Houses of Worship
Go Tell It on the Mountain
Tennessee Nuns Take up the Cause of Sex-Abuse Victims

By Rod Dreher
Wall Street Journal [Tennessee]
March 5, 2004

A week ago, the National Review Board released its final report to the U.S. Catholic bishops on the sex-abuse scandal, and American Catholics are still struggling to come to terms with the staggering toll of the crisis. By the bishops' own reckoning, over the past half-century 10,600 minors formally accused 4,400 priests of sex abuse. The numbers are no abstraction for the victims and their families, but many Catholics whose lives have only been touched indirectly by the scandal are confused over how to respond.

Clarity is not at issue for two Cistercian nuns living alone together in a cloister on an Appalachian peak in rural southeast Tennessee. Their latest prayer intentions have lit a fire on their mountaintop, and have some in the Diocese of Knoxville hot under the collar

Mother Veronica Sweeney, 66, and Sister M. Angela Ferry, 53, have devoted themselves to praying and advocating for victims of sexual abuse by clergy and members of religious orders. They run a Web site, through which they invite victims and their families to contact them for intercession. Four days after their Web address was featured recently on a couple of Catholic Web sites, the nuns found themselves swamped by desperate e-mails from all over the country.

"Some of these people are on the verge of suicide," Mother Veronica says. "Some of these stories are beyond imagining. We don't know where we'll go from here, but we'll do our best to comfort the victims. This is simply a tragedy of unbelievable proportions."

What's gotten them in trouble with some in their diocese, though, is a crusade they've undertaken as part of their ministry. The pair have called for the removal of any remembrances honoring Knoxville's previous bishop, Anthony J. O'Connell, who had been moved to south Florida. Two years ago this spring, he resigned as bishop of Palm Beach after admitting he molested a teenager as a seminary rector in the 1970s. Christopher Dixon, the abused teenage seminarian and now ex-priest, told ABC News: "I trusted this man completely. He was my idol, my mentor, my shepherd, if you will . . . and I was betrayed."

The nuns know the feeling. As ordinary of Knoxville, Bishop O'Connell had welcomed them in 1992. Mother Veronica says he was "extremely charismatic" and they adored him. They lost their faith in the bishop when his secret deeds were made known.

Not everyone in Knoxville did, however. "It seemed that many of us have loved these people," the mother superior says of abusive clergy, "and for whatever reason, once the admission or exposure occurs of their activity, some people cannot move away." It's an all-too-human response when trust is betrayed, and the religious factor can make it especially difficult to discern the line between the life-giving virtue of mercy and the vice of cheap grace.

Shortly after their former bishop's resignation, three area moms waged a controversial but successful campaign to have his name removed from a parish family center. Mother Veronica and Sister Angela have since joined them in their new cause: to have the photograph of the molester bishop taken out of parochial schools.

Not everyone agrees, though, that such a move is necessary or justified, and the sisters have found themselves under attack for their zeal. (A diocesan spokesman declined to comment on the nuns' crusade, except to say that the former bishop's photo is displayed merely in historical context.)

Mother Veronica insists that "we're not rabble-rousers, we're not rebels," yet is surprised, even angered, to hear that few Catholic priests and nuns in America have dared to challenge church authority on behalf of abuse victims. "Perhaps we've all become comfortable and have a place, a position, to protect," she muses.

These nuns used to have a fairly secure position in the hearts of the locals. When they arrived in Knoxville, they were "the darlings of the diocese," as Mother Veronica puts it. That's all over. To the discomfort of some of their former friends, they're calling the current bishop's sex-abuse policy a "sham" because, in their view, it offers bureaucratic procedure instead of true penitence and Christian charity. They also believe, generally, that the suffering of sex-abuse victims may be the seed of a (doctrinally sound) "new Reformation."

"Of course we're afraid," Mother Veronica continues. "Nonetheless, what can one do? What can the bishop do against two old nuns living on a mountaintop? He can make a stink in the papers, but we can come back to him by saying we're only doing what you should be doing, which is helping the victims."

Mr. Dreher is a writer for The Dallas Morning News.


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