ABUSE BY RELIGIOUS WOMEN - OUT OF THE DARKNESS
AND INTO THE LIGHT OF JUSTICE
It is not uncommon for middle-aged Catholics to get together and share war-stories about their experiences in Catholic schools. Many recall the physical punishments meted out by the seemingly always-angry nuns with a mixture of emotions. Some can laugh at it and others remain turned off by what we now realistically label as abuse.
The most sinister and harmful abuse by the nuns has not been bantered about by the alumni of Catholic schools. For the most part it has remained deeply buried beneath a thick cover of shame, fear, disgust and even guilt. The mainstream lay people and society in general remained unaware of this deeper and more disgusting level of abuse until very recently when courageous survivors have broken through the walls of fear and revealed not only sadistic physical abuse that went far beyond the boundaries of discipline, but debilitating sexual abuse.
Although sexual abuse by priests and brothers is accepted as a harsh reality except by the few who remain blinded by denial, exposure of sexual abuse by nuns is another story. Mention of it causes many to recoil in disbelief at something they seem incapable of emotionally and mentally processing. In spite of the denial that may be rooted in unrealistic or romantic stereotypes of "the good sisters," sexual abuse and harsh physical abuse have been a reality. The survivors of abuse by religious women have been struggling for years to be heard and believed. Now, with the publication of the Ryan Report in Ireland, the range of sexual and physical abuse has achieved a significant level of credibility. Survivors in our own country are being listened to more attentively. The pain and anguish is just as acute as that inflicted by perverted priests and uncaring bishops. The spiritual and emotional trauma is not only as severe but made worse by a thicker blanket of denial and a greater tendency to try to exonerate the "good sisters."
It matters not how much good religious women have done in our country or world-wide. That has nothing to do with the reality of abuse that was often systemic and certainly not exceptional in Catholic schools and Catholic orphanages.
My first encounter was in 1994. I was asked to assist an attorney who represented a number of adult survivors of sexual and physical abuse by the Sisters of Providence at St. Joseph's Orphanage in Vermont. An especially brave survivor, Joey Barquin, brought the sordid stories to the light in 1993. Through my experience with that case I was jolted into the harsh reality of the incredible degree of sexual and physical abuse inflicted on those innocent and vulnerable children who were literally imprisoned in the orphanage. Over the years I have met and worked with a number of other men and women whose abusive experiences came at the hands of terribly disturbed religious women. Again, it does not matter if the abuse was an exception or the rule. There is no excuse and there is no justification for ignoring those coming forward today.
My most recent in-depth experience has been with the victims from St. Thomas/St. Vincent Orphanage in Anchorage Kentucky. The tormenters were members of a religious order with the ironic name Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. Attorney Bill McMurry of Louisville had the courage to take on the Order and the archdiocese to finally bring some measure of justice to the victims. Read The Unbreakable Child by survivor Kim Michele Richardson. It will fill you with disgust and anger towards the nuns and amazement at the strength and courage of the writer.
We all know how individual bishops and the national Bishops' Conference have treated victims of clergy. It may be stunning to some to learn that the authority figures (I won't call them leaders) among the nuns, especially those in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious - the LCWR - the nuns' equivalent of the Bishops' Conference, have been just as arrogant and insensitive toward the victims who have approached them. They have stone-walled any attempts at seeking justice by victims. They have treated them with disdain and coldness. The sisters in general may garner plenty of praise for work in bringing social justice to the poor, but the "poor" in their own household are surely not the recipients of any such unselfish concern.
The religious women in the U.S. are getting a lot of support and sympathy as a result of the upcoming investigation by the Vatican. The sisters are justifiably complaining that the imperialistic Vatican cabal has acted with arrogance rooted in clericalism, yet they must look at themselves and ask if they have not displayed to the victims of abuse by their own with the same arrogance as the bishops they criticize. The LCWR needs to clean up its own act and acknowledge the disruptive elephant in their own convent parlor before they can justifiably tell others how to act with justice.
The most moving experience I have had in relation to abuse by religious women was a few years ago when I was speaking in Boston. After the talk, which by the way took place in one of the vigil Churches, an elderly lady approached me and took my hands. She looked into my eyes and said in her soft Irish brogue, "I was one of the Magdalenes. All I want Father, is to know what my real name is." I left that encounter in shock and in tears. It is one thing to hear or read about the unconscionable abuses perpetrated by clerics or religious women. It is quite another to meet it face to face.
This gentle victim of the Magdalene nightmare is one of countless people who bear these terrible scars. If we really are a "People of God" we will bury our denial, banish our unrealistic deference to clerics and religious, and join in the quest for true justice and honest compassion.
Thomas Doyle, J.C.D., C.A.D.C.
August 27, 2009