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.
Expressing frustration at unsuccessful efforts to get church officials to address the problem, O'Donohue wrote in 1994, "Groups of sisters from local congregations have made passionate appeals for help to members of international congregations and explain that, when they themselves try to make representations to church authorities about harassment by priests, they simply 'are not heard.' "
The Vatican press office did not respond to NCR requests for comment on this story.
O'Donohue wrote that, although she was aware of incidents in some 23 countries, including the United States, on five continents, the majority happened in Africa.
Ironically, given the reticence of many Africans to talk about sex, casual sex is common in parts of Africa, and sexual abstinence is rare. It's a culture in which AIDS thrives. Experts say the view derives from a deeply rooted cultural association between maleness and progeny -- a view that makes the church's insistence on celibacy difficult not only in practice but also in concept for some African priests.
AIDS rampant in Africa
Some 25.3 million of the world's 36.1 million HIV-positive persons live in sub-Saharan Africa. Since the epidemic began in the late 1970s, 17 million Africans have died of AIDS, according to the World Health Organization. Of the 5.3 million new cases of HIV infection in 2000, 3.8 million occurred in Africa.
According to a graphic article on AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa in the Feb. 12 issue of Time magazine, "Casual sex of every kind is commonplace. Everywhere there's premarital sex, sex as recreation. Obligatory sex and its abusive counterpart, coercive sex. Transactional sex: sex as a gift, sugar-daddy sex. Extramarital sex, second families, multiple partners."
Further, Time reported, women, taught from birth to obey men, feel powerless to protect themselves from men's sexual desires.
Even accounting for promiscuity -- which in fact, some experts have argued, is no less a problem in Western nations -- the religious men and women raising the issue of sexual exploitation of religious women say the situations they report on are clearly intolerable and, in some cases, approach the unspeakable.
In one instance, according to O'Donohue, a priest took a nun for an abortion, and she died during the procedure. He later officiated at her requiem Mass.
In McDonald's report, she states that "sexual harassment and even rape of sisters by priests and bishops is allegedly common," and that "sometimes when a sister becomes pregnant, the priest insists that she have an abortion." She said her report referred mainly to Africa and to African sisters, priests and bishops -- not because the problem is exclusively an African one, but because the group preparing the report drew "mainly on their own experience in Africa and the knowledge they have obtained from the members of their own congregations or from other congregations -- especially diocesan congregations in Africa."
"It is precisely because of our love for the church and for Africa that we feel so distressed about the problem," McDonald wrote.
McDonald's was the report presented in 1998 to the Council of 16. She declined to be interviewed by NCR.
When a sister becomes pregnant, McDonald wrote, she is usually punished by dismissal from the congregation, while the priest is "often only moved to another parish -- or sent for studies."
In her report, McDonald wrote that priests sometimes exploit the financial dependency of young sisters or take advantage of spiritual direction and the sacrament of reconciliation to extort sexual favors.
McDonald cites eight factors she believes give rise to the problem:
"It is understandable then, that a sister finds it impossible to refuse a cleric who asks for sexual favours. These men are seen as 'authority figures' who must be obeyed."
"Moreover, they are usually more highly educated and they have received a much more advanced theological formation than the sisters. They may use false theological arguments to justify their requests and behaviour. The sisters are easily impressed by these arguments. One of these goes as follows:
" 'We are both consecrated celibates. That means that we have promised not to marry. However, we can have sex together without breaking our vows.' "
Sisters sent abroad to Rome and other countries for studies are often "too young and/or immature," lack language skills, preparation and other kinds of support, and "frequently turn to seminarians and priests for help," creating the potential for exploitation.
"I do not wish to imply that only priests and bishops are to blame and that the sisters are simply their victims," McDonald wrote. "No, sisters can sometimes be only too willing and can also be naïve."
The American priest who gave a similar account of sexual abuse of women religious is Fr. Robert J. Vitillo, then of Caritas and now executive director of the U.S. bishops' Campaign for Human Development. In March 1994, a month after O'Donohue wrote her report, Vitillo spoke about the problem to a theological study group at Boston College. Vitillo has extensive knowledge of Africa based on regular visits for his work. His talk, which focused on several moral and ethical issues related to AIDS, was titled, "Theological Challenges Posed by the Global Pandemic of HIV/AIDS."
'Necessary to mention'
Vitillo, a priest of the Paterson, N.J., diocese, declined requests from NCR for an interview on the content of his talk.
He told the gathering at Boston College that nuns had been targeted by men, particularly clergy, who may have previously frequented prostitutes.
"The last ethical issue which I find especially delicate but necessary to mention," he said, "involves the need to denounce sexual abuse which has arisen as a specific result of HIV/AIDS. In many parts of the world, men have decreased their reliance on commercial sex workers because of their fear of contracting HIV. . As a result of this widespread fear, many men (and some women) have turned to young (and therefore presumably uninfected) girls (and boys) for sexual favors. Religious women have also been targeted by such men, and especially by clergy who may have previously frequented prostitutes. I myself have heard the tragic stories of religious women who were forced to have sex with the local priest or with a spiritual counselor who insisted that this activity was 'good' for the both of them.
The specific circumstances outlined in the O'Donohue report are as follows:
Those most directly affected are the women abused, wrote O'Donohue. The effects extend, however, to the wider community and include disillusionment and cynicism. The abused and others in the community "find the foundation of their faith is suddenly shattered."
Many whose faith has been shattered are from families that look unfavorably on religious vocations and who "question why celibacy should be so strongly proclaimed by the same people who are seemingly involved in sexually exploiting others. This is seen as hypocrisy or at least as promoting double standards," O'Donohue wrote.
Some observers say that in the wake of such reports, steps have been taken to address the problem.
Wolf, the Benedictine leader in Rome, said, "Several monasteries already have guidelines in case a monk is accused of sexual misconduct, taking care of the individuals concerned, the victim included. I pushed this question in our congregation. We need sincerity and justice."
A Vatican official told NCR that "there are initiatives at multiple levels" to raise awareness about the potential for sexual abuse in religious life. The official cited efforts within conferences of religious superiors, within bishops' conferences, and within particular communities and dioceses.
Most of these, the official said, were steps the Vatican is "aware of" and "supporting" rather than organizing or initiating.
The Vatican official was willing to speak anonymously about the problem with NCR.
The official noted two signs that the culture in the church is changing. In specific cases, the official said, the response from church leaders is more aggressive and swift; and in general, there is a climate within religious life that these things have to be discussed. "Talking about it is the first step towards a solution," the official said.
"Since most of what I gave was based on reports coming from diocesan congregations and Conferences of Major Superiors in Africa, I felt very convinced of the authenticity of what I was saying," McDonald wrote.
Yet, "the bishops present felt that it was disloyal of the sisters to have sent such reports outside their dioceses," McDonald wrote. "They said that the sisters in question should go to their diocesan bishop with these problems."
"Of course," she wrote, "this would be the ideal. However, the sisters claim that they have done so time and time again. Sometimes they are not well received. In some instances they are blamed for what has happened. Even when they are listened to sympathetically, nothing much seems to be done."
Worth talking about
Whatever positive steps have been taken, the problem remains a live concern for religious women. In an interview at her home in Kansas City, Mo., Fangman, the nun who raised the issue last September at a gathering of Benedictine abbots in Rome, told NCR that she had heard the stories about sisters being sexually abused by priests during informal discussions at meetings of abbesses and prioresses worldwide.
"The sisters who brought it up were deeply hurt by it and found it very painful -- and very painful to talk about," she said. Because of the pain that she and others were hearing, "we decided that it was worth also beginning to talk about in a more open way, and we had the opportunity at our regular meeting with the Congress of Abbots," she said.
Fangman said her report to the Benedictine abbots was based on the conversations with sisters and on the material in O'Donohue's reports.
Fangman's talk was published in a recent issue of the Alliance for International Monasticism Bulletin, a mission magazine of the order.
O'Donohue's report was prepared in a similar spirit: in hope of promoting change. She wrote in her report that she had prepared it "after much profound reflection and with a deep sense of urgency since the subjects involved touch the very core of the church's mission and ministry."
The information on abuse of nuns by priests "comes from missionaries (men and women); from priests, doctors and other members of our loyal ecclesial family," she wrote. "I have been assured that case records exist for several of the incidents" described in the report, she said, "and that the information is not just based on hearsay."
The 23 countries listed in her report are: Botswana, Burundi, Brazil, Colombia, Ghana, India, Ireland, Italy, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Tonga, Uganda, United States, Zambia, Zaire, Zimbabwe.
Her hope, she wrote, is that the report "will consequently motivate appropriate action especially on the part of those in positions of church leadership and those responsible for formation."