Women survivors speak of church authority structure facilitating their abuse

Barbara Dorris participates in a Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests demonstration in front of the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, Sept. 25, 2015. (CNS photo / Joshua Roberts)

Three women survivors of clergy sexual abuse shared deeply personal stories during a Nov. 27 storytelling event, each revealing layers of pain, sadness and hurt exacerbated by the realization that they were trapped within a male-dominated structure that ignored their stories and demanded silence.

Peruvian Rocio Figueroa Alvear, once the head of the women's branch of a burgeoning but now disgraced lay religious movement, recounted being forbidden to speak of her abuse by its male second-in-command, and threatened with publishing of false claims against her own conduct should she disobey.

American Barbara Dorris, long known as a leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests or SNAP, spoke publicly for the first time about her rape by a priest as a 6-year-old girl, and how it continued for years afterward.

Saying she did "everything in my power" to hide her pain from her devout parents and family, Dorris only came forward as a parent when she recognized warning signs in the behavior of another priest on a playground with children.

And German* Doris Wagner tells of the calamitous fifth year in her mixed-gender religious order, when a male superior came into her room at night and raped her.

"Instantly, I knew ... that if I spoke about this, the community would blame me and not him," she says. "And so I kept silent."

The three harrowing accounts were part of a Nov. 27 testimony-sharing and panel discussion event in Rome, held less than a mile east of the Vatican and meant to raise up women's voices in the revived discussion of clergy sexual abuse after a spate of revelations globally this year.

Invited to take part by Voices of Faith, a group that has held panel discussions at the Vatican in the past, the survivors examined the deeply rooted, institutional nature of abuse within the Catholic Church.

Each mentioned the way their pain could have been prevented had church authorities — specifically, men — taken up the task of protecting children and vulnerable people.

Wagner, who left her community, called "The Work," in 2011, cited a 1998 study in Review of Religious Research that estimated that 30 percent of U.S. Catholic sisters have suffered sexual abuse.

She also referred to news reporting in the early 2000s about letters sent to the Vatican by Benedictine Sr. Esther Fangman and others about the widespread nature of such abuse.

"I find the idea unbearable that had the Roman Curia reacted appropriately to those cases that had been known to them already in the 1990s, and probably much earlier, I might never have been raped in 2008," said Wagner.

Figueroa was a member of Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, a group of consecrated laypeople, whose founder Luis Figari is accused of abusing a number of youth and was ordered by the Vatican in 2017 to stop all contact with the society.

Figueroa, now a theologian living in New Zealand, recalled meeting with Figari in 2008 to speak about how she had learned that her abuser was now abusing others, and being threatened.

"It is very difficult to be a victim and a woman," she said. "Because if it is an abuse of a man against a young girl — oh, they don't call it sexual abuse. 'She seduced him. Oh, they were lovers.' They don't understand what sexual abuse is."

Dorris, who held up the small, white dress she was wearing when she was first raped, said she realized as an adult that many others must have known of her abuse, but decided not to report it.

"That rectory had a housekeeper, a secretary, a cook, other priests," she said. "What did they think he was doing with a child in his bedroom? Why would they remain silent?"

At a panel discussion later in the event, the survivors spoke about their hopes for a summit meeting Pope Francis has called for February, during which the presidents of the world's conferences of Catholic bishops will discuss the issue of clergy abuse.

The three survivors were joined on the panel by Mary Hallay-Witte, the head of the office for child protection of the German archdiocese of Hamburg; and Virginia Saldanha, secretary of the Indian Women Theologians Forum and a former official of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences.

Saldanha criticized the pope's choice of Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias as one of the members of the summit's organizing committee, claiming he had taken too long to handle a case of an abusive priest she reported.

Hallay-Witte advised the bishops: "Listen to the survivors' stories and let your heart be touched by that, and then you'll know how you have to act."

Dorris, who left SNAP last year, pointed to specific actions Francis could take immediately to protect children.

"The pope is an absolute monarch," she said. "He doesn't need a legislation, he doesn't need the courts to make changes. He could begin today to name the complicit bishops and explain the part they have played in the cover-up. He could take their jobs, their titles, their salaries, and then he could turn over the documents to local law enforcement."

Wagner also referenced the church's monarchal structure, where the pope serves as both supreme legislator and judge.

"It's not merely the fact that women are excluded from hierarchy," she said. "It's the fact that there is no proper separation of powers inside the church. There is no independent justice system. There is no one you can appeal to."

Wagner said she was telling her story so "no young sister who has gone through what I have gone through thinks she's the only one, thinks that she is to blame."

Offering the advice she would give to an abused sister coming forward, she said she would tell them: "That's not what God has wanted for you. God doesn't want this. God wanted you to be free, to develop your talents, to live a happy life."

And if someone had told the person they were meant to go on suffering quietly, Wagner said she would reply: "Don't believe them. That's not true."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter @joshjmac.]

*This story has been updated to correct that Wagner is German.

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