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Sunday, January 5, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Catholic nuns frequently suffer abuse, study finds

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS — Already shaken by a yearlong sex-abuse scandal involving priests and minors, the Roman Catholic Church faces 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 Saint Louis University and was paid for, in part, by several orders of Catholic nuns.

The study, obtained by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, indicates that the victimization often has had devastating psychological effects on the women. Many nuns said they were left with feelings of anger, shame, anxiety and depression. Some said they had considered leaving religious life; 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 Chibnall, a research psychologist and associate professor at Saint Louis University.

Another researcher, 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."

No action by bishops

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the group was unaware of the Saint Louis University study on nuns and that 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 study.

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

The survey also solicited comments — many poignant — from nuns who were questioned.

Of more than 1,100 surveys returned to the university, several included brief, personal stories. 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 18 years.

Another wrote that when she was a young girl, her uncle, a priest, touched holy oil to her genital area "to keep me safe while dating." Her superiors later 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.

Researchers receive thanks

Several of the women said such research was long overdue.

"Thanks for taking the time to admit there is a problem in this area," one wrote. "Best wishes. God bless."

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

"Review for Religious," published at Saint 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 inform the press because a national women's Catholic group, Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), 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 Duckro, the Saint 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 distribute 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 priests said last week he believes it is crucial to reveal results of the survey to the public.

Christopher Dixon, who left the priesthood in 1996 and now lives in St. Louis, said he hopes that the publicity over the survey will generate the same "groundswell" of action that resulted from recent reports of priests' sexual abuse of minors. Bishop Anthony 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.

1,164 nuns participated

The 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 had at least a college education.

The survey dealt with three main types of victimization.

• Child sexual abuse was defined as any sexually oriented contact with a person of the same or opposite sex when the target is younger than age 18.

• 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.

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

Among the key findings:

• Nearly 1 of 5 nuns said she had been sexually abused as a child. While most of the abuse came at the hands of a male family member, some 9 percent of cases were at the hands of a priest, nun or other religious person.

• One of 8 nuns said she had been sexually exploited. Of those, nearly 75 percent maintained she was victimized by a priest, nun or other religious person. Exploitation included everything from pressure for "dates" to requests for sexual favors to sexual intercourse. Two of 5 nuns who said they had been sexually exploited said the exploitation involved some form of genital contact.

• Slightly fewer than 1 in 10 nuns said she was the focus of sexual harassment at least once during her religious life. Almost half of those were at the hands of priests, nuns or other religious persons. More than half of the total harassment cases involved some type of physical contact.

In their report, researchers noted that they believe the figures are more likely to underestimate rather than overestimate the true prevalence of sexual victimization among sisters. "The fear and pain of disclosure would be sufficient enough to discourage responding in some sisters," the report said.

It's not clear how the sexual victimization of nuns compares to the general population, but the results of the survey seem in line with many other surveys of women. National surveys indicate that 20 percent to 27 percent of all women have been sexually abused as children.

The harassment figure would appear lower. In a 1994 Louis Harris and Associates national survey, 31 percent of women claimed to have been harassed at work.

International attention

While the Saint Louis University study has received little attention within the Catholic Church, the church has addressed the issue of abused nuns internationally.

In March 2001, two major Catholic groups pushed for action by the Vatican after news accounts that primarily concerned sexual abuse of nuns by priests in Africa.

The idea to interview Catholic nuns about sexual victimization came from Wolf, then a graduate student at Saint Louis University.

Researchers went to the Maryland-based LCWR and asked for contact information for the 538 orders in the leadership group.

Of those orders, 123 agreed to take part in the survey.

Researchers sent questionnaires to 2,500 nuns. Of those, 1,164 returned completed surveys.

The average age of nuns surveyed was 62; the average time in religious life was 42 years.

Wolf said her work on the survey was so painful that she changed plans to make it the focus of her doctoral thesis.

"I didn't want to devote my life to something that could have been very depressing," she said.

The LCWR took no action after the study. The current executive director says she does not believe the conference distributed survey results or sought policy changes.

The director, Carole Shinnick, said, "it is not within LCWR's mission to directly respond to the needs of women who were victimized. It is the responsibility of their own congregations."

Therapist: Help available

Shinnick, a therapist who worked almost exclusively with Catholic nuns for 12 years, said she knows firsthand the care given to abused nuns.

"My experience of LCWR congregations in responding to their members is that they are pastoral, generous and patient with the recovering person."

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the group was not aware of the survey and had not addressed the issue. That group has taken a leading role in the debate over policies in the wake of the priest sex-abuse scandal.

Wolf, who now works in Catholic education, said few nuns have come forth publicly to talk about their experiences. Many may feel shame or guilt and recognize they could have a lot to lose if they come forward.

"These women have to ask themselves what are the benefits and what are the costs," she said. "The church is the only corporation in town."

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