Special Briefing: Will the Abuse of Nuns Further Shake Catholic Faith?

A group of nuns walk through St. Peter's Square at dawn in Vatican City, Vatican.

Source Spencer Platt/Getty

Why you should care

Because silence is no longer an option.

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What happened? Returning from a historic visit to the Arabian Peninsula this week, Pope Francis acknowledged for the first time that Catholic priests and bishops have been abusing nuns in parishes around the world. In some cases, it reportedly resulted in unwanted pregnancies and forced abortions. But while the pontiff promised that reform “is a path that we have already begun,” he did not offer an explicit strategy for combating the problem.

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Pope Francis greets nuns at the end of a weekly general audience at St Peter’s square.

Source Tiziana FABI/Getty

Why does it matter? Until now, much of the criticism directed against the Roman Catholic Church focused on the well-documented sexual abuse of children by clergymen. This week’s development will not only further test Pope Francis’ commitment to cleaning up his long-beleaguered institution — but also perhaps the very faith of believers around the world. “People in the past would trust anybody with a collar,” says Father Ronald Lemmert, a New York priest and co-founder of advocacy group Catholic Whistleblowers. “Now people are discovering that they can’t do that.”


A problem of global proportions. Numerous reports, particularly an Associated Press investigation last year, suggest the abuse of Catholic nuns is pervasive and deeply institutional, affecting religious communities on nearly every continent. But even long before these allegations appeared, clergymen in Africa had been reported to the Vatican for similar crimes in the 1990s. Most recently, though, the Vatican-based magazine Women Church World raised the problem in its February issue, helping vault it back into the public eye.

Finding a new voice. For both sides, breaking the silence represents a major milestone. The nuns who recently emerged with their stories likely found fresh support amid the #MeToo movement that’s helped elevate female voices around the world. Pope Francis, meanwhile, has taken another step away from tradition — in this case, of institutional silence — adding to a widely recognized progressive streak in which he’s called for tolerance of gays, lesbians and divorced Catholics. Still, some believe the pontiff’s acknowledgment is “disingenuous” given what they describe to be the multitude of cases the Vatican has long known about. 

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A nun enters St. Peter’s Basilica at dawn in Vatican City, Vatican.

Source Spencer Platt/Getty

Tending the shepherds. In admitting the abuse, Francis said the church has already suspended clergymen and dissolved some orders of nuns over reports of misconduct. That’s in addition to the Vatican’s current in-house trial against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick for sexually abusing children and harassing fellow priests, as well as the recent removal of many Chilean church leaders amid similar allegations (or covering them up). When it comes to sexual misconduct against nuns, critics say victims who try to report abuse often aren’t taken seriously by the powerful clergymen who wield influence over them. In India, nuns say they’ve been sexually pressured by priests for decades. Even whistleblowing priests, like those in Uganda several years ago, have faced attacks for reporting potential abuse, either through church sanctions or lawsuits.

Facing man’s law. Those lacking confidence in the Catholic Church’s ability to adequately crack down on various forms of abuse might take heart in the ongoing legal probes in various countries. Take, for instance, last year’s Pennsylvania grand jury report that detailed hundreds of cases of child sex abuse — or the recent conviction of Cardinal George Pell, the church’s third-ranking official, in Australia on similar charges. But will the rising chorus of women’s voices help spark prosecutions of sexual assault against nuns? That remains to be seen.


This Nun Is Fighting to End Sexual Abuse in India’s Churches Despite Threats, by Piyasree Dasgupta and Meryl Sebastian in HuffPost India 

“In the past four months, Kalapura has received two notices from her convent, accusing her of not following the ‘principles of religious life’ and allegedly violating the rules of the congregation.”

Lucetta Scaraffia Is Trying to Fight Catholic Patriarchy from the Inside, by Elizabeth Barber in The New Yorker

“Scaraffia does not regularly see the Pope, but he has her cell-phone number. He once called it, she told me, to say that he liked a book of hers that criticized the Church for not listening to women.”


Pope Francis Publicly Acknowledges Nuns Are Also Victims of Sexual Abuse by Priests

“It continues. And for some time we’ve been working on it.”

Watch on TIME on YouTube:

 Raped by a Catholic Priest: An Ex-Nun Speaks Out

“The church only ever admits what it can no longer deny. I don’t have any hope that proper [actions] are being taken now.”

Watch on Deutsche Welle on YouTube:


An expensive affair. One watchdog claims the Catholic Church has spent nearly $4 billion on sexual abuse–related lawsuits over the past several decades — with the largest payout, in 2007, amounting to more than $600 million.

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