Nuns abused by clergy feel overlooked at Vatican summit

As top bishops from around the world gather at the Vatican for a summit on preventing sexual abuse of minors by clergy, victims of abuse have poured into Rome, too. Among them are many women like Wagner, here to draw attention to the abuse of nuns.

'Their suffering is not interesting to people,' says former nun who was raped in 2008

There is evidence the Vatican has known for decades about the problem of priests and bishops preying on nuns but has done next to nothing to stop it. Several nuns have come to the Pope's summit, now underway, to bring attention to the issue. (Andrew Medichini/Associated Press)

Looking back on her early years as a nun, Doris Wagner says what strikes her most about the time after a priest came into her room and raped her is that nobody in her small religious community noticed anything different about her.

"I was in such a bad state that I could not think a single clear thought," recalls Wagner, 34, of the assault she says took place in Rome in 2008. "My whole personality was gone, and still nobody saw it. I got up in the morning, I went to chapel, said the prayers, worked [in the] kitchen and in [the] evening I went to sleep. I felt like a zombie, really."

Still, "it worked," she says, referring to her training as a nun to be selfless, obedient and, above all, available.

"This is such a large part of a nun's reality — that you have to be available to priests," she says.

As top bishops from around the world gather at the Vatican for a summit on preventing sexual abuse of minors by clergy, victims of abuse have poured into Rome, too. Among them are many women like Wagner, here to draw attention to the abuse of nuns.

Doris Wagner says she was raped by a priest in 2008, while she was a nun. (Gustav Hofer)

The long-hidden issue came to light here in Italy earlier this month after the women's supplement of the Vatican newspaper l'Osservatore Romano published a frank article about what editor in chief Lucetta Scaraffia calls the widespread problem of rape of nuns by priests and the Catholic Church's refusal to face it.

"With the sexual abuse of children there is no doubt it's a crime, but with sexual assault of nuns you have to prove that they didn't consent," says Scaraffia. "The church tries to frame it as a transgression of vows, both of the man's and woman's. And nuns are given the message to remain silent because it will damage the reputation of the order."

After the article was published, Pope Francis became the first pope — indeed, the first Vatican official — to ever publicly acknowledged the issue.

Speaking to reporters during a flight back to Rome earlier this month, Francis said his predecessor, Pope Benedict, dissolved a small French order of nuns called the Contemplative Sisters of Saint-Jean "because a certain slavery of women had crept in, slavery to the point of sexual slavery on the part of clergy or the founder."

'Injustice to the sister'

But critics say the Pope's comments fail to reflect the breadth and depth of the problem.

As far back as 1994, Irish missionary Maura O'Donohue, then a co-ordinator with the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, documented international abuses of nuns by priests, including sexual assault, pregnancies, forced abortions and even deaths due to botched abortions.

Lucetta Scaraffia, editor in chief of Women Church World, which said in a report in this month's issue that nuns have been silenced for years by fear of retaliation against themselves or their orders if they reported the priests who molested them. (Domenico Stinellis/Associated Press)

The extensive report she sent to the Vatican was shelved. O'Donohue, who died in 2015, said the abuses took place in 23 countries — from the U.S. and Ireland to Zimbabwe and the Philippines.

The Catholic Church hasn't conducted its own research into the issue. The only well-known study on the subject, carried out in the late 1990s by three American psychologists, suggests that a third of all nuns experience sexual violence. 

Virginia Saldanha, of Mumbai, was in charge of the commission for women in the Conference of Bishops for India and in the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences before she was removed, she says, for bringing up the issue of rape of nuns and other women by priests.

She says many Mother Generals told her they dealt with it secretly within the congregation.

But she discovered that "dealing with it meant an injustice to the sister," Saldanha said.

"The sister was sent for an abortion or quietly had the baby, who was given up for adoption. And nobody worries about the rights of the child or the rights of the mother."

Scaraffia, who for seven years has been receiving letters from nuns who have been raped, says some wrote about being forced out of the church after getting pregnant, receiving no financial support to help raise the child if they resisted the pressure to have an abortion.

Founder of the Ending Clergy Abuse (ECA) organization Denise Buchanan, right, and member Leona Huggins, second from right, participate in a protest in Rome Friday on the second day of a summit on sex abuse in the Catholic Church. (Domenico Stinellis/Associated Press)

This week, for the first time ever, the Vatican confirmed that in 2017 it drafted an internal document of guidelines on how to deal with priests who get women pregnant "for the protection of the children." While it requests that priests leave the church and take care of the child, there is no requirement they do so.

Wagner says she's deeply sad and perplexed at how long the suffering of nuns has been overlooked.

"Somehow, people don't seem to identify or to care about nuns," she says. "They're just there and available, but their suffering is not interesting to people."

'Power structure has to change'

Wagner eventually left her religious community and today has a child with a now-former priest she met there. And unlike the vast majority of nuns who have been raped, she reported hers in her home country of Germany and wrote a book about it, Nicht Mehr Ich, or Not Me Anymore.

Late last year she also went public with an allegation of attempted sexual assault by her former confessor, Hermann Geissler, an official at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith whose job was to handle discipline in sexual abuse cases in the church. Geissler, who resigned his position in January, maintains his innocence.

Wagner says she thinks it will take at least a decade for the Catholic Church to properly deal with the issue of the exploitation and sexual assault of nuns. And that women must enter all levels of the church hierarchy for that to happen.

"The power structure has to change. Unless the power structure changes, there will never be an appropriate dealing with children sexual assault either," she says.

She calls the four-day bishops' summit now underway ridiculously inadequate. But she remains hopeful, happy and relieved, she says, to see how many people are calling for change in her church.

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'Why did we keep silent for so long?': African nun scolds Catholic bishops

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Megan Williams

Rome correspondent

Rome correspondent Megan Williams has covered everything from Italian politics and migration to the Vatican and the Venice Biennale for almost two decades. Her award-winning documentaries can be heard on Ideas, The Current and other CBC shows. Megan is a regular guest host of As It Happens and The Current.