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The Abuse That Knows No Gender

May 12, 2002 | The Seattle Times The woman called with a tale of abuse by a member of the church, and my mind raced through the reams of horror stories I have read in recent weeks: Priest befriends parish family, grooms the child, then abuses him or her. Silence is kept until years pass and memories surge up — and our collective faith is rattled like a loose door in a hurricane.

Almost, the woman told me.

But her abuser was a nun.

The woman telling the story is almost 70 now and lives outside Seattle. And as the sex-abuse scandal sweeping the Roman Catholic clergy intensifies, the years, miles and memories have caught up to her with a vengeance.

Now she wants it understood that the scandal reaches beyond the priesthood to nuns, and beyond individuals to an institutional culture.

"Males are not only what the Catholic Church is made of," the woman told me. "Women are the last to speak out, especially good Catholic women."

When the abuse started, the woman was 14 and a ward of the state who had been taken from her mother, then her father, and eventually sent to the former Notre Dame Academy, a Catholic girls' boarding school in Colton, Whitman County.

Three nuns made advances over a period of three years. She was a vulnerable, needy and confused adolescent, she said, and they knew it.

"My whole high-school experience was a feeling I was being preyed upon."

At the start of her junior year, a new nun joined the school staff. The nun, 37 at the time, was in charge of the dorms. One night, the nun approached the girl and kissed her. Another night, the nun invited her into a classroom and undressed in front of her, inviting sex.

"She used me," the woman said. "And in my own childish way, I had a crush on her."

Looking back, she believes school officials had to know. The nun and the student were often missing from roll call, overheard in the halls and seen together in empty rooms.

"Something like us," she said, "would never pass my eyes as an adult."

The sexual relationship continued for a year. The girl felt guilty "all the time," unable to resolve her actions with her desire to be decent. She finally confessed to a priest, who told her she was doubly guilty of mortal sin: Once for participating and once for aiding the nun in violating her vow of chastity.

"It's like being an incest victim," the woman told me. "It's the same marriage in the church — one parent won't rat out the other. And I felt like the whole world had come down on my shoulders."

The nun tried to ease her worries, promising that they would somehow be together, that she would leave the order once the girl graduated from high school. But when that time came, the nun merely tucked a packet of love letters in the girl's suitcase.

The girl — by then young woman — got a job with General Electric in Richland, but suffered attacks of vertigo. She entered the convent, hoping it might lead her back to the nun.

Instead, she found her faith — at least in the institutional church — shattered: "I felt like I was going to scream every time I was in the chapel."

She went back to GE and started seeing a psychiatrist, something she still does.

She became a social worker recognized for her kindness to clients — especially to abused children — but whose career climb was limited by phobias: She has to sit near doors and can't cross bridges.

"I'm glad I didn't rise," she said. "I wanted to be where the people were."

She has lived alone most of her life. She has friends, but her "closest associates" are her two dogs. She is interested in Eastern religions "because they are not patriarchal or matriarchal."

And at 70, she sees her life as broken shards that all trace back to the girl she was in boarding school. Even now, she is unable to trust, to feel love, to return to the Catholic Church.

"I have never had a moment of peace," she said.

Then, as accusations against priest after priest broke recently, friends urged the woman to confront her past. So she called the Most Rev. William Skylstad, bishop of the Spokane Diocese. He was in Rome at the time, one of the U.S. bishops meeting with Pope John Paul II about the crisis.

But when Skylstad got back to Spokane, he called the woman and listened to her story. He drew his breath in when she told him about the priest-confessor who blamed her for the sins of the nun.

"I told her I was very sorry that it happened," Skylstad told me in an interview. "And I told her, 'In the name of the church, I apologize to you.' "

The nuns accused of the abuse are likely dead, Skylstad said. But he gave the woman the number of the order's motherhouse. When she called, she said, a woman there "listened, told me she would get back to me, but I have yet to hear from them."

And if they do?

"I want them to say they're sorry."

She feels a sense of relief and empowerment after speaking out. "But it is almost too late," she said.

Too late, because there is so much about the church that must change and there has already been so much damage — to victims of sex abuse, and to the reputation of the clergy.

"You trap the nuns and priests in an institution, so they're victims," she said. "And then I became a worse victim. I think (the nun) was very predatory and I think the hierarchy, the way the church is set up, doesn't help."

As she watched news of the meetings in Rome, she was appalled that there were no experts on child abuse included. "They still don't get it," she said.

Now, after all these years, she is considering a civil suit against the order.

"They stole my life and they can't ever give it back to me. When you're talking about the soul. ... "

She can't get that life back. But she wants to use what life she has left to heal, and to seal the past in the past.

"And when I'm dying," she said, "I want a priest."

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