5 Nov 2010

U.S. nuns won't let survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic sisters address annual conference

Salon - August 16, 2009

Nuns on the run from the truth

Why won't the leadership of America's nuns meet with the survivors of sexual abuse by nuns, and hear their stories?

By Frances Kissling

"This past week, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 95 percent of the orders of Catholic sisters in the U.S., held its annual meeting in New Orleans. The main topic on the agenda was the Vatican's current investigation of the doctrinal deviations they believe may be rampant among the sisters who were freed of strict control in dress and living arrangements following the Second Vatican Councilin the early 1960s.

Nuns, it seems, are no longer as obedient as the Vatican would like. One sister I know is a clinic escort at her local reproductive health clinic; others are active in gay and lesbian ministries and one, close to 90, has been a leader in the movement for sex worker rights. They fasted for the Equal Rights Amendment, spoke out in favor of women priests and choice, marched with Martin Luther King, and thought John Paul II was a disaster.

We -- feminists and progressive Catholics -- love them. And so we were surprised when the LCWR leadership refused to allow survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic sisters to address the past few annual meetings. The survivors want to share their stories of abuse as well as suggest processes to prevent such abuse in the future, including recommending that the sisters adopt the bishops' anti-sex-abuse guidelines. To date, the nuns have just said no. Even the bishops allowed the survivors time on the agenda of their annual meeting some five years ago when the clergy sex abuse scandal was at its peak.

What was wrong with these sisters who have worked for democracy in the church, the rights of the poor and marginalized, and just about every social justice issue you could think of? Were they in denial? Afraid of the publicity?

Barbara Blaine, co-director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, told me that she couldn't understand LCWR's unwillingness to listen to survivors. "It's such a bad move. Even if they weren't sincere it would make more sense to invite us, listen politely and then ignore us. Stonewalling just makes them look bad." Blaine, a survivor of sexual abuse by a priest, organized two demonstrations calling on LCWR to hear the survivors. One was on Aug. 10 at the LCWR headquarters outside D.C., and the other was Aug. 11 in New Orleans, where the group was meeting.

SNAP is dogged in its pursuit of abusers and those who cover up for them and pulls no punches when they do get meetings. They believe that keeping the light of publicity on long-ago abuse is essential in drawing out victims who have been silent for 20 to 40 years.

The cases emerging now fall in that category. They happened in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, and the nuns who perpetrated the abuse are old or dead. Congregation leaders claim that the sisters are not able to defend themselves. The average age of the nation's 59,000 nuns is 69, and many of the sisters at the LCWR meeting were around when the abuse took place. Perhaps it is simply too painful to listen to the stories of what boys and girls just like the ones you taught and cared for experienced at the hands of your friends. Much better to remember the Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman versions of religious life, when every nun was angelic and floated down the aisle or the hospital corridor with a slight breeze wafting through her veil.

In the U.S., many Catholic women remember their days in Catholic girls' schools and colleges as among the best times of their lives. For me, a working-class girl educated in the 1950s, the sisters were important role models. They were tough and sometimes strange, but they included the best-educated women I had ever met. They encouraged smart girls to go to college (Catholic ones, where we would not "lose" our faith) at the same time as they made sure our skirts were a couple of inches below our knees and we didn't wear make-up.

But a few were really crazy. They hit kids, mostly boys; they banged kids' heads against the blackboard when they gave the wrong answer. Nobody reported them to child protective services as abusive, and most of us dared not complain to our parents, who would have smacked us around for annoying Sister. The other nuns did nothing to stop the volatile ones. That was just the way it was. I remember the day in eighth grade when Sister Margaret ordered a classmate who was tall and had big breasts to follow her into the bathroom and take off her bra. Sister was convinced that Joanne was wearing a padded bra and being a temptress. When they returned, Sister's face was red and somehow we got the message that the bra was not padded. Sister had the decency to apologize.

Instances like this were child's play compared with some of the stories told by boys and girls abused by U.S. sisters at the same time as lucky girls like me were flourishing in Catholic girls' schools. Pamela Miller, a reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, reported on a press conference of survivors of nun abuse held in June 2006. Five women who were among a dozen Minnesotans and an "estimated 400 men and women who have recently come forward to talk about being sexually abused by nuns" told their stories.

Mary Dunford, 67 at the time of the press conference, told of being molested in her bed at Villa Maria boarding school. "It happened after lights out," she said. "She'd kiss me on the mouth then take her clothes off down to the waist and have me kiss and suck her nipples. She told me she loved me." Dunford said she was unable to talk about it until her 50s, when she realized it was at the root of her depression and other problems.

The reluctance of the Leadership Conference to hear from survivors like Dunford might be understood in Dunford's recounting of what happened when she contacted the religious order and reported the abuse. To its credit, the order acknowledged the abuse and agreed to pay for counseling for Dunford and her husband. It also returned her tuition. In what was certainly meant to be an act of reconciliation and closure for Dunford, the order arranged for Dunford to meet with the nun who had abused her. Dunford recounted the incident to Miller. "We talked about how what she had done had damaged us. When we were done she said, 'You weren't the only one hurt.'" The abuser's superior was present and reached out to the sister and said, "I love you and support you." Dunford was stunned. "There I was, the victim, and the sympathy was for the perpetrator."

Psychologists as well as church leaders believe clergy and nun abuse is largely a thing of the past, a time when nuns and priests entered religious life in their teens and had "arrested sexual development." New cases are less likely, but old cases and memories die hard. Women and men abused by nuns are now coming forward and suing the perpetrators and their orders. And the same old stories of cover-ups and reassignments that we lived through with priests are emerging with nuns. This past May, Gerald Kobs brought a suit against the Sisters of Mercy for having covered up abuse by one of its members, Sister Norma Gianni. As a result of the cover-up, Gianni was able to abuse Kobs and other children at St. Patrick's grade school in Milwaukee. The nun was recently released from jail after serving a year on sexual abuse charges. The suit charges that Gianni had previously abused children at a Catholic school in Chicago, been sent for inpatient psychiatric treatment by the order, and when released was sent to Milwaukee, where her past abuse was kept secret from parents.

Thirty years ago, some apologists for abuse by nuns and priests say, we simply didn't understand that sexual abusers were hard to cure. Perhaps. But certainly we knew what cruelty was and what it meant to violate the dignity of children. Alongside what appear to be individual cases of abuse – the lone priest, brother or sister who sexually abused a single child in the dark of the night – has come to light the large-scale institutional abuse of children entrusted to orphanages, schools and other residential centers. In those cases, every member of the staff knew that children were being harmed, and all were complicit.

Thirty Catholic residential centers and 107 individuals in U.S. centers have been accused of large-scale systematic abuse of children in their care. In May 2009 an Irish government commission on child abuse released a report on abuse in that country. The commission heard testimony from over 1000 people who claimed abuse between 1936 and 1970. Many had been residents in 60 Irish reformatories and industrial schools run by the Catholic church with government money. The commission concluded that the children were treated more like slaves and prisoners than human beings, subjected to beatings, rape, forced oral sex, public nudity and other forms of degradation. Many of the same communities of nuns who have been charged in the U.S. are charged in Ireland.

If I were a member of one of those communities, I'd like to pretend these things didn't happen or claim they were isolated incidents. The urge to stand with the sisters you have lived with for 50 years or more is strong. But it is the survivors and victims of this abuse who must come first. Let's hope that SNAP doesn't have to picket LCWR next year.

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  1. I went to Catholic school in the 70's and the nuns were very abusive and violent. I grew up fearing teachers because of it and never did well in school until I went to college.

    Those nuns should have been put in prison for what they did- not "just apologize" for being frustrated old women.

    Ans yes- back in the 50-70's , the nunery and the priesthood was designed for gay men and women to hide their sexuality because society didn't know what to do with them and placed them there under the prefix of being holy.

    What they did to children was not holy, christian or even human. I know they are not in heaven and are paying for their sins as we speak.

  2. I do agree with your statements that some of the nuns were very abusive. we had a nun so mean she would beat us with rulers on our legs so noone could accuse her. pretty smart she also made fun of some of the kids for physical handy caps like missing fingers cause in the 60s ringerwashers were nutorous for kids getting their fingers in and she made that kid an example every week at the end of the week she allowed to explain how it happened all year.
    she would also put you behind the piano at noon time if you even look at her wrong. she was something else. but we also had very kind and luving nuns also so they were not all bad.

  3. Its time for the abuse suffered by children at the hands of some nuns to be exposed and looked at. It has had devastating results on peoples lives and impacting results on others. Abuse of any kind is still abuse ... it can not be labelled as anything else. The truth is the truth!
    In my case I went thro the catholic school system in the 60's & 70's. When I started I was taught by Sr C. and it was the most horrific experience. I was terrified by her and her antics. She governed over the class room with her anger and rage just looking for someone she could humiliate and abuse. She mostly pick on the boys in the class but sometimes the girls received a lashing as well. She would put children in the dunces corner humiliating and shaming them for hours. She would hang children from the shirts on coat hooks and leave them hanging there for an hour. She would throw things like dusters across the room hitting children. She would use a cane on children daily. She would throw books and rant if a child wasn't doing exactly what she wanted. She would rant and rave about the tiniest things just to keep us all terrified of her and for her to be the ruler of the class. But as soon as an adult came near her class room she was as nice as a sweet little old lady ... unbelievable!
    All of this was traumatic and debilitating to me ... I was shy quiet and I didn't know how to deal the constant and consistent abuse I witnessed in the class room. It stumped my educational growth. I have always been frightened of authority figures and have trouble trusting people. I am always on guard wanting for someone to do something I can not handle and I stress about interacting with new people.
    For those who say just get over it ... that's nothing and its just about growing up.... I say no it wasn't. This was about an abusive system within the catholic schools which has been allowed to exist and grow and fester for years. It all need to be bought out into the open, looked at, acknowledge for what it was, so real and honest changes can take place.

  4. to this ay i cannot look a person in the eye,i too was raised by nuns in ireland i was raped burned beaten .i will never forget sister mary she used make me strip and keep hitting me on my penis telling me i was discusting .sad sas times

  5. where will i start.im 65 now and i got put into a home run by the brothers when i was 5 my mother could not look after me and i never blame her.the abuse i suffered will never leave me . i spent years in wondering how was this allowed.i too cannot look people in the eye because it was not allowed.if you looked a nun or a brother in the eye you would be beaten . i remember the first night i wet the bed because i was so scared the next day sister jude went mad she beat me with a stick they had for opening the windows .she broke my thumb when i put up my hands to stop her .my hand never set right and to this day my tumb is twisted after about 5 months in and a lot of beatings brother paul came on the scene .one night when i was in bed he came into our dorm and woke me from my bed and told me to follow him to the study as he had a toy for me.when i got there he closed the door and pulled down his pants .he made me tuch him .i was 6 years old.the abuse got worse after that .3 weeks later he woke me again and told me to follow him down to the boiler room. down there was a camping bed all set up. he told me undress and lye on mt tummy .then i felt the weight of him on top of me.then was the sudden pain i tried to scream but he put a dirty rag into my mouth i never felt so much pain i was bleeding heavy when he got off . he got his tishue and wiped the blood off and rubbed nappy rash cream on my buttox and walked me back to bed .during the day the nuns would beat me and at night this man of god would rape me .this went on for 10 years until my aunt got me out and took me in .to this day i have scars on my hands from the beatings i am deaf in one ear because a nun hit me so hard one day she broke my eardrumb .because of this i never married and have tried to take my life many times.one time i told sister mary the head nun at the place and she stripped me and made me stand outside all day in the rain with my tormenters smerking as they passed. i was better off dead .i met brother paul later on in life and all he said is that he would pray for me.he is now dead and i will carry this suffering to my grave. the church has a lot to answer for evil all of them .