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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Child abuse overshadows another scandal – the Church’s abuse of women

While the Catholic Church is being forced to confront the abuse of children by priests, there has been almost no publicity about the abuse of women by male members of the clergy.

One American report states that “although clergy of any denomination can sexually exploit children, teens, men or women, over 95% of victims of sexual exploitation by clergy are adult women”.

Gary Schoener, a Minneapolis psychologist, says “Women and girls are every bit as much at risk as boys and men. But the sexual abuse of a boy is treated far more seriously, and is considered a far worse offence. The church is so dominated by men that there’s a tendency to portray girls as provoking the crimes against themselves. The depositions read like rape cases used to: Did you enjoy it? What were you wearing?” Some women were even told that rape was good for them.

In addition to coping with the physical and emotional impacts of sexual violation, victims of sexual exploitation by clergy often also suffer loss of faith, loss of religious tradition, loss of spouse, loss of employment within religious organisations or with faith-affiliated educational institutions, self-blame by the victim, and loss of support from family, congregation and community.

The abuse of nuns is even more concealed. There is a case in 1991 of a community superior in Africa being approached by priests requesting that nuns be made available to them for sexual favours. “When the superior refused, the priests explained that they would otherwise be obliged to go to the village to find women and might thus get AIDS.” There were cases of priests encouraging nuns to take the pill, telling them it would prevent HIV. Others “actually encouraged abortions for the sisters” and Catholic hospital and medical staff reported pressure from priests to carry out terminations for nuns and other young women.

In 2001, the Catholic Church in Rome was forced to admit that it knew priests from at least 23 countries had been abusing nuns after confidential reports were obtained by an American Catholic newspaper.

The Pope’s official spokesman at the time, Joaquin Navarro Valls predictably tried to play down the situation: “The problem is known and involves a restricted geographical area. Certain negative situations must not overshadow the often heroic faith of the overwhelming majority of religious, nuns and priests.”

This dismissal combines the usual misogyny with racism, implying that it happens in a more ‘backward’ culture and that these women are somehow less important than European nuns.

In 2001 the European parliament passed an unprecedented motion, blaming the Vatican for the rapes of African nuns in the 1990s. Head of the Vatican Congregation for Religious Life, Cardinal Martinez Somalo, set up a committee to look into the problem. So far, nothing much seems to have changed.

Read an in-depth examination of this subject

Published Thu, 01 Apr 2010