Nuns have always been second class citizens in the Church, writes Alison O’Connor
The Catholic Church’s prolonged, painful and highly political response to the abuse of children by its priests has not only served it well in dealing with this issue, but also means that when another one comes along, we’re suffering too much scandal fatigue to pay enough attention.
This must be why reports that nuns all over the world have been sexually abused by priests and even bishops seems to have received such a low key response, although many people did seem surprised.
There’s a twisted logic there, though. These women, while not quite as vulnerable as young children, were the next rung on the ladder in terms of defencelessness, seeing a priest as being next to God and seeing a woman’s role in the Church as far inferior to that of a man.
The issue, of course, is not a new one. In fact an Irish nun, Sr Maura O’Donoghue, submitted a report to the Vatican a quarter of a century ago on the abuse of nuns by priests. Surprise, surprise that report never saw the light of day.
The rape and abuse of children took precedence as the Church began a decades long game of cat and mouse on the issue. They obfuscated and delayed as to the extent of the problem, or indeed just wilfully ignored concrete reports of abuse, but acted to protect the abusers.
Nuns have always been second class citizens in the Church and even describing them as such appears to give them considerably more status than they were ever accorded. In Ireland, more recent times have brought us mixed attitudes towards nuns given their roles in the horrific treatment of children in industrial schools, their running of mother and baby homes and subsequent adoptions, and even more recently their control of maternity hospitals.
But as the work of Sr O’Donoghue, a medical missionary from Co Clare, who worked for a number of years as Aids co-ordinator for the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development (Cafod) highlights, no story has just one side.
Irish Times journalist Joe Humphreys wrote a book in 2010 on the work of Irish priests and nuns around the world entitled God’s Entrepreneurs: How Irish Missionaries Tried to Change the World.
He featured Sr Maura and told of how in 1994, she had “conducted a groundbreaking inquiry into priests’ alleged sexual abuse of nuns in more than 20 countries”.
The nun, who spent almost 50 years working in Africa, briefed the then prefect of the Vatican’s congregation for the religious life on what her report contained.
At that time it was reported that then-Vatican spokesman Dr Joaquin Navarro-Valls acknowledged that “the problem is known about” but insisted it was “restricted to a certain geographical area” (understood to mean Africa).
All told, including that report, and since then, there have been reports of nuns having abortions, giving birth to the children of priests who raped them, nuns being deliberately used for sex by priests to avoid contracting Aids (in Africa) and nuns being victimised for attempting to report the abuse.
The incidences of abuse continue to this day. The reports of abuse of nuns not just by priests, but also bishops, have centred in Africa, America, Latin America, and more recently India.
Roll forward a quarter of a century. Pope Francis, on the recent flight back to Rome from the Middle East, surprised the Vatican press corps by answering a question on the issue by saying the Church has faced a persistent problem of sexual abuse of nuns.
This was his first time publicly addressing the issue. “It is true. There are some priests and also bishops who have done it. I think it is still going on because something does not stop just because you have become aware of it.”
A former German nun, Doris Wagner, who says she was raped as a 24-year-old by the male superior of the convent where she lived, and also says a high ranking Vatican priest made sexual advances on her several years ago during confession, describes Sr Maura as her “hero”.
“Would the Roman Curia have acted appropriately 25 years ago many nuns would not have had to suffer, myself included,” she says.
Wagner is involved in the “Voices of Faith” group — remember that conference in Rome last year on International Women’s Day that had to be moved out of the Vatican because former President Mary McAleese was speaking?
The group held a further meeting in Rome towards the end of last year, influenced by the #MeToo movement, where Wagner and two other women told stories of their abuse.
They convened in Rome again this week ahead of the meeting of senior church clerics from around the world called together by Pope Francis for an apparently landmark summit on the Church’s response to the sexual abuse crisis.
Talk about Groundhog Day. Of course the Pope will be surrounded by many of those who protected the perpetrators, failed to inform the police and often rewarded the abusers with promotion. What will not surround him are women.
It appears that the men who rule the Church would rather see it die, at least in certain countries — the next few years are going to bring more and more stories of Irish parishes without a priest — than welcome women as equals who are just as entitled to be priests.
In her recent speech to the We are Church group, minister Josepha Madigan asked what kind of example is being shown to our young girls.
This sort of attitude has an impact on the whole community and makes the Church weaker, she added.
The minister is correct. The logic of all of this is that the current position also makes women weaker within the Church and more vulnerable to the type of abuse that is now coming to light.
A number of priests have realised over the decades that to abuse a nun, far lower down on the Church’s food chain, is almost an entitlement, and not something that they will be punished for doing. In fact, evidence has shown that the individual nun was frequently punished if she spoke up.
While the cases of abuse we have heard about are in places far from here, there can surely be no doubt but that the abuse of nuns in Irish convents by priests also went on. It’s only a matter of time before this emerges.
How much sexual scandal can one Church take? Well, it seems we are about to find out.