by Richard S. Ehrlich
VATICAN CITY The Vatican's acknowledgment that Catholic priests sexually abused nuns in several countries has sparked outrage and international investigations to stop the reported rapes, pregnancies and abortions which allegedly led to at least one death.
Investigations by US-based National Catholic Reporter (NCR) magazine revealed "strictly confidential" testimony made to the Vatican over several years which described the problem and attempts to conceal it.
NCR broke the story in its March 16 issue, prompting the Vatican to issue an unusual public confession admitting the problem exists.
In the United States, organizations representing American Catholic priests and nuns reacted in horror.
Stephen Glodek, who is president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, along with Sister of St. Agnes Mary Mollison, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, issued a joint statement from Maryland which said in part: "The horrible nature of the reported sexual abuse is undeniable."
They added, "As sisters, priests and brothers, members of the same religious family, we are all betrayed by this violation.
"We commend the Vatican for acknowledging the problem and communicating the efforts it has made to date," their joint statement said.
Some critics demanded the Vatican release the names of all accused priests so they can be put on trial and, if found guilty, imprisoned for rape.
Much of the sexual abuse by priests against nuns which was detailed in testimony given to the Vatican took place in Africa, prompting some African Catholics to complain that racism motivated the investigations.
NCR reported, "The story focused on priests in 23 countries, but primarily in Africa, targeting nuns for sex."
According to NCR, "Several reports written by senior members of women’s religious orders and by an American priest assert that sexual abuse of nuns by priests, including rape, is a serious problem, especially in Africa and other parts of the developing world."
NCR said the testimonies and documents "say priests at times demand sex in exchange for favors, such as permission or certification to work in a given diocese.
"In a few extreme instances, according to the documentation, priests have impregnated nuns and then encouraged them to have abortions," NCR said.
The Vatican and various Catholic organizations were repeatedly informed about the crisis -- which dates back to 1988 -- but were able to hide the problem from the world's attention despite detailed complaints from senior clergy.
In 1998, for example, the Vatican's powerful "Council of 16" received a "strictly confidential text" titled, “The Problem of the Sexual Abuse of African Religious in Africa and Rome,” written by Sister Marie McDonald, mother superior of the Missionaries of Our Lady of Africa.
Sister McDonald wrote, “sexual harassment and even rape of sisters by priests and bishops is allegedly common,” and “sometimes when a sister becomes pregnant, the priest insists that she have an abortion.
"The sister is usually dismissed from her congregation while the priest is often only moved to another parish -- or sent for studies," Sister McDonald added.
In addition to African nations, “we know that the problem exists elsewhere too."
Sister McDonald said, "everyone here knows that this problem exists and that in spite of very many attempts to improve the situation, it seems to be getting worse, instead of better.
"In March of this year (1998), I addressed the Bishops of the Standing Committee of SECAM (Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar) on the 'Problems Facing Religious Congregations.' The sexual abuse of sisters was put forward as one of the main problems.
"In formal and informal sessions, Superiors General in Rome have been hearing and sharing accounts of sexual abuse in the last few years," Sister McDonald wrote.
Earlier, in a 1995 "personal memo" to Rome, Sister Maura O’Donohue, a Medical Missionary of Mary, cited "a priest who had brought a sister for an abortion.
"She died during the procedure and the priest officiated at the Requiem Mass," O'Donohue added.
Sister O’Donohue's report also noted, "Some Catholic medical professionals employed in Catholic hospitals have reported pressure being exerted on them by priests to procure abortions in those hospitals for religious sisters."
Previously, in a 1994 "strictly confidential" report, Sister O’Donohue described "the exploitation of sisters and other women by priests."
Sister O'Donohue wrote, "Before providing details it is important to stress that what is presented here is not generalized behavior but occurs time and time again in a familiar pattern.
"In fact the following examples derive from experience over a six-year period (since 1988) and relate to incidents in some 23 countries in five continents: Botswana, Burundi, Brazil, Colombia, Ghana, India, Ireland, Italy, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Tanzania, Tonga, United States of America, Zambia, Zaire, Zimbabwe," Sister O’Donohue added.
"Several priests and indeed members of the hierarchy were reported to have abused their power and betrayed their trust in exploitative sexual relations with sisters," she said.
Collectively, the investigations point to scores of incidents in various countries.
"Since the 1980s in a number of countries sisters are refusing to travel alone with a priest in a car because of fear of harassment or even rape," O’Donohue said.
After NCR's initial report, some of the documents were translated into Italian and published by Rome's media, prompting the Pope's official spokesman, Joaquin Navarro Valls, to publicly announce on March 20, "The problem is known, and is restricted to a geographically limited area.
“The Holy See is dealing with the question in collaboration with the bishops, with the Union of Superiors General and with the International Union of Superiors General."
The Union of Superiors General and the International Union of Superiors General are based in Rome and include leaders of male and female Catholic groups, respectively.
The Vatican however did not reveal which nations were involved or what solution it planned.
In an editorial, NCR responded, "The Vatican’s acknowledgement of abuse of nuns by priests is a welcome development, an essential first step along the path of dealing with the problem and healing deep wounds."
NCR also posted its March 16 story on NCR's website, along with full texts of the confidential testimonies, plus fresh reaction by the Catholic clergy.
In a new, gritty revelation after the Vatican's acknowledgment, NCR interviewed an African nun studying at a Catholic college in the United States who personally described being raped by an African priest.
The nun was in a "diocesan-owned convent" in West Africa, NCR reported.
"She was 17 when she entered, 27 when she was raped by a priest."
Describing the rape, the nun said, “I fought him throughout.
“The hardest thing for me to accept was that it was in the religious life that I broke my virginity." In some cases, impoverished nuns tolerate rape by priests “because many have a better life in the convent than they would have at home," the nun said.
“A lot of the priests have been to Rome to study, and when they come back, the women think they know everything, so whatever the priests tell them they believe.
"They believe them when they say it’s OK to have sex. They think it’s normal," the nun added.
"It is safer for an African woman to be out in the world" than to be in a nunnery among lecherous priests, she claimed.
“Those you hope to look up to, the older nuns, you realize they are involved, too. You realize, ‘OK, it’s accepted,' and that’s very hard," she lamented.
“A lot of young nuns told me they had been raped by priests," the nun added.
NCR said, "Only a couple of the U.S. nuns at her college are aware that she had been a victim.
"She found the problem of sexual abuse of nuns to be very common in her area and believes it occurs throughout Africa."
Out of an estimated global population of one billion Catholics, about 12 percent -- 116.6 million -- reportedly live in Africa, including 560 bishops and archbishops, 26,000 priests and 51,300 nuns.
Richard S. Ehrlich has a Master's Degree in Journalism from Columbia University, and is the co-author of the classic book of epistolary history, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews.
from The Laissez Faire City Times