All eyes will turn to Rome between 21-24 February, when senior church clerics across the world meet to discuss how to handle the widening sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. Until recently, this has been focused on the abuse of children. But now Pope Francis has admitted – for the first time – sexual abuse by priests against religious women exists and must be acknowledged.
And Catholic women are speaking out, under the #NunsToo hashtag.
Twenty-five years ago, Irish nun, Maura O'Donohue prepared an extensive report for the Vatican on the abuse of nuns internationally by priests. Her report was based on information supplied by priests, doctors and others, and she had been assured records existed for several of the incidents. But the report was covered up.
In late November, influenced by the success of the #MeToo movement, a group of women theologians convened a meeting – called Voices of Faith – in Rome to share their stories of sexual harassment and abuse at the hands of male clerics, and decry the patriarchy of the Catholic hierarchy.
Doris Wagner, a German theologian, recalled her terror as a young woman in a mixed-gender religious order. A superior of the order entered her room one night and raped her. She knew if she were to report this, she would be told it was her fault, so she kept quiet. Years later, she did tell her superior, who did exactly as she feared – she blamed her, and asked if she had used contraceptives.
Wagner said she was later groomed by priest Hermann Geissler. He worked in the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the Vatican organisation that deals with complaints of child sexual abuse. This led to a series of sexual assaults in the confessional, which she reported.
Geissler was found to have acted inappropriately but was not removed from his job, despite working on child sex abuse cases. He was publicly outed and resigned only after Wagner disclosed the story at the meeting in Rome last year. But the priest who committed the rape is still ordained and living in a religious community with young women.
Wagner also read from a report that estimated up to 30% of Catholic sisters had been sexually abused and many more are at risk of clerical sexual abuse.
In Australia, reports suggest the number of Catholic women abused by priests vastly outnumber the survivors of child sexual abuse uncovered by the royal commission into the issue. These women and men often came from strict religious families, and had little experience of the world or sexual matters.
As this group finds its voice and begins to speak out, the leadership of the Church will face another crisis of legitimacy and round of public inquiries.
It is clear the sexual abuse of women, children and vulnerable adults has been normalised in Catholic clerical culture. Abuse is exercised at every level of ministry, from parish priest to the most senior clerics. Perpetrators are protected and victims silenced. This is aided by a culture of clerical entitlement and opportunity.
The child sex abuse royal commission’s final report provided ample evidence of this. It states:
Few survivors of child sexual abuse that occurred before the 1990s described receiving any formal response from the relevant Catholic Church authority when they reported the abuse. Instead, they were often disbelieved, ignored or punished, and in some cases were further abused.
Recently, a number of international cases have seen very senior Catholic clerics accused of protecting perpetrators of child sexual abuse. A Philadelphia Grand Jury recently found Church leaders protected more than 300 priest perpetrators. Australia’s royal commission also noted:
… the avoidance of public scandal, the maintenance of the reputation of the Catholic Church and loyalty to priests… largely determined the responses of Catholic Church authorities when allegations of child sexual abuse arose… Complaints of child sexual abuse were not reported to police or other civil authorities…
There are also cases of high-level clerical sexual abusers, including serial offender US Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who is now being defrocked, and Argentian bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, who has been accused of sexual misconduct with young seminarians. Pope Francis’ response was to remove Zanchetta from Argentina and promote him to a position of power in the Vatican’s finance office.
Francis has not adequately handled a number of crises. This includes last year, when he defended a Chilean bishop who had covered up cases of child sexual abuse. As US feminist theologian Mary Hunt says, “you can’t make this stuff up”.
Little information has been provided about the agenda for the upcoming, so-called “protection of minors in the Church” meeting in late February. But it’s clear there will be no survivors, lay women or men in attendance – just the bishops, senior Vatican officials and Pope Francis.
This is the cohort who has protected priest perpetrators, covered up hundreds of cases, failed to report criminal activity to the police, blamed victims and promoted the guilty to positions of power. It is clear the answers to this catastrophic problem will not come from Church leaders. Instead, it is victims, survivors, lay people and experts in institutional change that need to be leading the dialogue, and enacting change. And one such group may be the Voices of Faith.
This article previously referred to the group “Voices of Faith” as “Voices of Change”. This has now been fixed.