A new Book Sheds light on the Abuse and Racism Faced by Catholic Nuns

A new Book Sheds light on the Abuse and Racism Faced by Catholic Nuns
A new Book Sheds light on the Abuse and Racism Faced by Catholic Nuns/courtesy of Facebook

VATICAN CITY — A Vatican journalist describes the mental and physical abuse, oppression, and racism faced by religious sisters in a new book. Their treatment is frequently regarded as one of the most taboo topics in the Catholic Church.


Salvatore Cernuzio, a Vatican reporter from Italy, wrote the book “The Veil of Silence: Abuses, Violence, and Frustrations in Female Religious Life” after hearing stories of abuse and belittlement in many female religious congregations.


Cernuzio tells the story of 11 nuns from various backgrounds and countries who were subjected to verbal, physical, and sexual abuse while serving in a religious congregation. In terms of who committed the abuse, the victims’ reactions, and the cultural context, the stories differ. The stories, however, share a common approach from the hierarchy, according to the book.


In the introduction to his book, Cernuzio writes, “They chose to ‘protect’ the institution’s good name by sacrificing the victim.” “The abused nun is transferred after being accused of seducing the priest, while the priest remains at his post, unabated in his predatory behavior.”


When the abuser is a woman, the alleged victims are laughed at, according to Cernuzio. The majority of the stories in the book are about cases of psychological abuse and power abuse that have left a lasting impression on the nuns’ lives. The fact that abuse in female congregations occurs in a variety of ways makes it “even more difficult to recognize and address,” according to Cernuzio.


Racism is mentioned several times in the book, and it is frequently experienced by women from Africa, India, and the Philippines, who are particularly vulnerable due to a lack of social support. “Many claim to have been judged solely on the basis of their skin color or country of origin, regardless of their qualities or formation,” wrote Cernuzio.


During the winter in Minnesota, a Black nun named Anne-Marie spent every morning clearing snow while the other nuns watched from inside. She also felt as if she was never heard at community meetings, “especially because I was foreign, and even worse, African.”


Every nun who spoke with Cernuzio requested anonymity, a clear sign of the “climate of fear” that Cernuzio sees as the “most dangerous and difficult obstacle to possible reform efforts.”


When the nuns decided to leave their communities, their congregations and even the Vatican turned their backs on them, and they were left alone to deal with the mental health issues that arose as a result of their experiences.


“They forgot that there were people behind the habit,” the nun Marcela said in the book, adding that many in her congregation were stressed and burned out. Another nun claimed that after being diagnosed with depression, she was forced to leave the congregation by her superiors.


Pope Francis acknowledged the reality of abuse experienced by many religious sisters on his flight back from an apostolic visit to the Middle East in 2019, calling it a “ongoing problem” and a “scandal.” According to him, some clergymen have already been suspended as a result of the scandal, and the church is “working on it.”


Pope Francis issued a motu proprio in the same year, titled “Vos Estis Lux Mundi,” which means “You are the Light of the World.” The document established new procedures for dealing with sexual abuse, including requiring priests and nuns to report cases of abuse to the appropriate authorities.


Despite Pope Francis’ decree, a nun named Elizabeth said she was prevented from reporting the abuse of a fellow nun by her superior general. She discussed religious sisters being “kept in captivity” with Cernuzio in the book.


Sister Aleksandra, another nun, claimed she was sexually abused by a priest with whom she worked on a project to help young women who wanted to become nuns. When she informed her superior general of the incident, she was told that previous reports had been made and that “obviously, if it happened, it was because us nuns provoked the priests.”


According to data from the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, the Vatican has opened an investigation into nearly 4% of religious congregations due to allegations of abuse, but Cernuzio believes this is “just the tip of the iceberg.”


Nuns have been abused in numerous cases around the world, and in India, a bishop was arrested in 2018 for allegedly abusing a nun 13 times over the course of two years. A report on cases of sexual abuse of nuns was published in July 2020 by the Jesuit-run magazine “Civiltà Cattolica.” The abuse of nuns is “global and pervasive,” according to a 2018 Associated Press investigation, “thanks to the universal tradition of sisters’ second-class status in the Catholic Church and their ingrained subservience to the men who run it.”


In the preface to the book, Sr. Nathalie Becquart, the undersecretary of the General Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops, wrote that religious orders are at their worst “when they are interpreted and enacted in such a way to infantilize, oppress, or even manipulate and destroy people.”


The abuse of nuns in the Catholic Church, according to Becquart, must be addressed in the context of synodality, which refers to Pope Francis’ effort to reform the institution’s power structures through “listening and participation of everyone and taking joint responsibility.”


In 2019, Lucetta Scaraffia, the former editor of “Women, Church, World,” a monthly magazine published alongside the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, resigned, claiming that the Vatican tried to prevent her from publishing stories about nun abuse.


Scaraffia told Religion News Service that abuse of nuns in the church is a “much more complex” issue because priests who abuse nuns are sometimes also responsible for obtaining abortions if the nun is pregnant. The Catholic Church is outspoken in its opposition to abortion, which it considers a sin, so such cases result in “a crisis of credibility for the church that extends beyond sexual weakness.”


“Because there are so many reports from religious sisters at the Vatican, they don’t want to believe them,” Scaraffia explained. “If you don’t believe the reports of abuse, it implies that you don’t believe anything coming from women, and these two things are connected to me.”


Currently, “The Veil of Silence” is only available in Italian.


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