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Breaking the Silence on Abuse in the Convent
“It’s your obligation to speak the truth, and everyone can either take it or leave it. But the truth must be in us. We live in such a poverty of truth today.” (Mother Angelica)
Religious communities are responsible for providing those who enter the convent with spiritual formation that leads them to become closer to God, and to live authentically the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. But too often this is not the case in religious life, and women who enter the convent to offer their lives to God and His Church are instead faced with emotional, psychological, spiritual, verbal, physical, and sexual abuse by formators and superiors. Unjust and irrational obedience becomes the instrument that some religious communities utilize to enforce power and control within the convent walls.
In more recent times the Church is beginning to shed some much needed light on abuse in the convent. Pope Francis in an address he made to the Vatican’s congregation of religious orders in December of last year referenced the book, Veil of Silence: Abuse, Violence, Frustrations, in Female Religious Life, by Salvatore Cernuzio, published in December 2021. It shares 11 cases of current and former religious sisters from different communities in various parts of the world who suffered abuse by the hands of religious superiors. The book illustrates how it is the everyday abuses by religious superiors who seek power and control in the daily life of a religious sister that is detrimental to a vocation. The abuses often resulted in women either being kicked out of the religious community or having to leave on their own.
The Magisterium has recognized this major issue in the 2017 document, New Wine in New Wineskins, by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, which states:
Those who exercise power should not encourage infantile attitudes that can lead to non-responsible behaviors […]. Unfortunately, these kinds of situations are more common than many of us are willing to accept and denounce, and are more evident in women’s institutions. This is one of the reasons that seems to motivate many departures. For some, it is the only response to situations that have become unbearable. (op. cit., N. 21; cf. N. 39.)
According to Bishop Accountability there are over 100 nuns who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse, which means that there has been either legal action or news writeups as a result of the allegation. It is challenging to report the total number of sexual abuse allegations by nuns since there are over 400 women’s religious institutes in the United States.
Majority of abuse cases concerning the convent however, are not sexual abuse cases, but other forms of abuse, such as emotional, physical, psychological, spiritual, and verbal abuse. There are no statistics currently available for such abuses since these cases remain mostly unreported, but there are numerous testimonies of women who have shared their experiences in blogs, podcasts, social media, in support groups for women who have left the convent, and with their local bishops. The truth of the matter is that majority of women are not willing to share their stories along with the names of their former religious orders or their identities out of fear of retaliation and condemnation for blowing the whistle on convent abuse.
The immense heartache and pain that too many women who have left the convent experience after enduring various kinds of abuse is very real, and there needs to be more awareness and greater action taken by the Church to end abuse in the convent. There is much needed focus on the priestly scandals in the Catholic Church, but there also needs to be attention brought to this extremely significant issue that can also be considered a contributing factor in causing a loss of vocations, and ultimately contributing to a decline in vocations to religious life. There are prayer intentions for more vocations to the religious life heard during the Prayer of the Faithful in various parishes, which is important, but too many young women who answer the call to religious life often lose their vocation because of abuse in the convent. They need prayer too.
There seems to be a lack of accountability for religious superiors and formators of religious communities who wrongfully use their authority to exert power and control over the younger sisters within their communities all in the name of “obedience.” Blind obedience, a form of “dictatorship” is not the type of obedience that the Church teaches. The virtue of obedience according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church is addressed as "The duty of obedience requires all to give due honor to authority and to treat those who are charged to exercise it with respect, and, insofar as it is deserved, with gratitude and good-will." (1900) However, it is blind obedience that has found its way within the convent walls. According to Dr. John R.T. Lamont in Tyranny and Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: A Jesuit Tragedy:
The conception of religious authority and religious obedience that became dominant in the Church from the sixteenth century onwards was thus a fundamental innovation that departed from previous Catholic positions. It came to influence the Church through the training given in seminaries for diocesan priests, and the approach to discipline in religious congregations. The daily life of seminarians and religious was structured by a multitude of rules governing the minutiae of behaviour, and activities that fell outside this routine could generally be pursued only with the permission of the superior. Such permission was arbitrarily refused from time to time in order to encourage submissiveness in subordinates. Reasons for orders were not provided, and questions about the reasons for orders were not answered.
This approach to authority had damaging effects on clergy and religious. The exaction of servile obedience from subordinates destroyed strength of character and the capacity for independent thought. Exercise of tyrannical authority by superiors produced overweening pride and incapacity for self-criticism. The fact that superiors all started off in a subordinate position meant that advancement was facilitated for those proficient in the arts of the slave — flattery, dissimulation, and manipulation.
Authentic and true obedience does not require an individual to surrender her free will, her ability to make considered decisions, her thoughts, or her own perspectives. Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. in his Pocket Catholic Dictionary (New York: Image Books, 1985) explained obedience according to St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica (II, II, Question 104, Articles 4 and 5) as “...obedience to God is without limit, whereas obedience to human beings is limited by higher laws that must not be transgressed, and by the competency or authority of the one who gives orders.” (Page 291)
The "members who are carefully prepared and who, not impeded by other duties, can carry out this function fruitfully and in a stable manner are to be placed in charge of the formation of novices." (CIC, 649, §3) It is all too common when religious sisters are placed in positions that have the responsibility of training and guiding those in formation, but such a role is not suitable for them, and it results in an abuse of power and control. Young women who have left everything behind to follow Christ often do not receive the proper spiritual formation, and instead are severely beaten down until they are broken and eventually lose their vocation to religious life.
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” (Matthew 18:15-16)
Several women who left the convent made the decision to share their stories in an interview about the experiences they had in religious life. These former religious sisters have remained practicing Catholics, and are speaking out in an effort to create more of an awareness for what is taking place in some religious communities because they love the Church. Also, they want those who have been abused in the convent and those who are currently being abused by religious sisters to know that they are not alone.
“In the end, we are not Catholics because our leaders are flawless, but because we find the claims of Catholicism both compelling and beautiful. We are Catholics because the Church speaks of the Trinitarian God whose very nature is love; of Jesus the Lord, crucified and risen from the dead; of the Holy Spirit, who inspires the followers of Christ up and down the ages; of the sacraments, which convey the Christ-life to us; and of the saints, who are our friends in the spiritual order. This is the treasure; this is why we stay.” (Robert Barron, Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis)
The hope is that by sharing their stories they can become a voice for the many women who are too fearful to speak up about what happened to them in the convent. But also for the women currently in formation who are forced into silence since they cannot report to anyone outside of their communities about the abuse taking place due to limited or no access to the world beyond the convent walls.
Alycia Hartley, a former religious sister of nearly five years with an active CMSWR congregation in Canton, Ohio first entered her community in 2014 to dedicate her life and serve the Church as a Bride of Christ. She was welcomed with open arms since they had not had a new vocation in quite some time. It did not take much time though for the smiles, hugs, and words of encouragement to come to an abrupt halt.
“Although I have fond memories of some of the sisters, in the end the community I was in was very corrupt and toxic. I believe that whole heartedly,” as stated by Hartley in her Call for Convent Reform blog. She endured psychological and verbal abuse, which involved gaslighting mostly by her novice mistress. When interviewed Hartley exclaimed how she was never permitted to speak up for herself during accusations from another sister, and if she did then she was reprimanded for not listening and for not being humble. “I was ganged up on by my superiors, such as being character assassinated by four or five Sisters while I just had to take it,” said Hartley.
During her interview she also stated how she could not receive medical care from the outside world unless the infirmarian of the community accompanied her to the medical appointment, and that sister needed to be present in the room with her when she visited with the doctor. Allowance to go to a doctor was rarely given to sisters in formation. When her glasses broke she had to tape them together for months until they finally broke completely in two pieces.
While in the convent Hartley suffered from severe migraines that were a hereditary condition, but they became worse and worse over time. She was only given over the counter medication and nothing worked for her. Despite her pleas to see a doctor for more effective medication, the sisters refused to let her seek the medical care that she so desperately needed from a medical professional. When Hartley needed to rest in order to cope with the pain she often would push herself to fulfill her duties anyway because other sisters would label her as being lazy.
She described her formation as being “mentally imprisoning,” which resulted in her having terrible depression and anxiety, but Hartley remained in the convent because she was told time and time again by her formator that if she left she would lose her salvation.
When Hartley did finally leave the convent, the abuse continued as her former congregation demanded $40,000 to pay them back for her student loan debt that they chose to take on when they accepted her into the community. A donor had paid for half of her loan, but the community still wanted the entire amount returned to them after her separation from the community.
Heleyda Saavedra entered a monastic, LCWR community in Elizabeth, New Jersey in 2012 before leaving the monastery three years later. She entered the community as an older vocation with the desire to grow more and more in love with Jesus and offer herself completely to Him. Saavedra was constantly reprimanded by her formation director for spending too much time with Jesus in the Chapel, and was purposely held late in her classes so that she would be late to pray the Divine Office with the community. “She did not want me to get to prayers on time; she wanted me to wait until the last minute to go to the Chapel since she herself was always late,” said Saavedra.
She was berated and screamed at by her novice mistress for praying for vocations to the priesthood, and for being too often in a good mood. Saavedra’s formation director would tell lies to the Prioress about her. “For example, she would tell the Prioress that I did not say “Hello” to her, but it was not true. Then I would be yelled at by the Prioress for being rude, and the vicious cycle would occur over and over again” exclaimed Saavedra.
Saavedra besides constant chastisement and belittlement by her formator faced time and time again liturgical abuses at Mass, along with radical feminist ideology, and it hurt her heart greatly, affecting her on a deep and profound level both emotionally and spiritually. She went to the Prioress and her formator multiple times to voice her concerns, but the Prioress informed her that since they were a Pontifical Community they did not have to be concerned with having to answer to the bishop.
There had been virtual formation classes, which included former nuns who left the Catholic Church and began their own ecumenical monastic community with women priests. She was forced to participate in new age spirituality such as learning about centering prayer, and the enneagram. “I was reprimanded for genuflecting to the Tabernacle because I was bowing to the man,” said Saavedra. “When I would lector I would see that the masculine terms were crossed out, such as “Lord” “Father,” or “sons” in the lectionary and I was supposed to read the penciled in inclusive language. When I refused to change the words in scripture during Mass, I got in trouble.” When Saavedra went to a formation weekend in another community she was reprimanded for refusing to bow to the words, “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier,” which were used to substitute “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” in morning and evening prayer.
The moment that I knew I had to leave was December 31st when the community always had Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament to ring in the New Year. Since they did not have a large Consecrated Host available to place in the Luna, they scooped up smaller Consecrated Hosts from the Ciborium in the Tabernacle and placed them in a glass candy dish before laying it upon the altar. That disrespectful act against the Lord was the last straw that made me decide to leave forever.
Saavedra struggled with her decision knowing that she had given up her vocation to the religious life, but she was not willing to remain in a monastery where Christ was not at the center.
Bridget Ryder entered a more traditional CMSWR religious community in St. Louis, Missouri in 1999 two weeks after her eighteenth birthday. When interviewed she stated how red flags were raised at the beginning of her novitiate with internal form and boundary violations by her novice mistress. “She would have us sit in a circle where we were divided into two small groups, and we would be forced to share private information about our family history, past hurts, family origin, etc. in front of everyone," she said. “It was like group psychological therapy.”
If a novice did not have any serious issues from her past or the trauma had already been healed, she would try to “needle” it out of them, whether during one-to-one private conferences or in the group sessions, and Ryder stated how one of her co-novices told her, “It was like couldn’t leave without crying.”
Spiritual warfare was also introduced to their formation program. The novice mistress created a relational environment harmful to fraternal charity. She chose two favorites from among their group in formation with whom she spent many hours alone and who were granted exceptions from common practices. These novices also acted as her unofficial novice assistants, and one of them was the one who introduced much of the psychological elements utilized during these sessions. At the same time, the novice mistress was highly critical of the rest of the community outside of the novitiate.
When Ryder complained to her formator about aspects of their formation, the novice mistress accused Ryder of not liking her. Ryder started to question herself that there must be something wrong with her if she could not “just take direction” from her novice mistress. One of the novice assistants was instructed to pray over her in the attempt to release her from whatever was going on to make her indocile to her directress. Ryder exclaimed, “I was supposed to sit there and wait for a feeling to go through my body, and to feel something at the top of my head. Then she was to bind the spirit.”
The other novice assistant was eventually asked to leave because the novice mistress said that she was being obsessed by a ‘Jezebel spirit.’ “This young woman was told she had problems with a Jezebel spirit who was trying to control things, and that she could no longer be in religious life because the issues with the Jezebel spirit could not be resolved in the convent,” said Ryder.
After her first profession the tension in the community had built up to an all time high. Ryder stated, “It came to a head right after I made first vows, and the novice mistress along with the novices made demands upon the Mother Superior to have their own group, sort of like a refounding.” When the novice directress did not receive approval a few days later she rented vans, and took with her 17 of 24 final professed sisters, all of the novices, and majority of the junior professed sisters and postulants. Ryder stated:
When I went to the kitchen that day before evening prayer none of the novices were there who usually take care of the kitchen stuff. Then I went to the Chapel and only two postulants were there along with myself and another first professed sister, no one else. I thought, what the heck?
When all was said and done with what came to be called, “The Runaway,” only two young woman returned, and the novice mistress was not permitted to return to the community, and was encouraged to ask for release from her vows, which she was granted by the Holy See.
According to Ryder who spoke with some of the women who did not return to the community, her former novice mistress was eventually reunited with them, and was granted permission by the bishop of another diocese to begin a public association of the faithful. Her emphasis on spiritual warfare continued and an increasingly small group stayed together for for eight years before voluntarily disbanding. The original community knew the sister received permission to try to begin a new community, and as far as Ryder knows, did nothing. “It always weirded me out, and made me feel unsafe in the Church that she was allowed to start a community,” Ryder said.
According to Ryder she suffered from the stress and trauma that resulted from the community shakeup. She said:
I hung on for most of the rest of that year in vows, and even though I was an emotional mess, I decided with my superiors to take a break from religious life. I had received just a couple of sessions of spiritual direction and counseling; nothing consistent or in-depth, and I was emotionally run out, totally confused.
When I later returned, I experienced what I now know was PTSD, and up until my final departure I had a very difficult time with the new provincial who was a super narcissist. I was even sent to the psychologist for not being obedient.
It does not take very long after a search on the Internet to find more testimonies of women who were abused in the convent by those in charge of formation. According to the Huffington Post in Jessica Blank’s article Allegations of Abuse Within The Convent Walls, there were several women interviewed who shared the traumatic experiences that they endured by the U.S. delegate to the congregation and directress of postulants and early novices, Theresa Kovacs, in their community, the Sisters Minor of Mary Immaculate (SMMI). One woman, who goes by the name of Georgiana explained, “I witnessed other girls just being yelled at on a constant basis by Theresa Kovacs. It would be a torrent of the nastiest stuff you could ever say to a human being, she would say to me.”
Patricia Budd, who entered the community in 1995, explained to the Huffington Post that their food would be restricted. “Basically your food is pretty much less and less,” she said. “And so, that’s pretty much like what a cult is — and break you down. That’s the whole thing. Always to break you down.”
After reaching out to Budd in reference to her interview with the Huffington Post on abuse in the convent she concluded with the following statement:
I experienced abuse such as physical abuse and medical neglect, attempted sexual assault and psychological abuse, but what tore me down and killed me was the daily spiritual abuse that I was damned and no good. After a while you begin believing this and you just don’t want to live anymore.
Bishops and authorities of the Church along with priests and seminarians need to be trained to know how to detect abuse in religious orders, and they can’t be doing victim blaming. It took me over ten years before someone took me seriously. Survivors should not suffer this long.
According to Budd, after an investigation by the Vatican, the Sisters Minor of Mary Immaculate who were founded in 1983 in Rome, Italy, were finally disbanded in October 2014.
The daughter of a former religious sister, Mary Pfum Peterson, shared her mother’s testimony of abuse in a convent in Indiana with Jezebel in her article Nun Abuse: How My Mother, A Former Nun, Suffered at the Hands of the ‘Good Sisters.’ Peterson writes:
My mother entered the convent in the fall of 1957 at the age of 21, determined to save the world through her faith. She left nearly a decade later, beaten down physically and mentally, emaciated and fragile. On the early morning in which she finally exited, her head was bald in patches, owing to the hatchet-job-style haircuts the convent had subjected her to for years. She had no civilian clothes to wear—having given all of her worldly possessions up upon entering the convent—and so was forced by a pair of presiding nuns to wear ill-fitting clothing that she said smelled and a pair of mismatched shoes. She shook uncontrollably. Worst of all were her eyes. Her large brown eyes, wide and excited when she’d entered the convent, went listless and flat. In the words of my uncle, my mother’s youngest brother, who was horrified at the sight of her the morning she returned to their childhood home, “She looked like a mangy dog. A beat-up, mangy dog.”
The type of severe mistreatment that Peterson’s mother endured in the convent; physical and emotional abuse, is the kind of abuse that remains hidden within the convent walls. Those in authority in some religious communities use those in formation as target practice to inflict the most damage upon them in order to reinforce their power even if it means harming their physical health and well-being. Peterson states in her article:
Even when my mother doubled over in physical agony, owing to abdominal cramps, and was scarcely capable of moving, she was ordered to get out of bed. Her pleas for medical care fell on deaf ears. It was a priest affiliated with the religious academy in which she taught who ultimately insisted upon getting her treatment, ordering a pair of nuns to take her to the doctor. The doctor on duty was appalled at her appearance, calling her a “bag of bones” before sending her on to the hospital, where doctors performed emergency surgery on her tipped uterus. She was additionally diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune neuromuscular disorder, which explained her extreme fatigue.
Peterson also shared that her mother finally mustered up enough courage to leave the convent with the help of the priest who was responsible for getting her the much needed medical care that she so desperately needed during that time.
According to Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, who is responsible for overseeing religious communities and is the head of the particular Vatican Department, the Holy Father back in 2018 opened a home in Rome for nuns who were abandoned by their religious congregations. In an interview with the Vatican Newspaper L'osservatore Romano, as reported by Phillip Pullella in Reuters, the Cardinal spoke of how he had also launched investigations into a number of convents, and was horrified to discover that some former religious sisters in order to survive became involved in prostitution.
More and more testimonies of women who have experienced various types of abuse in the convent are coming to light. It seems that the Church has been paying closer attention to the inside world of convents, and there is acknowledgment by Pope Francis that there are severe issues within some convents leading to abuse of members of the congregation, especially those in formation.
According to L’Osservatore Romano Pope Francis has recently issued final norms on sexual abuse with regards to the handling of abuse complaints, in an updated version of the 2019 “moto proprio” Vos Estis Lux Mundi. The new norms will take effect in May of this year, and a major modification concerns the inclusion of “vulnerable adults.” The document from 2019 referred to “sexual acts with a minor or a vulnerable person,” but the modified text refers to “a crime against the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue committed with a minor, or with a person who habitually has an imperfect use of reason, or with a vulnerable adult.”
Another change within the updated version is regarding the protection of the individual who reports the alleged abuse. The previous text as reported by the Vatican newspaper offered that “no constraint of silence may be imposed on the person who reports alleged abuse,” but now in the updated version the text states that no constraint of silence may be placed upon “the person who claims to have been offended and those who were witnesses.”
Acknowledgment by the Vatican is significant, but change needs to come from within religious communities as well. Women who have been abused in the convent can report it to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life. There have also been investigations and apostolic visits conducted by the dicastery, but the problems in human and spiritual formation within religious houses needs to be addressed by the communities themselves on a much deeper level.
Religious superiors and formators need to be held accountable for abusing their power and authority, and destroying vocations in the Church. The future of religious life depends on it.
“Jesus would publicly call out people in the faith community who are guilty for hurting/violating others. He wouldn't sit back in silence. He wouldn't bury the evidence. Or cover up abuse. In addition, He would never ignore, condemn, or ostracize those who've suffered trauma. He wouldn't say, “Get over it.” (Dana Arcuri, Sacred Wandering: Growing Your Faith In The Dark)
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