Women religious shatter the silence about clergy sexual abuse of sisters

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

Galvanized by the #MeToo movement and the sex abuse crisis commanding the attention of the Vatican, women religious are now openly discussing a subject that was once taboo — sexual harassment, abuse and rape of sisters by clergy — in congregational motherhouses and national conference offices.

Slowly, an era is ending in which Catholic women religious were silent victims of sexual abuse by priests and bishops. Consider these developments in the past year:

  • In Chile, the Vatican is investigating complaints by members of a congregation of sexual abuse by priests and mistreatment by their superiors.
  • In India, Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar faces charges for raping a former superior of a congregation multiple times. He is the first bishop in India to be arrested for sexual abuse of a nun. He has denied the charges. More than 80 sisters were among 167 signers of a letter in July asking that he be relieved of his pastoral duties. Five sisters of the congregation and other supporters engaged in a highly unusual public demonstration supporting the former superior and protesting initial inaction by church and state authorities.
  • Statements encouraging sisters to report abuse and congregational members and superiors to believe and support victims were issued by the International Union of Superiors General, the largest worldwide representation of Catholic women religious leadership; and by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the U.S.
  • The Associated Press published a story in July about sex abuse of sisters, drawing upon an article by National Catholic Reporter in 2001. In January, it published a separate story focusing on India. Other media reports have surfaced about abuse in Myanmar.

In more than a dozen interviews for this article, some patterns across countries and continents emerged on how to help prevent abuse and support victims if it does occur.

"Individual sisters have to risk telling the truth if it is happening to them," said Sr. Esther Fangman, prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, Kansas, who delivered an address in 2000 about the sexual abuse of sisters to a Rome congress of 250 Benedictine abbots. "Others around them have to listen and believe them and not discount it as making it up — which is the same problem we've had in all society of sex abuse of women — that somehow it's the woman's fault," said Fangman, who holds a doctorate in counseling and has worked with victims of sexual abuse. "If the power relationship is unequal, pay attention to the person telling the story because they are at a disadvantage and probably are telling the truth."

Absent a reporting protocol or other action by the Vatican, congregations and national conferences are quietly devising their own responses. More awareness training is being incorporated into formation and leadership programs. Pragmatic measures are being implemented, such as having written contracts for sisters working in parishes spelling out duties and hours to minimize vulnerable situations in which they would be working alone. Such protections, some congregational leaders said, even include details such as making sure sisters have money for transportation to avoid taking rides from priests or bishops alone.

Greater financial independence for congregations is vital to avoid over-dependence on diocesan bishops or parish priests, several said. Donors should be encouraged to send money directly to congregations rather than through diocesan offices. Revisions in canon law should limit or prevent bishops from creating diocesan congregations, which are subject to greater local control and potential abuse, some sisters said.

Other changes are sorely needed, those interviewed said. Protocols by dioceses and the Vatican must be established, disseminated and followed regarding abuse allegations by women religious.

But real change regarding abuse of sisters, many said, requires a fundamental shift in the church hierarchy and attitude about women. While not downplaying the pain of sexual abuse, feminist theologian Mary Hunt said the problem is symptomatic of a deeper and more widespread "spiritual abuse" perpetrated upon women by the male-dominated church. "We have been told things that are not true," she said. "Women have been relegated to second-class citizens" in the church.

A dismantling of clericalism and elevation of women, and women religious, to positions of leadership, is also critical, according to those interviewed. That would send a message to bishops worldwide about the status of women, particularly in developing countries.

"If the church can accept women as women — not as instrument or tools to be used — that would be my joy," said Sr. Eneless Chimbali, a Servant of the Blessed Virgin Mary who has served as the secretary general of the Association of Consecrated Women in Eastern and Central Africa, or ACWECA, since 2015. "Look at the curia in the Vatican," she said regarding the male-dominated church. "Women and laity are always at the receiving end — they are not included in the decision-making forums."

Congregations are making changes as they can. In formation programs and seminars for superiors, attitudes are shifting to better train sisters, particularly novices and postulants, to avoid vulnerable situations and report cases of inappropriate behavior. Sr. Rose Pacatte, founding director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies and contributor to National Catholic Reporter, recently prepared a presentation for leadership and formation directors about sexual abuse, including sections about prevention, for the Major Superiors Leadership Conference in Pakistan.

The presentation, which is applicable for communities and congregations in other countries, includes sections about "grooming" of victims and role-playing exercises for sisters to practice rebuffing advances and reporting cases to their superiors. It was created with the assistance of Sr. Kathleen Bryant, a Religious Sister of Charity who served as the vocation director of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for 21 years and has been a leader in working against human trafficking for 18 years, and Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Suzanne Mayer, director of Pastoral Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Neumann University in Aston, Pennsylvania.

"Each community has to figure out how to present this information to their younger sisters without turning them off men or clergy — making them wise but not afraid," said Pacatte. "We have to recognize [sexual abuse of sisters] is real and come up with a protocol if something does happen."

Education of sisters is helping to change the dynamics in Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and other countries in Africa, said sisters in those countries. "There is a lot of awareness, sisters are getting educated and their level of knowledge is increasing to allow them to defend themselves and to be aware of their boundaries," said Chimbali.

ACWECA holds workshops about religious life with congregational leaders that include issues about protection of children and vulnerable adults, she said. The focus is not only on sisters being abused by clergy but also on situations in which sisters may be abusing young people or those they serve, not necessarily sexual abuse but other forms of physical, mental or emotional abuse, she said. "The issue of child protection or sexual abuse is incorporated into formation and ongoing religious life in Africa," she said.

Because of education and greater empowerment of women religious, the issue of sister abuse by clergy "has improved greatly in the last 15 years," Chimbali said.

Workshops for consecrated women and men on accompanying victims of sexual violence during conflict were held in 2017 and 2018 in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, sponsored by partnerships of religious conferences and the Union of International Superiors General, or UISG, in conjunction with the United Kingdom Embassy to the Holy See. During the Uganda workshop, Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu, knelt and apologized on behalf of male clergy who may have abused female pastoral workers.

The NCR article in 2001 cited several reports, some dating back to the mid-1990s, about abuse of sisters by clergy. While cases were found in 23 countries across five continents, one report said, the problem at the time was particularly acute in Africa because of the AIDS crisis. Sisters were seen as safe sexual partners by priests and bishops.

It's not clear what the response of the Vatican was to the reports or the NCR article, or to current revelations of sexual abuse of women religious. The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life has not responded to several inquiries made since September about the response to the 2001 reports or the more recent cases of abuse. The Vatican press office did not respond to inquiries made in January.

Years after her address became public, cited in the NCR article and in other more recent articles and forums, Fangman laments that "there are still no solutions — what is happening is that people are talking about it."

If she were to write the report today, Fangman said, she would use even stronger language. In her work counseling victims, it's become much clearer how deep the wounds of sexual abuse are, particularly abuse by clergy. "It doesn't just attack their spirit," she said. "It attacks their soul also because it is the image of Christ through the priest doing this to them."

She and other sisters interviewed for this article stressed that sexual abuse of sisters is not limited to a particular geography. "It is not an Africa problem, it is a church problem," Fangman said. "It is a power issue — the difference between males and females and those in the church who have power."

The interplay of power and church authority has been unfolding in the case in India. The former superior of the Missionaries of Jesus congregation filed a case in June against Mulakkal, of Jalandhar in Punjab, a northern Indian state that borders on Pakistan, that he had sexually abused her multiple times at her convent in Kerala, a southern state. She has said she filed the case after complaints to church authorities brought no action.

Months passed without action by civil authorities or response by church authorities. Five members of the congregation and other supporters of the nun engaged in a public protest in September. Mulakkal was arrested Sept. 21, questioned and released. He has denied the charges and characterized the case as retaliation by the nun for his disciplinary actions against her.

The delay in action against Mulakkal made people skeptical about the church's claim of zero tolerance toward clergy abuse, Sr. Jessy Kurian, a Supreme Court lawyer in India told GSR before his arrest. She was among the 167 signers of the letter in July to Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai and Archbishop Giambattista Diquattro, apostolic nuncio to India, to advise Pope Francis to relieve Mulakkal of his pastoral duties.

"Unless (Mulakkal) is relieved of his pastoral duties no impartial probe can take place," said Kurian, a member of St. Anne's Providence of Secunderabad who conducts training courses in human rights and Indian laws for various groups around India, including nuns.

The clergy abuse of nuns in India came to fore at the Feb. 22, 2016, meeting of the Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace, an advocacy group for women religious.

The participants then wrote to bishops and religious major superiors that sexual violence of religious women had gone unaddressed while its perpetrators escaped punishment. "This cannot be tolerated anymore," they had asserted.

Little seems to have changed even after two years, although the Indian bishops' conference in 2017 promulgated "CBCI Guidelines to Deal with Sexual Harassment at Workplace" as part of its efforts to implement zero tolerance.

"Unfortunately, it is not publicized or its copies distributed even among the members of the Catholic religious in India," regrets Sr. Noella de Souza, national coordinator of the ecumenical Indian Christian Women's Movement.

When contacted, the conference officials refused to explain how the church has implemented the guidelines.

However, Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal, a senior prelate, said he has informed his priests and nuns about the guidelines and set up mechanisms in his archdiocese to check clergy abuses.

Another prelate, Bishop Clement Tirkey of Jalpaiguri, a former member of the commission for women under the Latin bishops' conference, also said he has implemented the guidelines in his diocese in West Bengal state.

Abuse cases began to emerge after more nuns started speaking out against exploitation, said Sr. Hazel D´Lima of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary, a former president of the Catholic Religious of India women section. But the church's tendency to ignore or silence such case will damage it, she warns.

She says misconception about the vow of obedience prevents nuns from saying no when it is required. She wants trainee nuns to be taught to resist abuses from anyone, including priests and bishops.

Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, a lay feminist theologian, says she came to know of abuse cases 25 years ago when she was invited to address the major superiors.

"At that time the concern of the participants was to explore ways in which they could support these victims instead of asking them to leave the convent and sometimes give birth to their babies in the shadows," she recalls. She said she had noticed much anger among nuns against the priests who continued their ministry and their "deviant behavior" after abusing nuns and women.

Nuns now know they have an alternative if the church ignores their complaints as India has an act to prevent, prohibit and redress the sexual harassment of women in the workplace.

"For most of these women, going to the police is not the first option. The abuse is usually brought to light only because the victims are not happy with the way the church has dealt with the matter."

Yet going public can open another form of abuse as accusers are criticized as being disloyal to the church. The case involving Mulakkal has splintered the Catholic community in India between those supporting the bishop or the nun. Supporters of the nun have been criticized for damaging the church's reputation. One sister belonging to another congregation who participated in the sit-in protest has been threatened with dismissal.

Even researching sexual abuse cases carries risk as Sr. Esperanza Principio painfully discovered in the Philippines. She was a co-author of a report about sexual abuse by clergy in the Philippines that was presented in 2002 to the Council of Bishops in the Philippines. The research was undertaken by the research committee of the Women and Gender Commission of the Association of Major Religious Superiors of Women in the Philippines, or AMRSWP, after the bishops had asked for facts regarding anecdotal reports of abuse.  

The 29 cases of violence and misconduct by priests in the report included some instances of attempted rape and sexual harassment of women religious. The Philippine Daily Inquirer wrote about the report and the presentation to the bishops in two front-page articles in November 2002.

Principio, who holds a master's degree in applied research, said in an interview with GSR that she and her co-author, Maryknoll Sr. Leonila Bermisa, took great care with the research and presented the findings to the bishops before any public report was made. Yet after the media coverage of the report, Principio said she was criticized by a high-ranking bishop, who later became a cardinal, in a written letter sent to all congregations.

Stung by the criticism and a lack of support from within her congregation, she was prompted within a few years to change congregations and become a Maryknoll. She left the Philippines in 2005 and now ministers in Peru as part of the Global Network of Religions for Children, focusing on responding to the sexual abuse of children and adolescents.

Bringing abuse cases to light is "an energy that can be turned into a positive movement, that women now speak," she said. "The #MeToo movement is a higher strata of society – but from the pueblos and the towns, each one has to see that abuse is not permissible in any strata or any place in the world."  

After the 2002 report was published, Principio said, lay women in the Philippines became more courageous speaking out against abuse by clergy. A second study by Bermisa was published by the Women and Gender Commission in 2011 as a book, That She May Dance Again: Rising from Pain of Violence Against Women in the Philippine Catholic Church.

The Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines in 2003 issued a protocol and pastoral guidelines regarding sexual abuse, focused mostly on abuse of minors but also including cases of priests fathering children. It did not specifically address abuse of women religious. In September 2018, the bishops' conference issued another statement apologizing for abuse and vowing not to cover up cases. The conference did not respond to an email request for comment or information about protocols specifically for cases involving women religious.

"It's a reality that can happen in any religious congregation," Principio said. "They must teach their sisters to define what is abuse, what is the moment you are being taken advantage of — some sisters are so naive, some are not," she added. "It is important for women religious congregations to speak out and denounce abusers even if they are priests."

There is no uniform training about sexual abuse or harassment — each congregation has its own formation training program, said Benedictine Sr. Mary John Mananzan, co-chair of the Office of Women and Gender Concerns (formerly the Women and Gender Commission) of the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines. Her congregation, the Benedictine Missionary Sisters, "includes gender awareness training that includes specifically sexual harassment, rape and all forms of gender violence," she said in an e-mail, saying this training goes as far back as the 1990s.

The Office of Women and Gender Concerns offers women consciousness and empowerment seminars which include all gender issues, with religious sisters as main participants, and courses for those involved in formation so they can include gender awareness in their programs, she said.

One key to avoiding abuse lies within congregations themselves, in creating an atmosphere of trust and support so sisters feel confident coming to superiors or mentors with issues of harassment or early signs of abuse, said Sr. Florence Nwaonuma, former superior general of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and former president of the Nigeria Conference of Women Religious.

Seminars and workshops which deal with topics such as sexuality, the vows of celibacy and chastity, and awareness of abuse issues are part of initial formation, and also ongoing formation with temporary and professed sisters, she said.

Congregations have to be willing to bring cases of abuse to the attention of the hierarchy and work toward resolution, she said. She's encountered more cases of sisters enduring abuse of power with priests and bishops than sexual exploitation. About six years ago, there was a case in which a priest made sexual advances on a sister working in a parish. When she resisted, the priest complained to the bishop that she was disobedient. The sister went to Nwaonuma and told her what had happened.

Nwaonuma complained to the bishop about the priest's behavior, defended the sister, allowed her to continue her formation and be professed and transferred her another ministry. Despite the complaint, no sanctions were taken against the priest, who was transferred to another parish.

"Men deny [abuse] and it is important that women are given a level playing field and are listened to," she said. "Sisters must be encouraged to come and talk about [harassment or abuse] but superiors have to make the sister to trust her."

The encouragement by women religious leaders and leadership organizations for sisters to come forward about abuse cases, including to civil authorities, is an important signal, said Bryant, who helped create the training module and is deeply involved in anti-human trafficking ministry. "What gives me some hope is that we're hearing from women in leadership," she said. The statements, she said, are "strong and clear and no holding back. The church has never come out as clear with language as this."

Many women religious work on ministries that focus on empowering girls and women, including anti-trafficking and domestic violence, she noted. Those lessons have to be applied to sisters themselves, to recognize the grooming processes abusers use, often through extra attention and small gifts.

More fundamental is the need to change dynamics that reinforce the idea that priests and bishops are special, that their authority can't be questioned, she added. "We sisters have to stop the feeding of clericalism," she said. "This is our time to empower others and to befriend the victims."

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

Editor's note: Information from freelance journalist Saji Thomas and other reports from Matters India, a news portal that focuses on religious and social issues in India, was used in this article.