Scandal in the Roman Catholic Church may be spreading from priests' abuse of children to abuse of women, especially nuns.
In 2001, the National Catholic Reporter published the results of a two-year investigation on the alleged sexual abuse of women by priests. The report focused on Africa, but also included the United States among 23 nations that suffered from this ignored problem.
As part of its supporting evidence, the NCR investigation cited five internal church reports, dating from 1994 to 1998, some of which had been delivered to the Vatican. Written by the senior members of women's religious orders and a U.S. priest, these documents spoke of priests who used their financial and spiritual authority to force sexual favors from nuns.
The 1994 study by Sister Maura O'Donohue, a physician and Catholic medical missionary, linked the alleged sexual abuse of nuns in Africa to the spread of AIDS. "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 other women, O'Donohue stated.
In November 2001, Pope John Paul II publicly apologized for the sexual abuse of nuns by priests. But critics observed that the Papal apology was one paragraph long and buried within a 120-page message (Catholics in Oceania) that covered a wide range of issues.
Organizations including the National Coalition of American Nuns are calling to the Catholic Church for accountability. Their call includes specific allegations against the American Church: "In the United States, church authorities shielded a parish priest from prosecution by returning him to the Philippines so that he could elude a lawsuit filed by a woman, who as a teen-ager, was sexually abused by him."
Accusations like this, if unanswered, can harm the credibility of an entire priesthood, the vast majority of whom are honestly committed to their callings. Because the problem is dismissed or covered up by transferring the sexual predator, people do not know what to believe or whom to trust. All priests fall under suspicion for the actions of a few.
The Catholic Church's emerging scandals highlight the need for a Rule of Law, for the predictable application of just law to every individual within society. All individuals must be held personally accountable for acts of violence against others. This personal accountability contrasts with our society of privilege in which certain people enjoy advantages or immunity from the law, perhaps because of their wealth or affiliation with an institution such as the Church.
Priests who rape should face the same penalties as any other rapist, and anyone in the Catholic Church who knowingly shields them should be dealt with as accomplices.
The questions asked by the NCAN include:
"If the perpetrators were not priests, would not criminal charges be filed against them?
"Would withholding and/or not acting upon this information for years make those who kept this shameful silence complicit in the further crimes committed against these women?
"Does our own silence lend consent?"
A demand for equal treatment under the law for priests is not an indictment of Catholicism. Indeed, it may be the salvation of the Church whose policies of secrecy hurt not only the victims but every priest who has nothing to hide.
By some accounts the sexual abuse by African and Asian priests is so widespread that the Vatican may fear to lose worldwide credibility. The O'Donohue study, for example, speaks of a nun reportedly forced to have an abortion by the priest who impregnated her. When she died, he is said to have conducted her requiem mass. Another alleged incident describes a mother superior who complained repeatedly to her bishop about the impregnation of 29 of her nuns. The bishop relieved the woman of her duties.
Even the voicing of these accusations — whether true or false — would cause the Vatican acute embarrassment. But its silence is worse: Silence gives the appearance of guilt, indifference and even consent. The study cited above became public knowledge only by being leaked, whereupon the Roman Catholic Aid Agency confirmed delivering the report to the Vatican seven years earlier. It would have been far better for the Vatican to have confronted the problem immediately and openly.
After seven years of public reports and internal church memos, the sexual abuse of women by priests is starting to surface. Articles are beginning to appear in scattered and comparatively low-circulation publications. Like Jane Eisner's article in the June 16 Center Daily Times, "Abused nuns get scant attention," the reports all ask a version of the same question: When the 300 American bishops recently met in Dallas to formulate policy on priests who sexually abuse children, why was the abuse of women not mentioned?
Personally, I believe the problem in North America is limited and can be effectively corrected. But nothing will give the appearance of widespread misconduct more quickly than a cover-up. The Catholic Church must openly address the repeated accusations of nun abuse being registered by credible sources. If the Church waits until rising publicity has backed the leadership into a corner, then its statements will sound like hollow and inhumane excuses.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the forthcoming anthology Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.