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Catholic Nuns Break Silence Over Years of Abuse

FILE - Nuns attend a mass at Saint John's Lateran Basilica in Rome, Italy, June 4, 2015.
FILE - Nuns attend a mass at Saint John's Lateran Basilica in Rome, Italy, June 4, 2015.

Buoyed by the #MeToo Movement, nuns have begun to free themselves of their fears of speaking out against the abuses they have suffered for years at the hand of their superiors in the church. Cases of abused nuns have emerged in countries all over the world. It does not only involve sexual abuse but also the exploitation of the work of nuns. Nuns are there to clean and cook for the priests, bishops and cardinals they serve and often paid very modestly for their services. There is hardly any recognition for their work. The sisters have a second-class status in the church.

Denouncing abuses is still a huge taboo but the problem is very real and, slowly, victims have begun to overcome their convictions that no one will listen or believe what they say and have started to free themselves of their very heavy burdens. The phenomenon of the sexual abuse of nuns has managed to remain hidden and unspoken for so long because nuns' felt a sense of shame and guilt. Sexual abuse of nuns in the church is often on women who are fragile and vulnerable. The norm is that victims keep everything to themselves for years and it is more likely that a victim manages to speak out once she has abandoned consecrated life and she has found the strength to start a new life.

The French newspaper Le Parisien recently published the stories of some victims who had left their religious congregation.

"It is evidence that the phenomenon is much wider and if the nuns decide to speak freely, a huge scandal can emerge," said Francois Devaux, president of the association of the victims of abuse in the church. The choice of the victims is certainly not a chance one and the more power they have over the nun the less the victims will speak up and the predators "are safe," Devaux explained.

In one case reported in Le Parisien, former nun "Christelle," today a teacher, no longer managed to come close to a priest, to go to confession or even go to Sunday mass. Last fall she filed a report for violence and sexual abuse she suffered in 2010-2011. Her story has all of the typical elements of this type of abuse: vulnerability, manipulation, emotional and spiritual dependence and feelings of guilt.

She suffered under the influence of "Jean," a priest of her congregation that she had met in 2004. "He had been recommended as a great and saintly preacher," and become a sort of "spiritual father" and confidant in a context where her relationship with the other nuns, who were all much older, was very tense.

Then in 2007, the relationship changed when he tried to kiss her and seeing her shock said he was sorry and then took his distance from her. "I collapsed as he was my only support". In 2010 at a moment when she was feeling she had lost her spiritual direction, their relationship improved.

"He was always the last person with me, he had an aura and authority, he could help me find my place in the church," she said. The man's gestures when they met "were increasingly inappropriate." "Each time I said no to him but he would continue. He always acted like he was sorry," she added, "until the day he raped me. He was unable to control himself.

He was perverse. He made me feel guilty. When he tried to kiss me, he said to me that I did not slap him and therefore I wanted it." "Christelle" felt manipulated at a time she was vulnerable. In 2011, when "Jean" went to work elsewhere the nun managed to tear herself away from that dependence although she felt destroyed.

"I thought I would commit suicide," she said.

She managed to come back to life when she left consecrated life and reported the abuse. She learned that her abuser had received a promotion despite her report to the church hierarchy. The case was investigated and "Jean" was banned from working outside of his community.

He has always denied all accusations saying he had "an emotional tie but nothing sexual, that his love was an innocent one which he had to interrupt and she felt wounded." His superior supported him saying he believed it was "a consensual relationship between two adults." When "Christelle" filed the report, this same superior contacted her to see if there was a way to find an agreement to resolve the matter. The call was taped.

Last month at a conference of men and women religious of France dedicated to the theme of sexual abuses, Sister Veronique Margron, their president said: "When a religious man abuses a nun, in addition to the physical and extreme psychological damage there is also spiritual violence. The abuser breaks the more intimate part of the faith of a person in her relationship with God." She urged victims to speak up and "bring their voices out of their tombs."