In addition to its prolonged, continually unfolding scandal on the sexual abuse of minors, the Catholic Church now has another major controversy on its radar: the sexual abuse of nuns at the hands of priests. Earlier this week when answering a reporter’s question, Pope Francis spoke publicly about the situation for the first time:
It is true…there have been priests and even bishops who have done this. I think it is still going on because something does not stop just because you have become aware of it. We have been working on this for a long time.
Reports Through the Years
In July of 2018, the Associated Press released a report stating that nuns across the world have recently grown more willing to come forward with claims that priests sexually exploited them. In its report, the AP found cases of abuse in Africa, Europe, Asia and South America. The AP believes that the #MeToo movement has encouraged some nuns to break their silence. It appears the nuns coming forward are no longer willing to tolerate the church’s apathy toward the issue, despite evidence that has been around since the 1990s.
For example, a 1994 report by Sr. Maura O’Donohue focused on Africa and AIDS. Donohue found that priests there were turning to nuns in order to avoid being infected by AIDS via women who had not taken a vow of chastity. In some cases, when nuns became pregnant, the priests pressured them to have abortions. Sr. O’Donohue’s report was one of several that came out in the 1990s, and it’s unknown what the Vatican did with that information.
It is also unknown just how widespread this priestly abuse is or how long it has been going on. Around the time the AP released its information last summer, a group of nuns in Chile announced they had been abused by priests and that no one had done anything in response to that abuse.
The Vatican did not comment last summer or explain what measures it had taken at the time to address the nuns’ allegations, although the Vatican has since launched an investigation into the nuns’ claims.
‘We Have to Do More’
On Tuesday, while not going into detail about how the Church is addressing this issue overall, Pope Francis noted that his predecessor, Pope Benedict, had been aware of it. One step Pope Benedict took was to dissolve a women’s religious order after sexual abuse became a problem there. (In his comments, Pope Francis used the words “sexual slavery” to describe that situation. The Vatican has since clarified that he was referring to manipulation and the abuse of power.)
The AP notes that multiple stories about priests abusing nuns have recently come to light and that these incidents have occurred on different continents. This suggests that this problem is hidden and widespread, rather than being something that has improved over the years.
Said the Pope on Tuesday, “I can’t say ‘this does not happen in my house.’ It is true. Do we have to do more? Yes. Are we willing? Yes.”