In the Media
Abused nuns:
Problems cry out for reform


Fr. Peter Larkin, a missionary to Africa -- an AIDS sufferer himself -- disrupted a 1989 Vatican conference in Rome by shouting our and brandishing a poster that said: “The church has AIDS.” He was removed from the hall, and the disturbance was quelled.

Later, Larkin returned to the meeting, and that afternoon Fiorenzo Angelini (now a cardinal) arranged for the priest to meet the pope. The incident sizzled across the wire services to the international press.

What were the lasting results of this public notification?

Without doubt some readers of “Reports of abuse” in the March 16 NCR will receive the article as a similar sensationalistic disruption of the multiple good faith efforts of the church to deal with the problems of AIDS and abuse. Others will read it as a disloyal exposure of “in house” distress or, worse, as journalistic exaggeration, church bashing, or even lies. Others may wish to dismiss it as an “African” story.

It is none of the above. It is a summons for sexual/celibate responsibility and accountability, even reform, from those who claim moral authority.

The sources for the NCR article were not only reliable and informed religious, but each expressed her/his concern in measured tones, in appropriate ecclesiastical venues. What were the results? The authors of the article cannot be cited for haste or sensationalism in publishing the story. The substance of the allegations contained in the story has been widely known for years and circulated from other equally reliable firsthand witnesses.

An African priest, assigned to Rome -- who, by the way, was sexually abused during his seminary training by a European priest -- wrote me many years ago, deeply concerned after he returned from a trip to his own country. A religious friend, the superior of a local convent of sisters, had “difficulties with the bishop.” He went on to specify that the bishop requested that “the superior general should allow her sisters to be used by the priests, so as to prevent his priests from getting AIDS.” The priest said that he knew from his own observation that “white sisters in Africa have to struggle to set boundaries and say no to priests’ advancements.”

Certainly there are some cultural differences between Africa and America regarding sexuality, but there are some similarities between the sexual behaviors of priests in both locations. I, among others, have interviewed two American nuns who convincingly alleged rape by U.S. priests. I, with others, have reviewed the report of a pregnant nun who reluctantly revealed that the child’s father was a bishop. Care and all expenses were carefully taken care of through his office. Secrecy, but no abortion. The problem of AIDS among American clergy has already received public attention. What is the response to knowledge of these problems in America?

Everyone concerned with the substance of the report on abuse surely hopes for some results -- for some response from the system, for some sign of reform from church authorities. But what are the results from the six wise recommendations Medical Missionary of Mary Sr. Maura O’Donohue placed before Cardinal Eduardo Martínez and his staff at the Vatican congregation for religious in 1995? Where is the “voice for the voiceless” she pleaded for?

Sr. Marie McDonald lobbied Rome in 1998 for “concerted action.” What are the results from her efforts?

What is the response to Fr. Robert J. Vitillo’s thoughtful challenge to theologians to face the “daunting task of elaborating a substantive theology of human sexuality”?

Surely the Vatican official who spoke to NCR -- albeit ironically from behind the shield of anonymity -- put a finger on the immense problem secrecy poses in coming to grips with abuse in the clergy. “Talking about” the problem, the official said, “is the first step toward a solution.”

Why have all the intelligent and spiritually motivated efforts recorded in the article produced negligible results?

One reality that gives the problems recorded a special urgency and force is missing from all the accounts. One word is never mentioned. Crime. Rape (sexual abuse and harassment, too) is a crime. Collusion to cover up crime is itself negligent and reprehensible. So is conspiratorial silence; so is the failure to protect the endangered and warn the innocent. Church authorities cannot plead ignorance, nor innocence.

What will be the result of all this?

Richard Sipe is a researcher and the author of Celibacy: A Way of Loving, Living and Serving. He is currently working on a book about priests with AIDS. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, April 6, 2001

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