Catholic Nuns Also Abused Children

April 23, 2010

A dormitory at the Salesian Fathers of Don Bosco boarding school in 's-Heerenberg.

So far, reports of abuse within the Church have focussed almost exclusively on male clerics. But many young children also suffered at the hands of Catholic nuns.

In the late 1950s, the Roman Catholic Hospital of Our Dear Lady Mother of in Eindhoven was hell for Petra Jorissen. The reason it was had a name: sister Johanetty. "We will break that little will of yours, break it," she would squeal, as she forced the remains of a meal Jorissen had just thrown up back down her throat.

Jorissen, now a 59-year-old journalist, recalled how the sister would also come to her room at night. "When I heard the squeaking of her lacquered men's shoes I immediately knew it was her," Jorissen said. "Only after she had come to my bed would she turn on her flashlight. By then, she had always carefully closed the curtains surrounding it." The sister would then fondle her genitals.

The nun did not ruin her life, Jorissen said, although she still sees her "devilish face" flash in front of her eyes at least once a day. She is not looking for financial compensation, she said. "But I do hope that there will be an inquiry into the pedagogical practices of female clerics in the 1950s and 60s."

So far, most media reports of abuse within the Catholic Church have focussed exclusively on male perpetrators. But there has also been abuse by female clerics, particularly in children's homes.

Sadistically motivated abuse

Since NRC Handelsblad and RNW started publishing testimonies from victims of abuse within the Catholic Church, 29 women have come forward. Ten women reported being abused by male priests, while 19 women said they were the victim of clerics of their own sex. Of all the reports of maltreatment by nuns, some 40 percent concern child abuse.

All the women told how physical love and tenderness were absent from the children's homes and institutes maintained by sisterly orders. Most homes knew a harsh and repressive climate, which lead to humiliation and wanton violence, sometimes sadistically motivated.

The hospital where Petra Jorissen stayed in the 1950s was run by the Sisters of Love. Jorissen was not the only one to point out this order. The Sisters ran dozens of hospitals, orphanages and hospices in the Catholic parts of the Netherlands.

Merapi Obermayer lived in the Maria Boarding School in Amersfoort. She still remembers the names of the five nuns who tormented her. Feliciana was the worst, she recalled. One time, the nun kicked her down a flight of marble stairs without warning. She called her names, such as "bastard" or "God's mistake". The boarding school is closed now, and the nuns are dead, including sister Hendrina, who did try to be nice, said Obermayer.

Screaming, beating, forcefully grabbing children by the arm or making them stand in the corner for even the most minor offences were all common practice in the 1950s and 1960s. Pedagogical principles of the era allowed for physical punishment, in school as well as at home.

The majority of the reports of abuse by nuns, however, concern sexual abuse and violence that exceed even the more lenient norms of the time. A 16-year-old nurse in training, at the Heerlen Midwives' School, was forced to have sex with a nun repeatedly over a period of eight months. When the school got wind of what was going on, the girl was expelled. "Bye bye education, bye bye future," the victim, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, recalled. The nun was allowed to stay.

'Gestapo nuns'

In the 1940s, the Kollenberg orphanage in Sittard was run by German Carmelites. "Gestapo nuns," is what Ben Jaspers called them, as he described their reign of terror. "Bedwetting was punished by pinching and twisting ears or sometimes pulling children along by their ears. We were constantly humiliated. Bedwetters were forced to stand absolutely still, wearing nothing but their dirty underwear, over their head." Jaspers said he was afraid to sleep at night, fearing he might wet his bed again.

At a sanatorium run by Franciscans in Bunde, naughty children were put in a tub filled with ice cold water, a punishment applied in other places as well. Josefine Klaassen returned to Bunde recently. "I remember standing there," she recalled. "Looking up at that church tower. I felt fear, sadness and helplessness come over me. As if it hadn't been 50 years since, but only 50 days."

Excessive violence was common in many children's homes, and child protective services did nothing to stop it. Ben Jaspers described how two screaming German nuns forced a five-year-old to eat cold porridge. They would hold him down and bang on the back of his head. One nun would force open his mouth and pinch his nose. The porridge would go in, and the child would vomit. The nuns would force him to eat his own sick. The scene would repeat itself, accompanied by more tears.

The violence did not have to be excessive to remain etched in a victim's childhood memory. Late in the 1950s, father Paduinus walked the halls of Huize Bethlehem children's home wearing comfy slippers. He was a god to the nuns. He smoked cigars, and girls who were busy scrubbing the floor on their knees had to catch any ash he spilled. Girls that didnít were punished by the mother superior. "As a 14-year-old child, that hurt me," one girl who refused to catch the priest's ash recalled. "I think about it often: abuse of power. That is what it was."


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