The Nun from Hell

By Lloyd Grove
New York Daily News
Downloaded October 14, 2003

I've known Hollywood screenwriter Elizabeth Anderson for 15 years and her husband, television producer Bob Stevens, for twice that long.

What I didn't know until last week - when I read Anderson's astonishing manuscript, "Storming the Gates of Heaven" - was that, at age 7, she was sexually tortured and mutilated by nuns at an exclusive Catholic girls school in the Midwest, and that she and Stevens, the co-executive producer of "Malcolm in the Middle," have spent the past decade in a quest for justice and peace of mind.

Anderson's book is a harrowing, enraging and moving account of child abuse, coverup, bureaucratic indifference and personal triumph. The narrative - factual, although "the names have been changed to protect the guilty" - details Anderson's 1993 miscarriage, which apparently triggered repressed memories of her long-ago abuse. (Ironically, the memories came back while she was polishing a remake of "Lassie" for director Daniel Petrie, who also directed "Sybil.")

Anderson reveals that she and Stevens ultimately hired a private detective to find her only surviving and most sadistic tormenter, "Sister Thomasina," who - shockingly - was living, she writes, on the grounds of a parochial school on the West Coast.

Anderson recounts her dramatic confrontation with Sister Thomasina and the surprising response of church authorities when she tried to alert them to the potential danger that the nun might indulge her pedophilia.

In July 2000, she wrote to the Most Rev. Alex J. Brunett, Archbishop of Seattle, and initially, he responded that he had launched an investigation.

"Again, thank you for writing to me about this painful matter," the archbishop added. "Please be assured that I will remember you in my prayers."

But ultimately Archbishop Brunett advised her to take her concerns to Sister Thomasina's religious order, because there was nothing he could do.

The order's top nun said her own investigation (for which Anderson was not even contacted) had concluded that there was nothing to worry about. When Anderson continued to write to Brunett, the general counsel of the Seattle Archdiocese sent her a letter advising: "Please stop contacting Archbishop Brunett."

Anderson's account includes her therapy sessions with Pasadena psychiatrist Laila Karme and the Rev. John Coleman, a Carmelite priest and social worker - who both vetted the book for accuracy.

"I am absolutely certain that the abuse occurred just as Elizabeth described it," Karme told me.

Coleman, meanwhile, says he interceded with church authorities, but his pleas have come to naught.

"These people have been closing their eyes to the truth," he told me. "I have a difficult time understanding what would lead them to keep a dangerous person in a place where she could do more harm."

Seattle Archdiocese spokesman Greg Magnoni rejected that criticism. "Our first concern in an alleged abuse case is the protection of children and justice for everyone involved," he said. "If it involves a member of a religious community, the archdiocese immediately refers the case to the individual's superior - and that was what was done."

Magnoni added that, contrary to Anderson's assertion, Sister Thomasina doesn't live next to a school. "There is a church there," he said. "There is no school there."

Anderson says she wrote the book out of her "desire, as a professional writer, to give a voice, in a sense, to all victims who do not have the opportunity to speak in print for themselves. And there is another reason. This book examines an aspect of the clergy sex-abuse crisis as yet untold: nuns. Catholic sisters … selfless Madonnas, teachers of children, ministers to the sick, celibate brides of Christ. …This book turns that image on its head."

Anderson's manuscript is being shopped to a dozen New York publishers by her Los Angeles agent, Irene Webb, and in recent days editors at Knopf, Bantam, Warner Books, Scribner and Little, Brown have warmly praised the account but passed on it.

Some might find it too hot to handle, but "Storming the Gates of Heaven" deserves a wide audience - I predict it will get one and whip up a storm of controversy.


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