Women religious leaders call for 'decisive action' on abuse

This article appears in the Abuse of sisters feature series. View the full series.
Pope Francis answers questions from journalists aboard his flight from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, to Rome Feb. 5. (CNS / Paul Haring)

Women religious reacted to Pope Francis' comments on Feb. 5 that the Vatican must do more to prevent physical and sexual abuse of sisters by praising his public acknowledgment of the issue and calling for follow-through by establishing protocols for reporting abuse and addressing the underlying clerical and power structures that permit it.

"We're very pleased that Pope Francis has acknowledged the issue and will continue to acknowledge the issue, but then systemic change is needed so priests and bishops are held accountable," Holy Cross Sr. Sharlet Wagner, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents the largest number of sisters in the United States, told Global Sisters Report.

Women and women religious must have "much more than just a token role" in fashioning needed reforms of church structures, she said.

"If there are only clergy at the table, the issue will only be seen through that lens," she said. "Women and women religious have something to offer to this. We love our church. We want to be included and want to correct these problems and move beyond it."

A Feb. 7 statement from LCWR said the upcoming summit of bishops on sexual abuse provides an opportunity for "decisive action." Among such actions, it recommended creation of reporting mechanisms for reporting of abuse by all victims "in an atmosphere where victims are met with compassion and are offered safety."

It also called for refashioning leadership structures of the church "to address the issue of clericalism and ensure that power and authority are shared with members of the laity. The revelations of the extent of abuse indicate clearly that the current structures must change if the church is to regain its moral credibility and have a viable future."

The pope's comments came during a press conference aboard the papal flight to Rome after a two-day visit to the United Arab Emirates. In response to a question on the issue, Francis said mistreatment of women religious is something the Vatican has been working to address "for some time."

"Must something more be done? Yes," he said. "Do we have the will? Yes."

Francis said there have been priests and even bishops who have abused sisters. "It still happens today because it is not something that just ends because people know about it."

Vatican officials have known about sexual harassment and rape of Catholic sisters by clergy for decades. Women religious wrote several reports on the issue in the mid-1990s, and National Catholic Reporter detailed instances of rape and sexual abuse of sisters in 2001.

In the past year, the issue has surfaced again in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the church's sex abuse crisis. In the absence of a clear Vatican protocol, congregations of women religious focus on training, education and empowerment of sisters to avoid abuse.

While more sisters now report abuse by clergy, as in cases in India and Chile, the LCWR statement acknowledged that Catholic sisters often have remained silent "for the same reasons as other abuse victims: a sense of shame, a tendency to blame themselves, fear they will not be believed, anxiety over possible retaliation, a sense of powerlessness, and other factors."

While instances of abuse seem more prevalent in developing countries, the LCWR statement said that "harassment and rape of sisters have been noted in other countries as well, including in the United States. A study conducted in 1996 by St. Louis University indicated that there were sisters in the United States who had suffered some form of sexual trauma by Catholic priests. Often those sisters did not share this information even with their own communities."

LCWR also said in the statement that religious communities did not always provide environments that encouraged sisters to report abuse. When congregations did know, "we did not speak out more forcefully for an end to the culture of secrecy and cover-ups within the Catholic Church that have discouraged victims from coming forward," the statement said.

That has been changing with work by the International Union of Superiors General, the Rome-based organization of the leaders of orders of Catholic sisters globally. LCWR acknowledged efforts of the international group's leadership for two decades to raise awareness in the church and among the public of abuse of women religious.

"They have been at the forefront of advocacy efforts to call the church to accountability for this problem and we pledge our support and collaboration in their continued work on this critical concern," the statement said.

One of the authors of an early report about abuse of women religious, Sr. Esther Fangman, prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, Kansas, said the LCWR statement was "excellent" but said the pope's comments did not go far enough. Fangman delivered an address in 2000 about the sexual abuse of sisters to a Rome congress of 250 Benedictine abbots. Her address has been widely cited in reports since.

Missing in the pope's comments about a congregation of women religious that was dissolved in the wake of widespread sexual abuse was any comment about what happened to the abusers, Fangman said.

"The pope did not say what happened to the abusers causing this problem, and that has to be dealt with," she said. "That needed to be said — that [the Vatican] really took this to heart and that priests were removed from office."

Francis did say some priests have been "suspended or chased out" for abusing women religious, but he did not comment on that particular instance.

Fangman said the February summit should include a session specifically about sexual abuse and harassment of sisters. "The abuse of sisters is caused by the same kind of clericalism and power structure that allows other kinds of abuse to go on."

In addition to reporting protocols, financial support of congregations that bring forward abuse cases is important, Fangman said, particularly in developing countries, where there is a lack of legal resources and greater dependency on a local bishop. She said her congregation would have lawyers, canon lawyers and resources to draw upon, but "not all congregations in countries have those resources."

Sr. Rose Pacatte, founding director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies, said she was concerned by recent reports downplaying expectations for the February bishops' summit.

"This is my prayer: What is this meeting for if not for deciding something?" she said. "What have we been doing [as a church] since 1985? What are we waiting for?"

While still hopeful that the Vatican will establish protocols, she said congregations must take action themselves. She and other sisters recently developed a presentation for leadership and formation directors about sexual abuse, including sections about prevention, for the Major Superiors Leadership Conference in Pakistan, though she said it is also applicable to congregations in other countries.

"I don't think we have to wait for the church. We have to rescue ourselves with policies and procedures," she said, noting that the presentation was designed to help recognize situations that put sisters at risk. While the Vatican must deal with abusers, "it's within our power [as sisters] to do the prevention. Our actions don't depend on this meeting because we as communities can do something now."

[Gail DeGeorge is editor of Global Sisters Report. Her email address is gdegeorge@ncronline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @GailDeGeorge.]