[Silver Spring, MD] We are very grateful for Pope Francis’ public acknowledgement of the sexual abuse of Catholic sisters by members of the clergy. His frank words shed light on a reality that has been largely hidden from the public and we believe his honesty is an important and significant step forward. Our hope is that this acknowledgement is some comfort for those who have survived abuse and that it hastens the much-needed repair of the systems within the Catholic Church that have allowed abuse to remain unaddressed for years.
Catholic sisters who have been sexually abused by priests have not always reported this crime for the same reasons as other abuse victims: a sense of shame, a tendency to blame themselves, fear they will not be believed, anxiety over possible retaliation, a sense of powerlessness, and other factors. We hope that, through the pope’s acknowledgement, sisters and other survivors find strength to come forward, and that his words lead to more welcome and receptive avenues of healing.
The sexual harassment and rape of Catholic sisters by priests and bishops has been discussed in meetings of leaders of orders of Catholic sisters from around the world for almost 20 years. Although the incidences seem most prevalent in developing countries, harassment and rape of sisters have been noted in other countries as well, including in the United States. A study conducted in 1996 by St. Louis University indicated that there were sisters in the United States who had suffered some form of sexual trauma by Catholic priests. Often those sisters did not share this information even with their own communities.
Our own understanding of occurrences of abuse of all forms has grown and deepened over these last two decades as we have learned more about the hiddenness of abuse and its long-range devastating effects on the lives of survivors. We acknowledge that, as sisters, we did not always provide environments that encouraged our members to come forward and report their experiences to proper authorities. We regret that when we did know of instances of abuse, we did not speak out more forcefully for an end to the culture of secrecy and cover-ups within the Catholic Church that have discouraged victims from coming forward. Communities of Catholic sisters have worked hard in recent years to have in place what is needed to deal responsibly and compassionately with survivors and will continue to make the protection from abuse of all persons a priority.
We gratefully acknowledge the work of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), the Rome-based organization of the leaders of orders of Catholic sisters throughout the world. The UISG leadership has worked for the past two decades to raise awareness within the church and in the public of the abuse occurring among communities of Catholic sisters particularly in the developing world. They have been at the forefront of advocacy efforts to call the church to accountability for this problem and we pledge our support and collaboration in their continued work on this critical concern.
We hope that Pope Francis’ acknowledgement is a motivating force for all of us in the Catholic Church to rectify the issue of sexual abuse by clergy thoroughly and swiftly. The upcoming summit of bishops on sexual abuse provides the opportunity for decisive action. Among the actions we recommend are:
- The creation of mechanisms for the reporting of abuse in an atmosphere where victims are met with compassion and are offered safety.
- Refashion the leadership structures of the church to address the issue of clericalism and ensure that power and authority are shared with members of the laity. The revelations of the extent of abuse indicate clearly that the current structures must change if the church is to regain its moral credibility and have a viable future.
Contact: Sister Annmarie Sanders, IHM – LCWR Director of Communications