News Analysis

The Pope has acknowledged the abuse of nuns. But will it make a difference?

Pope Francis speaks of 'sexual slavery' on the flight home from Abu Dhabi

The abuse of women – especially consecrated women in religious life, and including but not limited to sexual abuse – by clerics of every rank, on every continent, is almost certainly the most under-reported of the Church’s crises. En route to Rome from Abu Dhabi last week, Pope Francis became the first reigning pontiff to address the atrocity directly and in words. “It’s true, it’s a problem,” Pope Francis told Nicole Winfield of Associated Press, who had asked him about it.

It would have been difficult for him to do otherwise than acknowledge the issue, especially given the claims published recently in various news outlets, including the Women Church World supplement of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.

While the abuse of women religious – and the cover-up of that abuse – has not received the attention that the abuse of minors and its cover-up has received, the crisis of clerical abuse of women religious has been on the Vatican’s radar since at least the mid-1990s. Sister Maura O’Donoghue, of the Medical Missionaries of Mary, compiled a report in 1994 that detailed cases of abuse in 22 countries on five continents. That dossier reportedly reached the Vatican no later than 1995.

A quarter of a century later, one might expect at least a Vatican document and some guidelines – about which the AP’s Nicole Winfield, who posed the question about the abuse of women religious, specifically asked – but Francis in his answer made no specific promises.

The Pope ran through sociological and anthropological axiomata: “I would dare to say that humanity still hasn’t matured,” he said. “It’s a cultural problem.”

From these general remarks, Francis descended to a specific instance of Vatican action at the highest level: Benedict XVI’s suppression of a French congregation. (This was later revealed to be a group that split from the Community of St John, which was founded by Fr Marie-Dominique Philippe OP in the 1970s.) The congregation acknowledged in 2013 that their founder had “acted against chastity” with women members.

“Pope Benedict had the courage to dissolve a women’s congregation that had a certain level [of abuse] because this slavery of women had entered, even sexual slavery, by clerics or by the founder,” Francis said. After that example, Francis offered a defence of Benedict’s record. “The folklore about Pope Benedict makes him seem so good, but weak,” Francis said. “But there’s nothing weak [about him].”

The startling reference to sexual slavery garnered a good deal of attention in the early reportage. Before reporters could dig into details of the charge, however, Alessandro Gisotti, the director ad interim of the Press Office of the Holy See, issued a clarification: “When the Holy Father, referring to the dissolution of a Congregation, spoke of sexual slavery, he meant manipulation, a form of abuse of power that is also reflected in sexual abuse.”

The thing is, “sexual slavery” means something very specific. “Manipulation” is a much broader category, even when it is “reflected” in sexual abuse. The “clarification” was really a correction.

That contretemps distracted from one significant particular in Pope Francis’s response: “There have been priests and also bishops who have done that”, ie abused religious sisters. That admission raises questions about the sort of discipline the guilty have received. If the Vatican is serious about transparency, a register of the guilty ought not be too big an ask, either.

Though the issue is still woefully under-reported, recent efforts have helped the story gain traction. Last November, the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) issued a broad denunciation of the “pattern of abuse that is prevalent within the Church and society today”.

That statement was to mark the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. “We condemn those who support the culture of silence and secrecy, often under the guise of ‘protection’ of an institution’s reputation or naming it ‘part of one’s culture’,” the statement continued.

This was the backdrop to the issue of Women Church World in which the magazine’s editor, Lucetta Scaraffia, denounced the persistent culture of silence specific to the Church, which enables both the abuse of women religious and its cover-up, creating a toxic environment of distrust, manipulation, and coercion – including coerced abortion.

The silent complicity of Church leaders, Scaraffia wrote in the February edition of Women Church World, “[is] made even worse by the fact that abuse of women brings about procreation and is therefore at the origin of forced abortions and children who aren’t recognised by priests.”

The 1994 report focused heavily on Africa – the author spent decades as a missionary there – but also detailed similar abuse in Europe, Asia, and the Americas.

“If the Church continues to close its eyes to the scandal,” Scaraffia warned her readers, “the condition of oppression of women in the Church will never change.”