Sexual Abuse by Men of Respected Standing in Religious Faiths is Nothing New

By Carol Yost

Twenty-five years ago, Sister Maura O’Donoghue, a Medical Missionary of Mary in County Clare, Ireland, submitted a report to the Vatican about the alleged sexual abuse of nuns by priests in 23 countries. The Vatican put it aside.

She told of one religious superior in Africa who was asked by local priests for nuns to be made available for sex. When the request was refused, the priests replied that then they would have to go to the local non-clerical women, whom they considered more likely to have AIDS. They made these appalling statements as if priests, who take an oath of celibacy, must of course be expected to break that oath.

She also said that in 1988, in Malawi, leaders of a women’s congregation were dismissed by a bishop when they complained that 29 nuns had been made pregnant by diocesan priests. In another case, a priest took a nun for an abortion during which she died. He officiated at her requiem Mass.

The 1994 report by Sister O’Donoghue was referenced in 2001 when Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Vatican spokesman at the time, said the problem was confined “to a certain geographical area,” which was understood to mean Africa. That was not the assertion made in the report, and the implication by this spokesman that only Africa had the problem was overtly racist. He said the Holy See was working with bishops and the heads of religious orders to resolve the problem. The trouble is that higher-ups can be very interested in damage control, and may themselves be guilty of sexual abuse. At different times Church officials have claimed the problem was “being worked on,” but it’s been taking an awfully long time. The Pope has authority, but he has been slow to use it.

However, news reports say that nuns have more recently been invited to report problems. Now that Pope Francis has admitted to the sexual abuse of nuns by priests, and the #MeToo era is here, there is hope that the logjam is breaking.

Experts say that many clergymen are inclined to believe that priestly abusers are really the victims of nuns who are sexual temptresses—Jezebels in holy habiliments—because the nuns are adults, are supposedly not helpless, and are aware of what is going on. Nuns are also expected to serve priests and pray quietly. Nuns have also been financially dependent on priests, who have felt free to take advantage of them.

Because they are highly esteemed, priests have sometimes taken advantage of women in a confessional or in a religious guidance relationship. But the sexual abuse of nuns hasn’t been made public until recently. Even Mother Superiors have tried to hush up complaints to protect the reputation of the Church.

Nuns and priests have been thrown out of their churches for reporting abuse. Meanwhile, it is common for priests to abuse nuns and then force them to have abortions if they become pregnant (the priests cover the cost), or force them to give birth; the nuns with babies are then expelled, and may find themselves on the street because their families won’t take them; they are seen as prostitutes. This can happen to nuns who have abortions, too.

Sexual abuse occurs in non-Christian religions, of course. When I was 14, a Hindu swami was visiting with my family in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and enthralled our guests with his inspired talks about the oneness of all religions and about what God wanted from everyone. The evening before he left, the 33-year-old swami privately asked for permission to give me a “spiritual embrace.” He said it was not romantic. I said yes. But when he embraced me tightly, and forcibly kissed me on the lips, I was very uncomfortable. I didn’t know quite what to do. When a little later he asked to do this again, I said no, and he said if it “displeased” me, he wouldn’t push it, but he continued to insist it wasn’t “romance.” I told my mother, and she said he shouldn’t have embraced and kissed me. She still respected him as a religious leader. Later we corresponded for a brief time, and he gave wise, kindly advice. No hint of the incident came up again. I have never thought he was deceitful to me when he kissed me; it was as if perhaps he hadn’t understood his own feelings. He had not been flirtatious in any way, and may have mistaken physical attraction for religious passion. Many others do not have that excuse, however, and should know perfectly well that what they are doing is disrespectful and downright wrong.

This was true of another experience I had. In my mid-twenties, I joined a very fine Buddhist sect in New York City. Once, in conversation with one of the leaders who had been advising me about a personal problem, I realized he was trying to insinuate his way into a secret sexual relationship with me, even though he was married and a father. Suddenly there was a decidedly revolting smoothness about him. I didn’t allow him to continue. Later I saw him flirting with another woman who seemed flattered by the attention. I told a couple of friends in the organization about how he had acted toward me; one seemed uncomfortable, but another said she thought she saw signs that the other leaders were aware of this corrupt official’s conceit and arrogance, and may have known more than they were letting on. I regret not having reported him to these leaders. I had the timidity many women have about these matters, not wanting to cause trouble.

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