly similar across continents and decades. Most of these women feel that they cannot speak publicly because they are afraid."

It may be fear or it may be other dynamics that are preventing U.S. nuns from coming forward. Reluctance to talk about their experiences may indicate deep wounds that are not yet healed.

One sister I know told me, "If Dr. Christine Blasey Ford had such a reaction to her testimony regarding Judge Brett Kavanaugh's appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, why would people come forward? I'm not saying my experience was like hers, and I certainly didn't receive any death threats. I'm just wondering with the cultural environment right now, it's hard to risk that my story would be believed."

Here is the story that she told me. Because of the #MeToo movement, she has been thinking a great deal about what happened to her when she was a young sister. The abuse occurred the weekend that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, when she and two other sisters made a private retreat, but "the memory is as real today as it was the night that it happened," she said.

On the second night of the retreat, she was in bed with the door of her room locked. The director of the retreat center unlocked the door, disrobed, got into her bed and raped her. He then told her to kneel on the floor, and he would give her absolution so that she need not feel guilty about what had just happened.

She does not know if any of the other sisters were molested because she never spoke of the incident until about 10 years ago. "I was so embarrassed," she admitted, "and who would believe that a priest would do such a thing?" She has since stopped going to confession, "as it seems totally unimportant after that experience."

I am outraged! Shocking, deplorable, wicked, I cry! I find myself asking, "How could a priest do such a thing?" The same question she said people would ask years ago.

I learned about her story only because the conference organizers asked if I knew sisters in the U.S. who were sexually abused by priests. I didn't at the time but I began to inquire.

All the stories I heard occurred many decades ago, when most of us were young and when social mores and religious life were very different from contemporary U.S. culture. I would like to believe that these horrifying tales of the manipulation of power and the misuse of sacraments do not happen today. But that wish may be naive. Younger sisters may still be victims. Even if there are no contemporary reports, past stories need to be told as a restraint on future repetition.

I heard one story that had a redemptive ending. Dominican Sr. Ave Clark, a survivor of incest, rape and sexual assaults as a child and as a religious, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. At a treatment facility where she received help in her long road to recovery, she met other women religious who were similarly abused. The support she received from them helped her realize the power of solidarity, listening and sharing.

In her 1993 book, Lights in the Darkness: For Survivors and Healers of Sexual Abuse, Clark revealed what she learned on her journey to recovery. Her book is filled with helpful advice for survivors and counselors who can walk with them on the road to healing.

On Nov. 2, Clark received the St. Catherine of Siena Award from the Sisters of St. Dominic of Amityville, New York, for her work with Heart to Heart Ministry, which she founded about 25 years ago to help other survivors.

"How can we ever heal if we can't bring all this pain to a place of sacred compassion?" Clark asked in her book.

If the unspeakable suffering of sexual abuse is to end, we need to address therapeutic measures for abusers as well. While the violence of molesters can never be condoned, the seducers are damaged and tormented human beings who also need help.

Sexual assault is a horrible crime. I was attacked one night in an attempted rape and robbery, though not by a priest. The incident left me shaken, bewildered and dazed. To this day, when I hear footsteps behind me, I get a little anxious. I can't imagine the searing psychic wounds on a woman who has been sexually molested, especially by a cleric one has been brought up to respect and trust.

Our church leaders need to listen first and then to act so that the Christian community is a safe place for nuns, priests and all God's people. The first step in breaking the long, dreadful silence that has surrounded sexual abuse is the telling of stories, not for retribution, but for mercy and healing. And this includes the telling of stories by nuns who have been sexually abused.

[Jeannine Gramick is a Sister of Loretto who has been involved in a pastoral ministry for lesbian and gay Catholics since 1971. She co-founded New Ways Ministry and has been an executive coordinator of the National Coalition of American Nuns since 2003.]