Religious superiors asked to more freely speak about abuse

The head of the international umbrella group of nuns said Thursday that religious sisters are increasingly speaking out about sexual and other forms of abuse by clergy, but that their superiors must be better trained to understand the problem and respond.

Maltese Sister Carmen Sammut said superiors must become more at ease speaking about abuse so that the sisters under their care are comfortable bringing cases to their attention. She said training courses are underway or planned and that a key issue is a proper understanding of "obedience" within religious life.

Sammut spoke with reporters Thursday ahead of the triennial assembly next week of the International Union of Superiors General, the umbrella group of female religious superiors representing more than 450,000 religious sisters throughout the world.

She said the issue of abuse of nuns will be raised in unofficial sessions, while the protection of children and "vulnerable adults" is on the official agenda.

The organization, known as UISG, made waves last year when it publicly denounced the "culture of silence and secrecy" surrounding sexual abuse in the church and urged sisters who had been abused by clergy to report the crimes to police and their superiors.

Sister Sally Hodgdon, the organization's vice president, said training, protocols and awareness programs were needed because sometimes even the sisters themselves don't understand what abuse is.

"In some countries, women think that if a person abuses her it is OK because they have authority over her," she said. "In some areas, it is a lack of knowledge, lack of their own confidence in themselves and that they are worth more than they think they are worth."

Sammut, who attended Francis' sex abuse prevention summit in February, said that after the summit she was able to more freely speak with the sisters in her own order about the problem because she had the language to use that she didn't necessarily have before.

While she said there were no recent sex abuse cases reported in her own congregation, the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa, she knew of cases of sexual harassment or advances, especially against younger sisters in the order.

"What we want to do about this is to educate our members about the issue so that it becomes easier to speak about it," she said. "If a superior general is herself at ease to speak about this with her sisters, the sisters would also be at ease to speak to her if they have suffered abuse."

She said the UISG had seen some cases of sexual abuse, as well as abuse of congregations' financial assets and property by clergy, brought to its attention after the publication of its statement last November. But she said it hadn't been an "avalanche."

Francis spoke out about the problem earlier this year and vowed to do more about it.

During the UISG's last assembly, in 2016, Francis also vowed to set up a study commission to explore the role of women deacons in the early church.

The commission has completed its work and delivered its report to Francis. But there has been no word on what, if anything, the pope will do with it or whether the findings will ever be released.

Sammut said Francis may mention it when he addresses the assembly May 10.

"What was behind that question is a question which keeps coming up ... 'What is the place of women in the church?'" she said. "How can we be at more places where we can be more involved in decision-making?"

She said she was hopeful the answer will come "in some way or another."