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Thousands of Nuns Sexually Victimized, Survey Shows

Jan 5, 2003 | St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Already shaken by a yearlong sex abuse scandal involving priests and minors, the Roman Catholic Church has yet to face another critical challenge how to help thousands of nuns who say they have been sexually victimized.

A national survey, completed in 1996 but intentionally never publicized, estimates that a ‘‘minimum’’ of 34,000 Catholic nuns, or about 40 percent of all nuns in the United States, have suffered some form of sexual trauma.

Some of that sexual abuse, exploitation or harassment has come at the hands of priests and other nuns in the church, the report said.

The survey was conducted by researchers at St. Louis University and was paid for, in part, by several orders of Catholic nuns.

The study, recently obtained by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, indicates that the victimization often has had devastating psychological effects on the women. Many of the nuns said they were left with feelings of anger, shame, anxiety and depression. Some said it made them consider leaving religious life, and a few said they had attempted suicide.

‘‘These women have been the stalwarts of the church for centuries, and a significant percentage of them have been victimized as a result of the structure of the very institution to which they have dedicated their lives,’’ said study co-author John T. Chibnall, a research psychologist and associate professor at St. Louis University.

Another of the researchers, Ann Wolf, said she believes it is vital that the Catholic church recognize the problem.

‘‘The bishops appear to be only looking at the issue of child sexual abuse, but the problem is bigger than that’’ Wolf said. ‘‘Catholic sisters are being violated, in their ministries, at work, in pastoral counseling.’’

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the group was unaware of the St. Louis University study on nuns and its members have not addressed the issue. Officials with local orders of nuns who participated in the study say they remain concerned, but have made no changes as a result of the report.

The survey is the only national scientific study dealing with the sexual victimization of nuns in the Catholic church, according to its researchers. Despite the scope of its findings several years ago, no further studies have been done, they say.

The survey also solicited comments many of them poignant from the nuns who were questioned.

Of the more than 1,100 surveys returned to the university, several included brief, personal stories from women who said they had been targeted. One woman wrote that after a priest fondled one of her breasts during confession, she remained so upset that she did not return to confession for the next 18 years.

Another wrote that as a young girl, her uncle, who also was a priest, insisted on touching holy oil to her genital area ‘‘to keep me safe while dating.’’ Later, her superiors forced her to attend religious retreats with the same uncle, she said.

Still another wrote that a priest-therapist treating her for severe depression encouraged her to become involved in ‘‘sexual experimentation.’’ The woman said she later began a relationship with another nun.

Several of the women said such research was long overdue. ‘‘Thanks for taking the time to admit there is a problem in this area,’’ wrote one. ‘‘Best wishes. God bless.’’

Findings of the study were published in two religious research journals in the spring and winter of 1998 but have never been reported by the mainstream press.

Review for Religious, published at St. Louis University, printed a summary of the survey results in its May-June 1998 issue. Review of Religious Research, an academic journal published by the Religious Research Association, printed the full results in December of that year.

Both are respected journals with limited circulations.

Chibnall said researchers agreed not to prepare a press release about the findings because a national women’s Catholic group, Leadership Conference of Women Religious, believed the information would be sensationalized.

‘‘It was like this: ‘we don’t wash our dirty laundry in public; we’ll take care of it,’ ’’ Chibnall said.

Paul N. Duckro, the St. Louis University professor who headed the survey team, said researchers ‘‘guaranteed’’ religious communities ‘‘that we would not handle this in any way that sought publicity.’’

The two publications chosen to report the results, Duckro said, were chosen carefully to get information to the people who needed it, but ‘‘not out in front of everybody’s eyes.’’

But a former Catholic priest who has said he was sexually abused as a boy by three different priests said last week he believes it is crucial to get the results of the St. Louis University survey to the public.

Christopher Dixon, who left the priesthood in 1996 and now lives in St. Louis, said he hopes that the publicity about the survey will generate the same ‘‘groundswell’’ of action that resulted from recent reports of priests’ sexual abuse of minors. Bishop Anthony J. O’Connell of Palm Beach, Fla., resigned in March after admitting he sexually abused Dixon more than 25 years earlier.

Women church leaders can be ‘‘as much a part of this toxic environment’’ of cover-up and denial as male church leaders, Dixon said.

The SLU study is the result of a 15-page survey returned by 1,164 nuns representing 123 religious orders throughout the United States. The large majority of nuns surveyed were highly educated; more than 9 of 10 who returned questionnaires had at least a college education.

The survey dealt with three main types of victimization.

The first, child sexual abuse, was defined as any sexually-oriented contact with a person of the same or opposite sex where the target is younger than age 18.

The second, sexual exploitation, was defined as any sexual advance, request for sexual favors, or other verbal or nonverbal sexual conduct that occurs when a woman entrusts her property, body, mind or spirit to another person acting in a professional role.

The third, sexual harassment, was defined as any unwelcome sexual advance that affects employment decisions, interferes with work, or creates a hostile or intimidating work environment.

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