Pope Francis’ acknowledgement aboard the papal plane this week that nuns have suffered sexual abuse by priests and even bishops — including nuns in the U.S. — caught many off guard with its frankness.
But it wasn’t exactly new information, according to U.S. women leaders within the Catholic Church.
In a statement issued Thursday, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the largest association representing nuns in the U.S., said that while this problem is prevalent mostly in developing countries — there have been many cases in Africa, and last year a nun in India accused a priest of repeatedly raping her between 2014 and 2016 — it has gone on in the U.S., too.
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The conference specifically referenced a 1996 study from St. Louis University that indicated, “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.”
Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability, a website that tracks abusive priests, was both underwhelmed and hopeful after hearing the pope’s comments.
“I guess I was bewildered that the pope verifying this should make headlines — it’s an epidemic problem in certain areas,” she said. “The Vatican has documentation on likely tens of thousands of cases of sexual violence, and so when a Vatican official or the pope makes a pronouncement as if it’s occurring to them for the first time — as if they’re identifying a problem for the first time — it strikes me as disingenuous.”
The Catholic Church has been engulfed in sex-abuse scandals for at least the past 20 years, as stories of priests abusing children continue to flood the media. Now, the crisis of priests also abusing nuns has joined the mainstream conversation, buoyed by the strength of the #MeToo movement. Still, it is not a new phenomenon: As early as the 1990s, leaders of women’s religious orders wrote reports detailing abuse of nuns.
Just last week, Women Church World, a Vatican magazine, acknowledged that some nuns have had abortions or given birth to the children of priests as a direct result of rape. And in November, in a surprising move, the International Union of Superiors General, the organization that represents the world’s Catholic women’s religious orders, not only criticized the “culture of silence and secrecy” that led to abuse, but urged nuns to report abuse to police.
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In its statement Thursday, the LCWR said the pope’s “frank words shed light on a reality that has been largely hidden from the public … Our hope is that this acknowledgement is some comfort for those who have survived abuse and that it hastens the much-needed repair of the systems within the Catholic Church that have allowed abuse to remain unaddressed for years.”
The pope made his remarks while returning to Rome after a trip to the United Arab Emirates. He held an informal press conference aboard his plane when he told reporters, “It’s true. There are priests and bishops who have done that.”
Francis said the Vatican had been working on the issue and that some priests had been suspended.
“Should more be done? Yes,” Francis said. “Do we have the will? Yes. But it is a path we have already begun.”
The pope made his comments after he was prompted by a question from Nicole Winfield, a reporter for the Associated Press who last summer investigated cases of nuns who had been abused in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America and concluded that the Vatican had not done enough to support victims or punish and hold accountable offenders.
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Annmarie Sanders, a spokeswoman for the LCWR, said she and her colleagues were surprised “and also grateful to Nicole Winfield for raising the question to the pope.”
Barrett Doyle pointed out that the pope’s comment was simply that — an admission that this has happened, not an action plan for how to stop abuses in the future.
“Nuns have been suffering … But I think his comment will have impact, it will encourage more nuns who are victims to come forward and report their perpetrators,” she said. “So in that way, I’m glad he made [the comment] because it’ll get attention now.”
Later this month, the pope is scheduled to meet with presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences in Rome to discuss a response to the global sex abuse crisis. While the meeting is expected to focus on child sex abuse, advocates are hopeful the pope’s admission Tuesday could lead to nuns being part of the larger conversation.
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