Do Nuns Die Virgins?

By Mavis Makuni
Financial Gazette [Zimbabwe]
October 14, 2004

The Roman Catholic Church has suffered adverse publicity worldwide over the last few years after sordid tales of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests and bishops were unearthed in the United States and other countries.In March 2002, the international news magazine Newsweek published a report under the headline, "Sins of the Fathers" which detailed how priests and bishops in different dioceses of the Catholic Church in the US had molested young boys and girls for about 50 years.

They had got away with these offences for so long because of an intricate cover-up strategy adopted by the church. This involved transferring culprits to dioceses where they were not well-known after complaints or whispers about their immoral and illegal behaviour.

The scandal was shocking in that the Catholic Church, which has one billion adherents worldwide, stood accused alongside secular organisations of covering up rape, child molestation and paedophilia.

The church’s hypocrisy in pretending that priests and nuns adhered to their vows of celibacy when the widespread abuses exposed in press reports showed otherwise raised many questions.

One was why the church stuck to this doctrine if it was too difficult for some clerics to adhere to it.

The lifestyles of nuns and priests have always fascinated lay-people who have wondered whether it is humanly possible for mere mortals to overcome fleshly desires and stick to their vows of poverty and celibacy all their lives.

There have always been whispers about the sexual escapades of priests and nuns even here in Zimbabwe but these are always difficult to ascertain because of the aura of secrecy surrounding religious orders.

But lo and behold, the secret is out and it’s official. The headquarters of the Catholic Church, the Vatican, has conceded that not all is well.

A number of reports have confirmed that thousands of nuns worldwide cannot keep their vows of chastity because they are raped or coerced into having sex by priests or bishops.

"The Holy See is dealing with the question in collaboration with the bishops, and with the International Union of Superiors General", said Papal spokesperson Joaquin. Navaro - Vallis.

Navaro - vallis, who was quoted in the National Catholic Reporter, added: "Certain negative situations cannot cause to be forgotten the frequently heroic fidelity of the great majority of male religious priests".

The Vatican statement was prompted by a report in the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica about the scandal:

A number of reports written by senior members of women’s religious orders have also confirmed that the sexual abuse of nuns by priests is a serious and prevalent problem.

In the 1990s Sister Maura O’Donohue a medical doctor, briefed Cardinal Eduardo Matinerz, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for religious life on a report she had written while she was the AIDS co-ordinator for the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development based in London.

In her report, quoted in the Catholic National Reporter, O’Donohue said the sexual abuse of nuns by priests had been documented in 23 countries, including Zimbabwe. The rest are Botswana, Burundi, Brazil, Colombia, Ghana, India, Ireland, Italy, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Tonga, Uganda, United States, Zambia and Zaire.

O’ Donohue said she initially reacted with "shock and disbelief" at the magnitude of the problem. "For example", she said, "a superior of a community of sisters in one country was approached by priests requesting that sisters be made available to them for sexual favours".

She said in some instances, some priests even advised sisters to take contraceptives, misleading them into believing that the pill prevented the transmission of HIV. Some Catholic medical professionals have complained of being pressured by priests to procure abortions for religious sisters impregnated by clerics.

In a similar report compiled in 1998, Sister Marie McDonald said that priests sometimes exploited the financial dependency of young sisters or took advantage of spiritual direction and the sacrament of reconciliation to extort sexual favours. She said some of the factors that gave rise to these sexual indiscretions include the fact that celibacy and chastity were not important values in some countries and because of the inferior position of women in society and the church sisters found it impossible to turn down clerics who ask for sexual favours because priests are authority figures who must be obeyed.

"Moreover, they are usually more highly educated and they have received a much more advanced theological formation that sisters," she said. The priests could also use false theological arguments to justify their behaviour, such as, "We are both consecrated celibates. That means we have promised not to marry. However, we can have sex together without breaking our vows".

In another report. O’Donohue noted that celibacy could have different meanings in different cultures. She cited the example of a vicar general in an African diocese who gave a different view of celibacy. "Celibacy in the African context means a priest does not get married but does not mean he does not have children"

According to the National Catholic Reporter, if a nun became pregnant she was the one who was asked to leave the congregation while the priest responsible could continue with his ministry.

In some cases, priests had relationships with several women, some of them the wives of church members.

"In such circumstances husbands are angry about what is happening but are embarrassed to challenge their parish priests".

Last year a newspaper in the U.S State of Missouri, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, published a report showing that 34,000 nuns had suffered sexual abuse.

Researchers at the university of St. Louis, who conducted the survey on which the report was based said, the sisters were sexually abused by priests or other nuns.

Last month, Associated Press reported on a lawsuit in which six plaintiffs in Louisville claimed that they were abused by Roman Catholic nuns while living in an orphanage in Anchorage in the 1905s and 1960s. This means that although O’Donohue and McDonald’s reports depict nuns as the victims of predatory priests and bishops, they themselves are not blameless.

O’Donohue said the AIDS pandemic had drawn attention to issues which may not have had much significance in the past. "The enormous challenge which AIDS poses for members of religious orders and the clergy is only now becoming evident"

Observers quoted in the Catholic National Reporter said in the wake of these embarrassing revelations, the Roman Catholic Church was taking steps to address the problem.

A Benedictine leader in Rome said, "Several monasteries already have guidelines in case a monk is accused of sexual misconduct, taking care of the individuals concerned, the victim included. We need sincerity and justice".

A Vatican official who spoke to the National Catholic Reporter anonymously said the culture in the Roman Catholic Church was changing. "The response from church leaders is more aggressive and swift and in general there is a climate within religious life that these things have to be discussed. Talking about it is the first step towards a solution".


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.