Nun Sex-Abuse Report Does Not Surprise Sisters
Support System: Women Say Problem Is Not Being Ignored

By Mary Nevans Pederson
Telegraph Herald [Dubuque IA]
Downloaded January 19, 2003

The news that two of every five U.S. Catholic nuns surveyed in 1996 said that they have been sexually victimized surprised people around the country, but not the nuns.

Results of a survey of 1,100 nuns by researchers at Saint Louis University were recently publicized. The survey found that about 40 percent of the nuns had experienced some form of sexual trauma, ranging from childhood incest to violation by priests, nuns or other adults, to sexual harassment at work. Figures for the general population of women in the U.S. indicate that from 25 to 31 percent of all women experience some form of sexual abuse during their lifetimes.

"We have been aware of this for a long time in our community," said Sister Joy Peterson, president of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, based in Dubuque. "In the 1970s and 1980s, we were hearing the same numbers, which are not significantly different than in the general population."

"This is not new news to us. It's been part of our community history and we have dealt with it for a long time," said Sister Dorothy Heiderscheit, president of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Family in Dubuque.

The Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary were holding workshops for their nuns on "surviving the trauma of sexual abuse" six years before the St. Louis survey was conducted. In 1995, the BVM magazine SALT had an article on "Breaking Open the Silence - Healing the Woundedness."

The author, a BVM nun, spoke about the trauma of uncovering the sexual abuse in her life and how she started the journey toward healing. She formed a "beginning network of survivors" within the BVM community.

Sister Joellen McCarthy, president of the BVMs, said the congregation of religious women

strives to "create a climate of support and emotional safety" for its members, especially those who are coming to terms with abuse.

The 780 Dominican Sisters of the Most Holy Rosary, based at Sinsinawa, Wis., seem to mirror the survey data, said Sister Toni Harris, OP.

"People seem to forget that we are cut from the same cloth as the rest of humanity. Men and women religious are not exempt from the same things that happen to the rest of the population," she said.

Each of the local communities of nuns offers extensive counseling for members who have been sexually victimized.

"The abuse of power is deplorable. It takes a tremendous amount of counseling and support to heal those wounds," said Heiderscheit, who was a mental health counselor for 13 years, to both religious and lay persons.

One BVM nun who was abused by a priest as an adult revealed her trauma to the BVM leadership last year. At this point, she is still too vulnerable to begin formal psychological therapy, said McCarthy.

Peterson said it is easier for sexual abuse victims to come forward now than it was decades ago.

The authors of the 1996 survey said the results weren't widely publicized at the request of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organization of 1,000 leaders representing 76,000 U.S. Catholic sisters. Some have called their actions a "cover-up."

Leaders of the organization explained their reasons for supporting limited publicity of the survey results, published in two religious journals in 1998.

Conference Director Carole Shinnick, SSND, wrote an angry opinion piece to newspapers across the country that carried the original article about the survey.

"The LCWR did not initiate, call for or design the study," she wrote. The results were no surprise to women religious who "were already aware of the sexual abuse histories of their members and were doing something about it.

"To suggest that women religious have been part of some cover-up because the results of the study were not published in the mainstream press is simply inaccurate and unjust," Shinnick wrote.

Sister Mary Ann Zollman, BVM, of Dubuque, who is the elected president of the national conference, said the group did not see the need to widely publicize the information on the sexual victimization of nuns.

"We weren't trying to keep it secret - it was published - but we were already aware of the situation in our own communities and were responding whole-heartedly," said Zollman, who was not a conference leader at the time of the study.

In her own congregation, Zollman has watched nuns wounded by sexual abuse transformed into "deeply compassionate and effective ministers" to others who have suffered the same trauma.

"My sadness about all this is that the rest of the story is being ignored. By focusing on only this issue, the beauty and power of religious life gets diminished," Zollman said.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.