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.