The clerical abuse of Women Religious

by Fr. Shay Cullen

| Photo by Thom Quine via Wikimedia Commons

The shocking truth about clerical sexual abuse of minors and Women Religious is revealed in research by Missio Aachen released in 2020 that shows how widespread it is by clergy members. The pressure on Women Religious never to complain is immense when priests tell them that suffering in silence is a great virtue. Complaining of abuse invites retaliation and even expulsion from their congregation, the research reveals.

These are secret crimes now being exposed worldwide to the shame and embarrassment of the institutional church members. It is only when the truth is revealed, and accountability and justice are done with abusers convicted and jailed, that will end and the victims/survivors be free.

Clerical abuse is so prevalent that priests, called representatives of God once ordained, have a special entitlement to abuse minors and Women Religious and enjoy impunity from accountability. This is changing, and a few abusive priests are being held accountable. However, putting them on trial is meeting strong resistance from some bishops and priests that protect clerical abusers.

Some church authorities believe they and their priests are above the law of the State, and some even disregard the instructions of Pope Francis to report abuse. Denial and cover-up of crimes by protecting the abusers is common practice, according to the Women Religious who responded to the research questionnaire. This criminal abuse and its cover-up is causing many good people to lose faith and trust in the institutional hierarchical Church. Thousands have abandoned attending Mass and the sacraments.

True Christian believers live spiritual lives of virtue and continue to be disciples and followers of Jesus of Nazareth and respect his moral teaching on the rights, dignity, and importance of children and women.

When the sexual abuse of children and Women Religious causes people, especially children, to lose faith in Jesus himself, that is a grave and abominable sin.

Revelations and investigations into clerical abuse by civil authorities in dioceses in several countries showed that priests had abused thousands of children. Now, the latest investigation and report on the abuse being suffered by Women Religious is equally shocking and disgusting. The denial and cover-up by church authorities and bishops of this abuse have eroded trust, reverence, and respect for clergy.

Most clergy are upright, good, spiritual, and dedicated priests and brothers helping the unfortunate members of society, especially where the government fails the people. However, they mostly remain silent, perhaps because they fear retaliation by their superior or bishop if they report clerical child abuse or abuse of religious women.

“In Cagayan in the northern Philippines, the first Catholic priest to remain behind bars accused of child rape and sexual assault and allegedly using video voyeurism to blackmail a 15-year-old child victim is a first. He admits the acts but says it was consensual despite the alleged blackmail.”

The Gospel teaching of Jesus of Nazareth is clear that anyone that abuses a child and turns them away from trusting in him must be held accountable by tying a millstone around his neck, and that person be thrown into the deep sea. Jesus saw child abuse as a heinous crime. (Matthew 18: 6-7) (Mark 9:42) (Luke:17:2)

The bishops seem to ignore these vital Gospel teachings of Jesus. Doing so is a denial of Jesus himself. He said to accept one of these little ones is to accept him. The opposite can be true. Abusing one child is to abuse Jesus.

How can child abuse and Women Religious abuse be ignored, covered up, and tolerated on a massive scale in the Church and not be branded as a hypnotic institution failing to protect the most vulnerable of all?

However, this is changing as civil authorities bring more abusive clergy to trial and convict them. In Cagayan in the northern Philippines, the first Catholic priest to remain behind bars accused of child rape and sexual assault and allegedly using video voyeurism to blackmail a 15-year-old child victim is a first. He admits the acts but says it was consensual despite the alleged blackmail.

Another shocking first recently is the dismissal of an upcoming trial of former US Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, 93, of Washington DC. Pope Francis defrocked him after it became clear he abused adults and children. Despite widespread knowledge of his abusive actions in church circles, he rose to positions of power and influence. The judge ruled that he was unfit to stand trial because of dementia. He has denied the charges for decades.

The research by Missio, a reliable, renowned, trustworthy international German Church-based organization, has gathered much evidence from Women Religious in Asia and Africa of their experiences of being sexually abused by clergy.

Based on a professionally designed questionnaire circulated to women’s and men’s religious congregations and institutions, the results are disturbing and enlightening. They challenge bishops and clergy to respect, uphold, and treat as equals in rights and dignity. They allow more Women Religious to be empowered, independent, and free from sexual harassment and abuse by clergy and to bring abusers to justice. The short questionnaire had six core questions and a cover letter. It was designed “to give the respondents the maximum space to describe their experiences as well as their personal view in their own words.” Missio received 101 completed questionnaires.

The report says: “From the 101 completed questionnaires, 91 percent were completed by women, mostly by sisters belonging to a religious order and nine percent by men, all diocesan priests or priests belonging to a religious order.”

Most respondents gave the issue of abuse of women religious a very high level of importance. When asked what the Church was doing to address the issue, the overall answer was “not much was being done.”

In summary, the respondents reported the reasons for this inaction by church authorities: a culture of denial, a sense of entitlement, and a policy to conceal crimes and cover-up. Some respondents said speaking out against abuse is taboo. One respondent said, “It is not possible to speak openly about exploitation, oppression, sexual assault, etc., without fearing acts of reprisal or reputational damage.” Others said, “Efforts to consider cases of abuse within the church (e.g., to carry out a study on the subject) are thwarted.”

Another group said, “Priests (that abuse women religious) are not sanctioned but assigned to another parish.” Another convent of nuns said, “After the abuse in a religious convent, we sent a letter to all the authorities concerned, but no authority signaled or sent an acknowledgment of receipt.” Others said, “The local church is not ready to speak up openly as it would be a scandal; rather, they even try to dissuade those who dare to do so.” Yet another said, “experiences of violation and exploitation that women religious encounter in their lives is not acknowledged as abuse.”

Besides, it works to the advantage of local Church authorities to keep women religious where they are because they remain silent and silenced a lot. Report abuse in total confidentiality to or call and text Whatsapp +639228768621.

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1 comment

Roberto (Bobby) M. Reyes September 12, 2023 - 7:58 pm

Hi, Rev. Fr. Shay. FYI.
A church (or any place of worship of any faith) must not only be a temple for spiritual matters but also must address the basic needs of its parishioners (or members). For want of a better name, this column dubs it the “Back-to-Basics Church (or Temple or Synagogue or Mosque).”
FYI. The Bacon Parish Church (in Sorsogon, PH) is mentioned in this article as a “Parish of the Future.” (As published on Sept. 12, 2021.)
You may like to write your opinion of this series on “reinventing churches,” which will soon be published as a book (both hardcopy and e-book format). It is time that we, columnists in the PDM, must join forces to publish books containing our best op-ed pieces.


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