The Abuse of Nuns and Sisters in the Catholic Church

Pope Francis’s recent acknowledgement of the sexual abuse of female religious by Catholic clergy should have surprised no-one (see, for example, the account given here: I can remember our own D. Teresa Rodrigues, who was Secretary of Aide Inter-Monastique for many years, waxing wroth on the subject. It is one of those scandals everyone is aware of, professes to abhor but doesn’t actually do anything about because there is no reward for doing so. If male, it doesn’t advance one up the clerical career ladder; if female, it doesn’t endear one to one’s religious superiors and lays one open to all kinds of sanctions; if lay, one has more than enough to worry about with the terrible scandal of the sexual abuse of children. I think it’s worth pointing out, however, that although the pope directed our attention to sexual abuse, that is only one aspect of the matter — a manifestation of another and more general abuse. At the heart of it all is the low opinion the institutional Church has of nuns and sisters and women generally.

The patristic tradition and modern versions of it: motherhood
As soon as I say that, I know many will protest that the Church holds women in high honour. Some will point to the long patristic tradition honouring Mary, the greatest of all women. Others will quote more or less sugary texts telling us what wonderful beings we are and how privileged we are to serve in our maternal roles. There is my first problem: not the patristic tradition itself, but the shrunken version of it that we are often given, which sees all women through a single lens, that of mother. Not all women are mothers, just as not all men are fathers; but the Church has never sought to define all men in terms of fatherhood in the way she has often seemed to define all women in terms of motherhood.

Motherhood is a great vocation, make no mistake, but it can be reduced to a caricature of itself, to a kind of ‘flower-pot’ role in the life of others. My own mother summed this up rather crisply when she said, ‘Blame Mummy for everything that goes wrong, but don’t give her credit for anything that goes right!’ Fifty years on, and I feel the truth of her words more and more. It is (comparatively) easy to dismiss women as being somehow of less account, especially in a Church where priesthood and rulership are reserved to men. Most of the women who read this blog will have their own stories to tell of occasions when they encountered attempted put-downs or were dismissed unheard. A shrug and a smile and choosing which battles are worth fighting and which aren’t is probably the response most of us make most of the time. But I wonder whether we should be addressing another question that is becoming more and more urgent. Are the rights and responsibilities of women in the Church properly understood?

The rights and responsibilities of women: the exercise of power and authority
There was a time when arguments about the rights and responsibilities of women in the Church, whether religious or lay, were glossed over by reference to ‘cultural circumstances’. We were told that the future growth of the Church lay in Africa and Asia, where women were culturally subservient, and it would be wrong for the Church as a whole to upset this order of things. So, please would Western women shut up, say their prayers and do as the men said. I exaggerate, of course, but even the furthest regions of the Vatican must now be aware that society is changing fast, and perhaps nowhere more so than in Africa and Asia. With better education comes greater autonomy, which may be one reason why many absolutist regimes try to restrict access to education, especially for women and girls. Where women have a better grasp of their rights and responsibilities, it is impossible for the institutional Church to go on behaving as it always has. It must actually engage with women; and that can be very difficult for those who grew up in a different world or who have had no contact with women, other than as secretaries or servants, for most of their lives.

Of course, where the Church does not promote or even protect the rights and responsibilities of women, we end up with a paternalistic system which works well enough until it is placed under scrutiny, when it shows how very flawed it is. The exercise of power and authority will always be viewed with some suspicion by those who have no power themselves, but one must ask whether women in the Church need to be quite as invisible as they have become. Following the publication of Cor Orans, I have had to do quite a lot of work on canon law and I have found sobering the way in which female religious are regarded as being ‘disposable’ — their persons, their property, even their mission being subject to control by those who may have no first-hand experience of what they are dealing with. They are in some ways infantilized. This is very far from religious obedience, which should lead to a growing maturity in Christ. What has gone wrong? Do we take the easy way out, and blame the women themselves, or do we ask ourselves what in the structures of the Church could be responsible for bringing about such a situation?

A personal and tentative conclusion
I think myself that a reluctance to engage with women except on a top-down basis has led to a kind of blindness in the Church that is now disabling her more than ever. I don’t believe, for one moment, that popes, bishops and clergy set out to do women down or treat them with contempt; but I do think that unexamined attitudes have led to us getting further and further away from the gospel. The authoritarian exercise of power makes people concentrate on the power, not on what it is intended to bring about. I am not alone in thinking that the institutional Church has not yet really taken on board how serious is the sexual abuse scandal, and how inadequate appear the various measures suggested for its resolution. The reluctance to include women in the processes for examination of the problem is telling. It is a kind of ‘own goal’ for the Church.

We have to have law; we have to have regulations for large and complex organisations like the Catholic Church; but I am not convinced that we have to have the kind of laws and regulations we currently have. If one part of the Church has no voice — if it is always the part to which things are done, rather than engaged and participant — then there is bound to be a problem with how it is viewed. If female religious are basically of no account, then of course they can be treated as children. And the horror of it is, that we see exactly where failing to treat children as we should has led us all.

I have deliberately distinguished between the institutional Church, for which I use the neutral ‘it’, and the Church as a whole for which I use the feminine ‘she’. It’s a crude distinction, but it is useful. As always, I don’t want my male readers, especially the clerical ones, to feel they are being blamed for the difficulties I discuss. They know how much they are loved and valued, and many share my sense of frustration with the way in which the Church appears to be failing to address important questions. I’ve tried to write for those who don’t have much history or canon law but who believe in the gospel and want to right the wrongs they see. As a Church, we preach peace and justice but without real justice within the Church, can there be genuine peace? Although I am writing about the exercise of power and authority, I am not writing about ordination which is theologically a much more nuanced question than many are prepared to admit. So, please, no ‘If only the Catholic Church would ordain women’ responses. That is not what is at issue here.


29 thoughts on “The Abuse of Nuns and Sisters in the Catholic Church”

  1. Well said, dear D. Catherine. It is bad enough outside the Church, but when this attitude is coated with a quasi pious saccharine goo it makes one sick to the stomach. You are right that lay women generally feel they have more than enough to worry about and cope with. Of course one wants to do one‘s bit for the parish or Church in general, but if one keeps getting knock-backs in one form or another, there is always something else worthwhile to invest one‘s energy in. It is a dreadful waste of talent, love and good will. For nuns and sisters it must be a sore trial. God bless you.

  2. An encompassing and comprehensive overview of a sensitive subject. I applaud your reference to “unexamined attitudes” by good people in the midst of an enormous and complex organisation. A love of the beguiling and hypnotic nature of power, and not the potential for its effect in the light of the Gospel, has always produced a moribund response to a call for discussion and potential change. The conversation might be slow, aggravatingly so, but it keeps moving attitudes in a forward direction.

    Thank you for the overview of where the church is today, and for encouraging the church to “up the pace”.

  3. What a brilliant piece of analytical writing. Every sentence is so true.

    So many of us despair at the institutional church (first met that definition after V II when I was 16) and there hasn’t been much change since.

    I’m not surprised that so many young people, especially young women, have abandoned the church in the face of its entrenched attitude to women. The church of course, not being the people of God in a particular locus, but the men who hold the power.

    I should love to see the entire hierarchy sent off to a conference where they were obliged to be dutifully silent, listen to you and some of your sisters explain to them how to develop, improve, listen and learn from the women in the church. And then change.

    • I’ll probably get a few tickings-off for what I’ve written here, but those who know me will know it comes from having thought and prayed about the matter and a genuine desire to see if we can bring healing into a very wounded situation. Many of the young women who turn to us are so generous, are drawn to the traditional elements of our life, but are then staggered to realise that the Church affords them less respect than civil society. That worries me. Don’t lose heart.

  4. “The authoritarian exercise of power”—not just the Church, but so destructive and antithetical to Christ. Thank you for this excellent analysis.

    • Thank you, Barbara. If what I’m suggesting is true, then it does have a wider application. For those of us who are bound up in the Church system, so to say, it is only by prayer and keeping our love of the Lord as focused as we can that we can make sense of any of this.

  5. I am not sure how much difference the ordination of women would make in any case. I belong to a denomination which has been ordaining women for over a century, and we still have issues with the abuse and marginalisation of women, and until quite recently with a lack of women in leadership positions. What makes a difference is the willingness to admit past failings and to work on improving matters, not ordination in itself (though I am entirely in favour of it within my denomination – not being Roman Catholic, I don’t feel it’s my place to comment on yours).

    • Thank you, Rosie. It is unfortunate, to say the least, that the question I’m trying to address is so often linked to ordination. Put very simply, I don’t see priests as women’s enemies! But I do think the question of how the Church acts, how she understands herself, is very important and that is one of the areas I am trying to understand better.

  6. Dear Sr. Catherine. I love reading and learning more about you. This is a brilliant piece! It reminded me of a time when I worked in the field of addictions and in the detox. I remember a male staff encouraging me to see a particular client who in this staff/therapist view required a “mothers” view. As sweet a man as he was I wanted to be respected as a professional woman. I too was working as a non licensed therapist. Through the year’s I transfered to the women’s rehabilitation center. Now then working in an all female facilty meant working with primarily female’s. During that time it was presented to me by my superviser that she was told I was being motherly…and grandmotherly. That was not an insult to me. I am a mother and a grandmother. I found it amusing that my female supervisor would accuse me of the greatest gifts.
    Sister? You are brilliant beyond my comprehension. I probably don’t understand everything you are saying here but you certainly have provoked conversations I will have in the future. Thank You. God Bless You and your Sister’s always. Peace and All Good.

  7. My cousin was a Benedictine who “broke free” of much of the church’s worst paternalism traits. Amazing woman. She’s in heaven now nodding her head and saying “abuse? What types do you want to hear about?” She took on Cardinal Cody of Chicago, among others.

  8. very thoughtful piece . it is if of course interdenominational concern
    There are arguments for the complemantarian role of women in the church and the egalitarian view
    I am thankful that my own Baptist church debated and discussed the above for some time and agreed the latter view .
    We now do not differentiate between men and women in leadership roles . Not every Baptist church however has come to this conclusion ,
    It takes courage , open minds and much prayer and discernment .and careful study of scripture
    It might be considered simplistic in the extreme but we are all equal at the the foot of the cross .

    • Thank you. Chris. Your final comment reminded me of something a monk I knew used often to say: We should remember that the Church in relation to Christ is always feminine. I once cheerfully repeated this to a very hirsute member of the clergy, who laughed very loudly after a moment or two of total, stunned silence.

  9. My simplistic reading of history tells me that for centuries our churches have portrayed women as virgins or prostitutes or mothers. There has been little in between those extremes. The assumptions are largely unconscious, but powerful and disabling. How does one find a voice when one is not taken seriously? I am dismayed that you think you will be ticked off for expressing truth reasonably, rationally and calmly. by what right..? Bless you. Thank you for this thought provoking blog

    • Thank you, Jane. I wouldn’t give my being ticked off a second’s thought — Quietnun says it is good for me! Seriously, one of the problems we have today, in the Catholic Church at least, is that of the self-appointed guardian and interpreter of truth. Unfortunately, zeal sometimes outruns knowledge . . . .

  10. I’m glad to see you tackle this issue. In my experience it is a massive problem. Many of the problems in religious life stem from the fact that so many sisters have experienced abuse at some stage in their life, often by priests. It is so hard to bring this out into the open. Thank you for doing this.

    • Thank you, Melanie. I’m not sure I would agree with your analysis that ‘many of the problems in religious life stem from the fact that so many sisters have experienced abuse at some stage’ unless you are thinking of abuse in the wider terms I have tried to suggest. I simply have no evidence for it in my own experience.

  11. Thank you for your insights. It is easy to fall for the simple answers. The church was a seat of power and wealth for men for centuries. Women never shared that. I would like to see Catholic women stay home from church one Sunday, across the world. That visualization might wake people up.

    I can’t quite reconcile myself to my church because of this, and ordination. I can’t quite leave it either. I spend my time in a local Episcopal parish, but my heart still belongs in great part to the RC tradition.

  12. Sometimes the folly of men makes me very angry. Sometimes I am sorry for their folly. Are the men afraid? Of what are they afraid? I do not want or need the ordination of women. It is not necessary if the men behave as people of good sense.

    • Thank you, Patricia. The possibility of the ordination of women is a completely separate issue, it seems to me, but I do find increasingly odd the way in which SOME men of the Church seem to want to ignore the existence of women — as though the Body of Christ could be complete without all its members.

  13. Thank you for the clarity of your thoughts, in which I agree in all, as often. But if you permit, I start from “ordained women issue”, in this sense.
    I think that the fear of ordained women (about this I respect the Tradition, anyway) has driven the istitutional Church to a lot uf unjustified bannings. A women could be a Cardinal, because this it’s not against Divin Law, but only canon law (it seems that Benedictus XVI invain tried so for Mother Theresa); but for the fear of ordained women, we have banned them form deaconate; they cannot be acolytes or lectors; in Italy, in some parishes, girls cannot serve at the altar. It seems that in the Mass they can only chant in the choir (no more “mulieres in ecclesiis taceant”?). If the fear guide us, we are only more and more closed in a restricted view, inable to fight against real problems

    • Thank you, Lorenzo. I agree with you that there seems to be much fear about allowing women any role in the Church that might lead on to questions about whether a woman can be ordained to the priesthood, and I think you are right to see that as the reason for so many restrictions being imposed. The situation is, in some ways, worse than when I was a child! My own view is that if St John Paul II had not banned any discussion of the question (the first time, I believe, discussion of anything has been banned in the Church), we might have been spared some of the consequences in other areas.

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