Praying for Peace
Two Cloistered Nuns Reach out with the Help of Technology to Help Victims of Priest Abuse

By Jeannine F. Hunter
February 28, 2004


They love the Catholic Church. But they also ache for victims hurt by it.

Mother Veronica Sweeney and Sister Angela Ferry, diocesan nuns of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Knoxville, have opened up their cloistered lives to reach victims of sexual abuse and the victims' families through the Internet and e-mail.

"People say it's a gay issue. It's not," Ferry said. "Gay men molesting boys, heterosexual men abusing girls, nuns abusing children: They're all abusing the vulnerable."

"Abuse continues when people do not listen to you," Sweeney said.

In late January, statements from the two contemplative nuns of the Monastery of Our Lady of Little Citeaux in Copperhill went online in two recently established Web sites: and Since then, they have received hundreds of e-mails from as far away as Australia and Great Britain.

For hours each day, the former Trappistine nuns respond to e-mail requests for prayers from victims asking for support.

"The monastery and each of the nuns are dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother and symbol of the Church in the order of faith, hope, love, and perfect union with Jesus," says a statement at "The monastery and nuns are likewise dedicated through the intercession of the loving motherhood of Mary, to helping victims of church abuse and cover-up."

Their monastery is located near where Georgia and North Carolina meet Tennessee at the Cherokee National Forest. Copperhill is less than a mile from McCaysville, Ga., nine miles from Blue Ridge, Ga., and 24 miles from Murphy, N.C. In addition to prayer and their work with abuse victims, the women operate Peaceable Kennel, an animal boarding kennel they started in November.

Following a tour of the grounds, the women share stories of people who identify themselves as victims, or as parents whose children killed themselves after becoming victims. They tell of a police officer who's still uneasy with priests after suffering abuse as a child. They tell of bereaved parents who cannot forgive what happened in a place they were sure their children would be safe.

When asked how they communicate with people who say they've left the church, Ferry said, "At the point these people are, we don't tell them to go to church or even pray. All we're trying to do is to be there, wherever there is."

When appropriate, they suggest that the person consult law enforcement, psychologists and local sex abuse crisis centers within their communities.

The nuns felt compelled to reach out to others after reading an editorial by Susan Vance of Knoxville-based SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) of Tennessee, meeting Vance and others locally who advocate on behalf of victims, educating themselves about the extent of scandal and receiving feedback from people who say they were abused by priests and nuns. Their online approach honors their contemplative lifestyle yet connects them with people locally, nationally and globally.

Vance established the previously mentioned Web sites, which feature content provided by or endorsed by the nuns. The sites are linked to two national advocacy groups.

In May 1997, the Rev. Anthony J. O'Connell, Diocese of Knoxville founding bishop, dedicated Our Lady of Little Citeaux, named after an 11th-century monastery established by Benedictine monks who sought a simpler life in Citeaux, France.

O'Connell, who moved to Palm Beach, Fla., to lead the Diocese of Palm Beach, resigned from the priesthood in 2002, after he admitted to engaging in sexual relations with high school seminarians in Jefferson City, Mo.

In their comments in person and online, the nuns are respectful of O'Connell, whom they were prepared to welcome to their monastery upon his retirement. Online, their statements occasionally refer to O'Connell as "beloved bishop" because of the esteem and gratitude and friendship they maintained with him. But this does not prevent them from being critical of his actions.

"For the sake of his victims, we explain here that while we pray for him out of obedience to our Heavenly Father, our deepest concern and devotion are for his victims," they say at "We are not in that elite group who has magnanimously 'proven' their forgiveness of him by continuing to honor him, and even to fund him."

"For the Catholic, next to God, it's the priest," Ferry said. "It's an incestuous abuse from the victims' perspective. Even if they are 18 or older, it is incestuous. Our priest is our father, representing the fatherness of God."

"It's so important that someone stands up," Sweeney said. "We don't think we'll change this and correct this. But to say to the victim, 'This happens, we hear you, and do not take the money and just be quiet.' A victim once shared this quote with me: 'Silence is the voice of complicity.'"

Jeannine F. Hunter may be reached at 865-342-6324.


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