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The Abuse of Nuns

Much has been written about the abuse of children by priests in the Catholic Church, but it is only very recently that there has been major public reference to the many instances of rape and sexual assault of nuns and religious lay women by priests and bishops.

It came to my conscious attention only through the sad admission by Pope Francis that the “sexual slavery” of women was a major issue within the Church, though it seems there have been complaints of such abuse over many years, complaints which have not been acknowledged, and certainly not addressed, by the Catholic hierarchy.

I was shocked both by the extent of the problem, and by my thoughtless ignorance: I should have recognised that the abuse of the vulnerable by priests may have included the women in the Church as well as children. Did you know? I sense it was a scandal that was whispered about within and concealed as far as possible from the outside world – as happened over the assaults on children, until the issue was uncontainable. This new ripple of great wrong will be uncontainable too, as women who have been forced to be silent through fear or oppression will be encouraged now to come forward, with the unspoken blessing of their spiritual leader.

The Pope has said that the abuse of nuns occurred, and still occurs, because they were seen as second class within the Catholic Church. It is true indeed that nuns have been viewed and used by the men who have all authority in the Church as occupying the lowest rung of the establishment, not members of the clergy in their own right but bound by their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They are, in effect, servants to the male authority figures in charge of their community and their church.

Overshadowed by their sacred vows, sexual attack by their spiritual leaders much have been, and is, most terrible: for many women, the outcome was forced abortion or having children who were unrecognised by the priests who fathered them. Rape is unacceptable at any time, but for someone for whom celibacy is a key guiding principle of their life and who has devoted herself to a contemplative, spiritual life, the hurt and emotional damage done is unimaginable.

While Pope Francis speaks of it being a cultural issue, his explanation ignores core questions about the conduct and morality of the priests and bishops, who themselves have taken vows relating to putting the good of the Church before their own, working for the betterment of their community and having responsibility for the spiritual guidance and care of their flock, including, of course, the nuns who are part of it.

It ignores, too, the Vatican’s refusal to address a culture where abuse of the vulnerable – children and women, and possibly young male priests too – has been known about and tacitly condoned for decades, possibly centuries. No doubt this sad facet of religious life applies in other churches also.

It is good that the truth about the sexual abuse of nuns and other women is starting to be revealed so that, at last, it can be addressed and recognised for the crime that it is. Like us all, nuns are not perfect but most of them do their very best to serve God in humility and love. May those who hurt find healing, and peace of mind and heart, wherever in the world they are.




6 thoughts on “The Abuse of Nuns

  1. Thanks for this post, Claire! 🙂

    While not at all happy about how priests and bishops behave towards nuns and others, it is also wise to point out behaviour that is far more stellar on at least one priest’s and one nun’s part than what you describe.

    In the case of one particular priest, Teilhard de Chardin, when once at a loss for a way to celebrate Mass in a very remote spot on this planet, he conducted a Mass that offered up the world.

    As for a nun worthy of note, think in terms of Ste. The’re`se de Lisieux. This woman entered the Carmelite order with the intention of becoming a saint. Some years after her passing, she was canonised as one by the Church of Rome.



    • Thank you, William.You are right, of course, that it is not black and white at all! Some priests are magnificent in their service and their humility, while certain nuns are themselves abusive to children in their care, for example. Sadly, however, there does seem to be a pattern of abuse by men towards the vulnerable in religious churches that has been allowed to fester, including but not only the Catholic Church.

  2. Hello Claire,

    Thank you so much for this unflinching article which spoke to my feminist, Goddess-loving soul. It stirred my thinking, also William’s comments.
    I did know that abuse of nuns and also children existed within the Catholic Church as, alas, such abuse has beeen perpetrated for centuries on those regarded as weaker, sadly for as long as patriarchy has ruled over us all.
    The potent little figure of the Venus of Willendorf is believed to date from the Old Stone Age. And it is my understanding that Goddess, rather than God, was then celebrated amongst us until the beginning of the Ion Age, when patriarchial societies took over.
    I speak simplistically, but I do think that women and men alike are repressed by this heavy, hierarchial ethos that has lasted for centuries and which permeates all aspects and all organisations in our lives.
    There is hope!
    I believe women and men from all walks of life are welcoming the return of the Divine Feminine and our Earth Mother, for the Goddess and God to be side by side in harmony and balance and to be representative of the aspirations of a compassionate society.

    • Thank you very much, Rita, and I agree with everything you say.
      It is interesting that the Vatican congress on abuse that starts today makes no reference – in the public reports – to the abuse of women, only to the abuse of children which indeed is well known, well-documented and investigated – though not fully or adequately.
      One wonders if and how far the investigators themselves need to be investigated?

  3. Thank you, Claire, for replying to me. What you say is so interesting, concerning the secrecy around these issues of abuse and the possibility that the investigators temselves need investigating.
    I believe it is the same with some members of the police force. There have been instances where vulnerable women, such as streetwalkers, have turned to the police for protection against the worst abuses of their clients but, instead of protection, have received further abuse.
    The way I see it, is that the perpetrators of abuse will often be influential people holding the powers of investigation and legal impartiality. This barrier is enormously difficult to penetrate and so it can be very hard to lay bare the truth and ultimately arrive at justice.

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“May those who hurt find healing…..”