Since 2014, when the Vatican revealed what the world believed to be the true extent of sexual abuse in the Catholic church, a steady stream of revelations has continued to emerge.
This time, amid uproar sparked by an article from the Vatican’s women’s magazine, Women Church World, Pope Francis publicly admitted for the first time that nuns have suffered years of abuse by Catholic priests and bishops. What really caught the world’s attention was his description of one example of such abuse as “sexual slavery.”
The Latest Clergy Sexual Abuse Revelation to Take the World by Storm
In the February issue of Women Church World, editor Lucetta Scaraffia denounced the sexual abuse of nuns by priests, “made even worse by the fact that abuse of women brings about procreation and is therefore at the origin of forced abortions and children who aren’t recognized by priests.”
Last week, the pope was asked by a reporter how he plans to confront the issue.
Francis stated that when it comes to the sexual abuse of nuns by the clergy, “It’s not that everyone does this, but there have been priests and bishops who have.” The pope also noted that abuse continues to go on because it takes more than a simple realization of widespread abuse for it to end. Meanwhile, the Vatican has suspended some clerics, sent others away and dissolved certain orders of nuns that were caught up in cycles of abuse.
Then, praising Pope Benedict XVI for taking action in 2013 against the founder of a French religious order, Francis said the order’s clergymen had subjected the nuns to “sexual slavery.”
To date, much of the clergy sexual abuse scandal has focused on minors. But according to Scaraffia, the sexual abuse of religious women – and the abortions that sometimes result though Catholicism forbids it – has long been a problem, too. And it’s happening all over the world. Sadly, she noted, nuns have been silenced for years for fear of retaliation.
Her story follows a statement published last November by the International Union of Superiors General (U.I.S.G.), an organization that represents women’s Catholic religious orders, which denounced the “culture of silence and secrecy” that prevents nuns from speaking out.
“If the U.I.S.G. receives a report of abuse, we will be a listening presence,” the statement said.
While advocates for abused nuns are relieved the problem is finally gaining more attention, they say it’s been a long time coming. The pope added the Vatican will do more to protect nuns, but will it?
The Abuse of Nuns Has Been Overshadowed in the Past – What About the Future?
The pope’s comments come as he and the Vatican prepare to address the long-running issue of the clergy’s abuse of children. Similar to those cases, one expert told the New York Times, the abuse of nuns occurs in relationships of spiritual guidance where the priest grooms the nun over time. In other cases, sexual favors are required of nuns who rely on priests financially.
The pope attributes this to the church’s problematic roots in “seeing women as second class.” The traditional subservience of nuns has bred a culture that leads priests to believe themselves the higher authority. In fact, many members of the church suffer from a “medieval mindset,” the New York Times notes, and consider abusive priests themselves as “victims of seductive temptresses.”
Experts say there’s no data on how widespread the problem is. Yet nuns all over the world have submitted private reports to the Vatican on issues regarding rape, sexual harassment and forced abortions since as far back as the 1990s.
Unfortunately, the church has long shown a tendency for inaction. In the United States, survivor advocates have criticized the Vatican’s slow response to major scandals and lack of transparency about how they’re investigated. The pope himself has been criticized for dismissing past accusations against bishops. If the church “continues to close its eyes” to the abuse of nuns, too, wrote Scaraffia, “the condition of oppression of women in the church will never change.”
So far, the Vatican has at least sought to clarify what the pope meant by last week’s comments.
“When the Holy Father, referring to the dissolving of a congregation, spoke of ‘sexual slavery,’ he meant ‘manipulation,’” the pope’s spokesman, Alessandro Gisotti, said in a statement.
For her part, Scaraffia is confident that “the pope understands the problem.”
“This is surely the first step,” she added. “Finally, now many women will have the courage to come forward and denounce their abusers.”
The pope is expected to further address the issue in an upcoming meeting in Rome, Feb. 21 to 24, where he will cover the broader global issue of clergy sexual abuse.