Scottsdale, Arizona — Catholic sisters must face the reality that they have also been part of the sexual abuse scandal in the church, said the president of the leadership conference representing most women religious in the United States.
Holy Cross Sr. Sharlet Wagner, the 2018-2019 president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), spoke on the issue in her Aug. 15 presidential address at the organization's annual assembly, which drew nearly 700 women religious and guests to the Aug. 13-16 event.
"We have all been affected by this scandal. We have listened to the trauma of survivors, and we have felt shame for the church we love and outrage over the crimes committed," Wagner told the assembly. "We have journeyed with our lay sisters and brothers as they have grappled with what it means to continue to be faithful in this moment in our church. And we have heard the stories of women religious, both in the United States and around the world, who have themselves been abused by clergy or other religious."
But the guilt does not fall on priests and bishops alone, she said.
"It is a source of deep pain for us that in some instances, our own sisters have been perpetrators of the abuse," she said. "This is a truth we must not attempt to avoid."
Wagner said sisters must also recognize that abuse has made it difficult for many to see religious leaders as signs of hope.
"We must recognize that we serve during a time in which too many of our religious leaders have given grave scandal," she said. "The stories that continue to emerge of abuse in our church shock the conscience. Bodies have been violated, and souls have been abused by some of those charged with shepherding God's people."
Wagner said there is no easy answer for addressing the issue, but it must be faced head-on.
"We can begin by listening, by being present to the pain, by rejecting the path of cover-ups and secrecy, by calling for perpetrators to be held accountable, by resolving to do what we can to promote a church in which both body and soul are held sacred and each one's dignity is respected."
Wagner's words came one day after members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) had scheduled a protest outside the convention hall, saying LCWR has failed to address abuse by nuns. The protest never took place, however, because security personnel from the assembly's resort denied them access to resort property, which extends for blocks around the hotel and convention center.
SNAP officials say while they remain highly critical of how the church's bishops have handled the abuse crisis, they say sisters are acting "far more recklessly, callously and secretively" than bishops are: While most bishops publish the names of credibly accused abusive priests, have adopted a national policy on abuse, and let abuse victims speak to their full assembly, sisters have done none of those things despite repeated requests, the group said in its announcement of the protest.
"We believe there are more priest victims than nun victims, but we also believe there are more nun victims than anyone would imagine," said SNAP's northwest district director Mary Dispenza in the statement. "And because they've largely been overlooked and because the LCWR refuses to do any real outreach, many nun victims are trapped in shame, silence and self-blame."
Even worse, Dispenza said, is that "we are convinced that there are hundreds of nuns and ex-nuns who have hurt innocent kids or vulnerable adults and may still be violating others because they're unsupervised, 'under the radar' and have experienced no consequences for their destructive actions."
LCWR officials pointed to a February statement where they noted they worked with a team of professionals to create a bibliography of written materials, speakers, websites and audiovisual materials that congregations can use to educate their members on abuse.
"LCWR continues to stress that its members and their congregations make every effort possible to prevent all sexual exploitation of children and young people," the statement says.
LCWR also worked with partners to help congregations develop and evaluate policies, practices and procedures and to identify and develop additional resources for congregations to draw on, according to the statement.
"The hope, on the part of LCWR, is that these efforts will lead to justice and healing for survivors, those accused, and all those affected by abuse. LCWR and its members are deeply committed to responding justly and compassionately to allegations of past misconduct and to preventing future incidents," the statement says.