I’ve previously written about how feminists are cracking open evangelical Christianity’s culture of sexual abuse. But they’re not the only denomination that’s guilty of misdeeds. Now the #MeToo wave is hitting the Catholic church, as nuns come forward to speak about sexual abuse and rape they’ve suffered at the hands of priests and even bishops:
An AP examination has found that cases have emerged in Europe, Africa, South America and Asia, demonstrating that the problem is global and pervasive, thanks to the tradition of sisters’ second-class status in the Catholic Church and their ingrained subservience to the men who run it.
This story follows on the heels of the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick over multiple allegations that he had molested and sexually assaulted young boys and teenagers over an almost fifty-year period. McCarrick is the highest-ranking American Catholic official to suffer consequences for his part in this scandal. (I assume the monster Bernard Law would have been on the same level if he had suffered any consequences, which he never did.)
It’s a drearily familiar story. Carrick’s crimes were such an open secret that both laypeople and a priest petitioned the Vatican against his appointment as an archbishop. It was in vain, as Carrick not only got the job, he was actually put in charge of designing church policies on the sexual abuse of minors. The National Catholic Reporter wrote in an editorial, “The McCarrick case does not just indict a single individual, it indicts the full structure of the Catholic Church that has enabled this outrage to continue for so long.”
But let’s turn back to the women. It’s hard enough for men to admit they were abused by clergy, even decades later, as many survivors will attest. The pressure on nuns and religious sisters must be even more immense. Women in the secular world who are harassed at work at least have the option of quitting and finding other jobs. But Catholic women who’ve taken vows of poverty and obedience are in a much worse predicament. In most cases, they have little or no resources to fall back on and few transferable skills. They’re a captive audience, and there’s every reason to suppose that sexual predators in the priesthood know this.
That makes it all the more impressive that so many of them are speaking out:
In Chile, the scandal of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, an order dedicated to health care in the diocese of Talca, erupted at the same time the country’s entire Catholic hierarchy has been under fire for decades of sex abuse and cover-ups… The case, exposed by the Chilean state broadcaster, involves accusations of priests fondling and kissing nuns, including while naked, and some religious sisters sexually abusing younger ones. The victims said they told their mother superior, but that she did nothing.
This article understates the severity of what happened. According to another story, the mother superior did more than nothing: she expelled some of the nuns who spoke out.
“My silence stings my conscience. We have more than 23 sisters who in one year were expelled from the congregation because they were sexually abused, there was abuse of authority,” said Yolanda Tondreaux, who in the report charged that she was harassed by a priest.
And in India:
In India, a sister of the Missionaries of Jesus filed a police report last month alleging a bishop raped her in May 2014 during a visit to the heavily Christian state of Kerala, and that he subsequently sexually abused her around a dozen more times over the following two years, Indian media have reported.
As the article notes, the idea that a nun would file a police complaint against a bishop would have been unthinkable even a year or two ago (especially in a country that has an awful record of sexual assault in all sectors of society). It’s a glaring sign of how bad the problem is and how fed up women have become.
It’s also a well-known problem in Africa, with the extra wrinkle that one priest who sought to expose the problem and support women was punished by church leaders until he withdrew the claim:
In 2013, the Rev. Anthony Musaala in Kampala, Uganda wrote what he called an open letter to members of the local Catholic establishment about “numerous cases” of alleged sex liaisons of priests, including with nuns. He charged that it was “an open secret that many Catholic priests and some bishops, in Uganda and elsewhere, no longer live celibate chastity.”
He was sanctioned, even though Ugandan newspapers regularly report cases of priests caught in sex escapades. The topic is even the subject of a popular novel taught in high schools.
In an even more gruesomely hypocritical twist, the report mentions that many predatory priests targeted nuns specifically because they believed they were “safe” victims who would be free of HIV. If any of the nuns got pregnant, the priest would insist that she obtain an abortion.
As the article notes, the Vatican refused to comment on what, if anything, they’ve done about this problem or what policies they have for dealing with it. We can safely assume that their plan is to sweep it under the rug and ignore it for as long as they can get away with, just as they ignored the problem of pedophile priests molesting boys until public outrage forced them to acknowledge it.
There’s evidence for this. As far back as the 1990s, church officials were sufficiently aware of the problem to commission a secret study on it. But when they got the report, they did nothing with it, and it ended up gathering dust in church archives until reporters exposed its existence:
Long before the most recent incidents, confidential reports into the problem focused on Africa and AIDS were prepared in the 1990s by members of religious orders for top church officials. In 1994, the late Sr. Maura O’Donohue wrote the most comprehensive study about a six-year, 23-nation survey, in which she learned of 29 nuns who had been impregnated in a single congregation.
…The reports were never meant to be made public. The U.S. National Catholic Reporter put them online in 2001, exposing the depths of a scandal the church had long sought to keep under wraps. To date, the Vatican hasn’t said what, if anything, it ever did with the information.
In several countries sisters are troubled by the policy that, when a sister becomes pregnant she must leave the congregation, while the priest involved with her can continue his ministry. This question is raised from the point of view of social justice. The sister is left to raise the child in a single parent family, often with a great deal of stigmatisation, and frequently in very poor socio-circumstances.
As much as I admire the bravery of Catholic women who come forward, in the face of their entire religious community and belief system, to tell the truth about what they’ve been through – the sad truth is that there’s no solution to this problem, not as long as they remain in a patriarchal church structure where women are always subordinate to men.
The Catholic church as an institution is organized to uphold dogmatic secrecy, unaccountable authority, and male supremacy. That remains true no matter the identity of the men at the top, and that’s why sexual predators in the ranks of the clergy have gotten away with their crimes and will continue to get away with their crimes. Without democracy, without transparency, without accountability, and most important, without true female equality, the evil that hides in priestly robes will never be purged.