At first, Mary Dunford’s story sounds all too familiar: a life shattered by pain and confusion after being sexually abused by a trusted church figure decades ago.
But Dunford, 63, of Oakdale says it was a nun, not a priest, who abused her while she attended a Roman Catholic boarding school as a teen-ager. Years after she brought the abuse to the attention of the order that ran the school, she is clear about her agenda.
Dunford wants help for any victim of sexual abuse in the church, not just victims of priests.
The clergy abuse scandals that have erupted this year around the United States have almost exclusively involved allegations against priests. However, scattered claims of misconduct by some nuns have emerged.
“It is important to say that nuns have abused children, too,” Dunford said.
The recent spate of publicity about priests is encouraging victims to come forward about nuns, said Ashley Hill, author of “Habits of Sin,” a book published two years ago about the sexual abuse of women and children by nuns.
Hill says that while she was in the second grade, a nun sexually abused her. While researching the book a few years ago, the New Hampshire writer placed advertisements in women-oriented publications to find victims, and heard back from people in 23 states and Ireland. The priest scandal has prompted a new round of contacts. Lately, Hill says, she has been getting an e-mail a week from people who say they were sexually abused by nuns decades ago.
Hill says her book is not a condemnation of all nuns, but a reminder that “predators can and do come from all walks of life.” Still, reaction has been fierce, she said.
“People are not ready to hear about women who are predators,” she said. “They just don’t want to hear it.”
That’s reminiscent of the earliest reports of abuses by priests, said Gary Schoener, a Minneapolis psychologist and widely quoted expert on sexual abuse by clergy.
Schoener, executive director of the Walk-In Counseling Center on Chicago Avenue, said the center, in the past 20 years, has consulted in about 20 cases across the nation involving nuns who molested young girls. That’s compared with a few hundred involving priests, and more than 3,000 cases of sexual misconduct involving counseling professionals, Schoener said.
“To say men are the bigger part of the problem — that we all agree with,” Schoener remarked. “To say they’re the only problem is bull.”
Schoener said the remote subculture of religious orders can foster misconduct.
“The nun in a convent or brother in a monastery, dealing with young people, has a lot of power. Lots of weird things can happen,” Schoener said.
A policy on clergy sexual misconduct enacted last month by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is not binding on men or women in religious orders, because they report not to diocesan bishops but to leaders of their orders, who in turn are accountable to Rome. But some orders, including at least one in Minnesota, are changing their policies.
Still, Sister Katherine DuVal, provincial leader of the Mankato, Minn.-based School Sisters of Notre Dame, is not expecting a spate of scandals about nuns. Several years ago, DuVal’s order settled a lawsuit over alleged abuses by a nun at a Mankato grade school during the 1970s.
“I just don’t think sisters were in positions to be abusers,” DuVal said. “There was so much in our community — we were together all the time. To be alone with one kid would not have been an easy structure to find ourselves in.”
Mary Dunford says she was sexually abused by the floor monitor, or “mother,” at Villa Maria Academy in Frontenac, Minn., from 1954 to 1956. The nun she accused died a few years ago, in her 80s. Villa Maria is now a Catholic retreat center.
The nun, Dunford said, would enter her room at night and “spend the next one to three hours with me.”
After reading news reports over the years, Dunford says she came to realize in her 50s that she was a victim of sexual abuse.
In 1990, she brought the allegations to the Ursuline Provincialate in Crystal City, Mo., which operated Villa Maria.
“I think we have agreed something happened and it was wrong,” said Sister Peggy Moore, head of the order of Ursuline Nuns in Missouri.
“We agreed that Mary deserved attention; she deserved justice,” said Moore, who was not in charge of the order when the allegations arose. “But we can’t substantiate the facts of it at all.”
No other allegations were brought against the nun, Moore said.
“The memory of the one party was very different from the memory of the other party as to what happened,” she said.
The order paid for counseling for Dunford and her husband, and paid for her to attend a support group and an alcohol and chemical abuse treatment program. Dunford made other demands she says were unmet, but the case never went to court.
“As with so many other abuse-victim survivors,” Dunford said, “I have had many effects from the abuse: difficulty in forming and maintaining healthy relationships, alcohol and chemical abuse, food addiction, chronic depression, thoughts of suicide, self-destructive behaviors, serious and chronic health problems and a huge burden of shame and self-hatred.
“The impact on me, my children and my grandchildren is constant.”
Moore said a “member misconduct policy” is now in place. It calls for prompt investigations of all allegations; meeting all requirements of the law, including the reporting of suspected criminal conduct; and concern for the person making the allegation and the accused.
“Yes, it would be different today, if allegations came today,” Moore said.
‘NOT SEXUALLY MOTIVATED’
If the abuses are rare, even rarer still are the cases that are made public.
St. Paul lawyer Jeffrey Anderson, who has sued hundreds of priests over sexual abuse, has sued two nuns in Minnesota. The cases were settled for undisclosed amounts.
The first lawsuit was filed in 1989 on behalf of a woman who said she was molested by Sister Georgene Stuppy while in the seventh and eighth grades at Queen of Angels parish school in Austin. The lawsuit said the abuse began in 1978, when the girl was 13 years old and the nun was in her late 40s.
The plaintiff, identified in the court case as Jane C. Doe, was a student in Stuppy’s religion classes and a parishioner at the Queen of Angels church. She had turned to the nun for counseling because of family and personal problems. A few months later, Stuppy engaged her in “unpermitted, harmful and offensive” sexual contact at the school and in the nun’s room, according to her lawyers.
The woman said she didn’t realize the contact was abusive until the spring of 1985, after therapy.
Stuppy did not deny having physical contact with the student but said it was one part of an intense friendship. “Sister Stuppy asserts that she never thought of it as sexual, that her actions were not sexually motivated, and she received no sexual stimulation from any contact,” the nun’s lawyers said in her answer to the lawsuit.
Stuppy, who resigned from the school when the allegations were made, did not return a phone call. The lawsuit was settled in 1993 for an undisclosed amount.
MEMORIES CAME BACK
In the second case Anderson filed, a “John Doe” said his first-grade teacher, Sister Marcene Schlosser, abused him two to three times a week at St. Michael’s Catholic School in Wright County from the fall of 1978 until the end of the school year in 1979. The man said he repressed memories of the abuse until having dreams, nightmares and flashbacks about it in 1996.
Schlosser “adamantly and vehemently” denied the allegations, and there were no other claims against her, according to court documents. The case was settled in October 2000.
Sister Katherine DuVal, head of Schlosser’s order, said an internal investigation found no evidence that the nun had abused the student. Officials chose to “pay a small settlement that takes care of everything and finishes this off,” she said.
DuVal said the lawsuit and current controversies prompted the order to change its approach to abuse complaints. Instead of the Notre Dame sisters investigating, now complaints are referred outside to diocesan officials, she said.
Two recent complaints allege abuse in the 1940s, one of which was said to have happened in Minnesota, DuVal said.
“I always say to people that I’m sad and sorry that they’ve been living with this all these years,” DuVal said. “If we are at fault, I will make sure we respond in appropriate ways.” But she added she also has a responsibility to defend the order against unfounded allegations.
What’s appropriate, says Mary Dunford, is that victims be the focus. She says they should receive money and therapy based on the extent of their injuries, therapy for loved ones affected and after-care from the offending order or diocese.
And, she said, they should also get “the greatest gift that can be given to victims: persons who believe and accept them.”