The largest organization of women religious in the United States says the latest clergy sex abuse reports have left it "sickened and ashamed of the church we love, trusted, and have committed our lives to serve."
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents about 80 percent of U.S. sisters, issued a statement Aug. 20 in response to a grand jury report from Pennsylvania that more than 300 priests sexually assaulted at least 1,000 victims over 70 years, most of which bishops covered up.
"We weep and grieve with all who over the decades have been victimized by sexual predators within the faith community and feel their pain as our own," the LCWR statement reads. "We recognize that the damage done to many is irreparable."
The grand jury report has created a national backlash to the abuse scandal, with many calling for major changes in the structure and culture of the church itself.
"Sexual abuse is a horrific crime, and the horror is so much worse when committed by persons in whom society has placed its trust and confidence," LCWR leaders wrote. "Equally difficult to comprehend is the culture within the church hierarchy that tolerated the abuse, left children and vulnerable adults subject to further abuse, and created practices that covered up the crimes and protected the abusers.
"We call upon the church leadership to implement plans immediately to support more fully the healing of all victims of clergy abuse, hold abusers accountable, and work to uncover and address the root causes of the sexual abuse crisis," the statement says. "It is clear that more serious action needs to be taken to assure that the culture of secrecy and cover-up ends."
Sr. Carol Zinn of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia, executive director of LCWR, told Global Sisters Report the response to the statement so far has been gratitude.
"It's gratitude for naming the pain and standing in support of the so many people who are just really hurting, for saying out loud what so many people seem to be feeling, which is the horror and tragedy of this, and gratitude for articulating the need to do a deep dive into the systemic structures that exist that allowed something like this to unfold," Zinn said.
She said women religious by their very nature can be part of the healing process.
"Religious life is intended to be that kind of presence in the world," Zinn said. "When one part of the body is hurting, the whole body is hurting. ... There is something very sacred and healing and holy when human beings are in a situation where their pain can be shared."
Kathleen Sprows Cummings, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame who has written extensively about the Catholic Church and women religious in particular, wrote in an Aug. 17 New York Times opinion piece that the days of sisters and laity calling for a place at the clerical table are over.
"We need to rip off the tablecloth, hurl the china against a wall and replace the crystal with something less ostentatious, more resilient and, for the love of God, safer for children," Cummings wrote. "There are times when the sin is so pervasive and corrosive that it is irresponsible to talk about anything else, and this is one of those times."
Cummings told Global Sisters Report the response to the grand jury report — that deep cultural and structural changes are needed — is what sisters have been saying for years.
"Nothing I've said was new. Many sisters have been saying this for a long time, but no one listened," Cummings said. "The sisters are part of what's going to save us."
Cummings said because sisters have a unique position in the church — deeply a part of it, yet not beholden to it in the same way as priests and bishops — they could change the culture of clericalism and be the independent voice so badly needed.
"I wonder if at this moment, more people need to look to them and if more of them will speak out and tell us what to do," she said.
The LCWR statement also called on church leaders to loosen their grip on power.
"[The church's] members are angry, confused, and struggling to find ways to make sense of the church's failings," the statement said. "The church leadership needs to speak with honesty and humility about how this intolerable culture developed and how that culture will now be deconstructed, and to create places where church members can express our anger and heartbreak. We call on the leaders to include competent members of the laity more fully in the work to eradicate abuse and change the culture, policies, and practices."
Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, a Daughter of St. Paul, has been tweeting about the crisis and urging priests to address it in their homilies. Noble is studying philosophy and theology at Boston College and is an editor for Pauline Books and Media.
Noble said people are tweeting to her, emailing her and stopping her on the street to talk about the scandal.
"There really are no words to say in response to so many people. I'm hearing from Catholics but also hearing a lot of anger from non-Catholics ... who are expressing their rightful anger," Noble said. "For the most part, I'm really just listening to people. I think it's been helpful for them to hear that I'm angry, too, and that I feel a lot of what they're feeling."
Noble said sisters could be part of the healing process.
"I think right now, the level of trust for the bishops and the hierarchy is very low. That's a huge work of the church to rebuild that trust," she said. "But people automatically have more trust in religious sisters. I think they see us as the tender face of the church."