Authors of a study that found that about 40 percent of U.S. Catholic nuns had experienced some form of sexual trauma say they have been overwhelmed with calls from victims since the findings were reported in a major newspaper.
The 1996 survey had appeared in only two religious journals before the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote about it on its front page last week.
Researchers at Saint Louis University said their findings weren’t widely publicized at the request of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a Catholic women’s organization that helped fund the nationwide study of about 1,100 nuns.
Leadership director Sister Carole Shinnick said the conference discouraged publicity because it feared the results would be sensational-ized, not as “some cover-up.”
The survey estimated that about 40 percent of Catholic nuns in the United States have experienced either childhood sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, work sexual harassment, abuse within their community or another form of sexually traumatic experience.
A research psychologist who co-authored the study said the findings show nuns experienced less childhood sexual abuse and the same amount of adult sexual abuse as the general public.
Nearly one in five nuns surveyed said she had been sexually abused as a child. Most had been abused by a male relative, but about 9 percent said they had been abused by priests, nuns or other religious people.
One in eight said she had been sexually exploited; the examples ranged from pressure to date to requests for sexual favors. Among those nuns, almost three-fourths said they had been victimized by a religious person, and two of every five said the exploitation involved some type of genital contact.
One nun wrote that her uncle, a priest, insisted on inappropriately touching holy oil to her genital area “to keep me safe while dating.” Later, she said, she was forced by her superiors to attend religious retreats with the same uncle.
Many nuns who were victimized said they’d experienced anger, depression and shame, and some considered leaving their religious life.
One respondent wrote that after a priest fondled her breast during confession, she didn’t return to confession for 18 years.