Several reports written by senior members of women's religious orders and by an American priest assert that sexual abuse of nuns by priests, including rape, is a serious problem, especially in Africa and other parts of the developing world.
The reports allege that some Catholic clergy exploit their financial and spiritual authority to gain sexual favors from religious women, many of whom, in developing countries, are culturally conditioned to be subservient to men. The reports obtained by NCR -- some recent, some in circulation at least seven years -- say priests at times demand sex in exchange for favors, such as permission or certification to work in a given diocese. The reports, five in all, indicate that in Africa particularly, a continent ravaged by HIV and AIDS, young nuns are sometimes seen as safe targets of sexual activity. In a few extreme instances, according to the documentation, priests have impregnated nuns and then encouraged them to have abortions.
In some cases, according to one of the reports, nuns, through naiveté or social conditioning to obey authority figures, may readily comply with sexual demands.
Although the problem has not been aired in public, the reports have been discussed in councils of religious women and men and in the Vatican.
In November 1998, a four-page paper titled "The Problem of the Sexual Abuse of African Religious in Africa and Rome" was presented by Missionaries of Our Lady of Africa Sr. Marie McDonald, the report's author, to the Council of 16, a group that meets three times a year. The council is made up of delegates from three bodies: the Union of Superiors General, an association of men's religious communities based in Rome, the International Union of Superiors General, a comparable group for women, and the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, the Vatican office that oversees religious life.
Last September, Benedictine Sr. Esther Fangman, a psychological counselor and president of the Federation of St. Scholastica, raised the issue in an address at a Rome congress of 250 Benedictine abbots. The federation is an organization of 22 monasteries in the United States and two in Mexico.
Five years earlier, on Feb. 18, 1995, Cardinal Eduardo Martínez, prefect of the Vatican congregation for religious life, along with members of his staff, were briefed on the problem by Medical Missionary of Mary Sr. Maura O'Donohue, a physician.
O'Donohue is responsible for a 1994 report that constitutes one of the more comprehensive accounts. At the time of its writing, she had spent six years as AIDS coordinator for the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development based in London.
Though statistics related to sexual abuse of religious women are unavailable, most religious leaders interviewed by NCR say the frequency and consistency of the reports of sexual abuse point to a problem that needs to be addressed.
"I don't believe these are simply exceptional cases," Benedictine Fr. Nokter Wolf, abbot primate of the Benedictine order, told NCR . "I think the abuse described is happening. How much it happens, what the numbers are, I have no way of knowing. But it is a serious matter, and we need to discuss it."
Wolf has made several trips to Africa to visit Benedictine institutions and is in contact with members of the order there.
"Sadly, the sisters also report that priests have sexually exploited them because they too had come to fear contamination with HIV by sexual contact with prostitutes and other 'at risk' women," she wrote in 1994.
O'Donohue declined requests for interviews with NCR .
In some cultures, O'Donohue wrote, men who traditionally would have sought out prostitutes instead are turning to "secondary school girls, who, because of their younger age, were considered 'safe' from HIV."
Similarly, religious sisters "constitute another group which has been identified as 'safe' targets for sexual activity," O'Donohue wrote.
"For example," O'Donohue wrote, "a superior of a community of sisters in one country was approached by priests requesting that sisters would be made available to them for sexual favors. When the superior refused, the priests explained that they would otherwise be obliged to go to the village to find women, and might thus get AIDS."
O'Donohue wrote that at first she reacted with "shock and disbelief" at the "magnitude" of the problem she was encountering through her contacts with "a great number of sisters during the course of my visits" in a number of countries.
Different view of celibacy
"The AIDS pandemic has drawn attention to issues which may not previously have been considered significant," she wrote. "The enormous challenges which AIDS poses for members of religious orders and the clergy is only now becoming evident."
In a report on her 1995 meeting with Cardinal Martínez in the Vatican, O'Donohue noted that celibacy may have different meanings in different cultures. For instance, she wrote in her report, a vicar general in one African diocese had talked "quite openly" about the view of celibacy in Africa, saying that "celibacy in the African context means a priest does not get married but does not mean he does not have children."
Of the world's 1 billion Catholics, 116.6 million -- about 12 percent -- live in Africa. According to the 2001 Catholic Almanac, 561 are bishops and archbishops, 26,026 are priests and 51,304 are nuns.
In addition to such general overviews, Martínez's office has also received documentation on specific cases. In one such incident, dating from 1988 in Malawi and cited in O'Donohue's 1994 report, the leadership team of a diocesan women's congregation was dismissed by the local bishop after it complained that 29 sisters had been impregnated by diocesan priests. Western missionaries helped the leadership team compile a dossier that was eventually submitted to Rome.
One of those missionaries, a veteran of more than two decades in Africa, said the Malawi case was complex and the issue of sexual liaisons was not the only factor involved. She described the incident in a not-for-attribution interview with NCR.
The missionary said the leadership team had adopted rules preventing sisters from spending the night in a rectory, banning priests from staying overnight in convents and prohibiting sisters from being alone with priests. The rules were intended to reduce the possibility of sexual contact.
Several sources told NCR that religious communities as well as church officials have taken steps to correct the problem, though they were reluctant to cite specific examples.
Others say the climate of secrecy that still surrounds the issue indicates more needs to be done.