Pope Francis Publicly Acknowledges Sexual Abuse of Nuns by Catholic Priests and Bishops

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Earlier this week, Pope Francis finally acknowledged to the public that children are not the only victims of sexual abuse in the church: nuns are too. Speaking to reporters, the Pope likened the adult victims to sex slaves, a comparison the Vatican quickly tried to play down as simply a gross abuse of power.

The admission was made in anticipation of a conference that the Pope is hosting in the coming weeks, a conference around the issue of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. “I believe that [sexual abuse] may still be being done. It’s not a thing that from the moment in which you realize it, it’s over,” said Pope Francis. “The thing goes forward like this. We’ve been working on this for a long time.” Pope Francis has, in the past, brushed off suggestions that the Catholic Church was actively suppressing the truth regarding the abuse of nuns. A year ago, when a Chilean priest was accused of participating in a cover-up, the Pope initially denied the victims’ claims before finally ordering an investigation. (The priest has yet to face any consequences for his actions.)

Nuns are the latest victims of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church to make the headlines — but the abuse is by no means a new occurrence. The story made big headlines in the fall when the Associated Press published a report revealing that the sexual abuse of nuns was in fact a global problem, not one that was limited to African parishes. The news should not have been unexpected considering “the universal tradition of sisters’ second-class status in the Catholic Church and their ingrained subservience to the men who run it.” The idea that sexual abuse was solely an African issue is tied to the prevalence of AIDS; rather than seeking sex from prostitutes or women outside of the church who might be infected with HIV, priests instead sought sex from nuns in order to avoid contracting the disease.

Nun Abuse Victims’ Unique Challenges

One of the challenges in addressing the sexual abuse of nuns is the fact that the perpetrators are male and the victims are female; as with cases of sexual abuse outside of the Catholic Church, women are either blamed for the encounters or not believed. “They (the priests) can always say ‘she wanted it,’” said Karlijn Demasure in an interview with AP. Demasure is a former executive of an organization that investigated sexual abuse of children in the church. Another complicating factor, she added, is the longstanding belief in many major religions that women are the seducers.

The sexual abuse of nuns can of course result in pregnancy, noted The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, sometimes leading to forced abortions; otherwise, born children are not recognized by their biological fathers. “Mainly she has an abortion,” added Demasure. “Even more than once. And he pays for that. A religious sister has no money. A priest, yes,” she said.

Beyond trauma and pregnancy, women bear the consequences of abuse when they report encounters to their superiors. Nuns who report sexual abuse risk being ousted from the church. A lawyer who is representing a group of nuns in India explained to the Washington Post, “[Once] a non speaks, she is thrown out of the convent and may find herself on the street, because often her family is not willing to accommodate her. A campaign of character assassination starts. The nun will be portrayed as a prostitute.” When the Catholic Church refused to take action against a bishop who had abused one of their peers, the victim took her complaints to the local police.

Catholic priests who report the sexual abuse of nuns to their superiors have also been ejected from the Church. AP reported that one priest in Uganda was suspended from the Church in 2013 for writing a letter that mentioned priests having sexual relations with nuns; he had to apologize for the letter in order to be allowed to rejoin the church.

The New York Times reported that one nun warned leaders of women’s religious orders at a conference: “Don’t report to bishop or priest as the first step to deal with the situation. They may be the abusers or may protect them.”