Women Are Also Victims of Clergy Sex Abuse

By Virginia Saldanha
Union of Catholic Asian News
July 4, 2010

The issue of sexual abuse of women in the Church in Asia has been simmering beneath the surface for a long time. It is not a new issue. It has just never made the news before. But that must now be rectified.

Over the years I have become acutely aware that the problem is widespread. Many victims are crying out for justice, healing and support. But too often those cries for help are silent, made by the women victims to themselves alone.

That must stop.

For the women who have approached me already and for those I am yet to hear from, my pledge is simple. I will reach out to you with hope of justice and the path to recovery and peace.

No shortage of evidence

There is no shortage of anecdotal evidence of the scale of the problem which in some cases dates back many years. Astrid Lobo-Gajiwala, a prominent leader in the women's movement in the Church recently shared this story with me:

"I had gone for a family camp organized by Church personnel about 10-12 years ago. I wandered into the kitchen to meet the helpers and got into conversation with the cook.

"When she came to know who I was she told me her story. She was a former nun who was forced to leave because she became pregnant. She was very, very bitter.

"She said she had been working for a bishop and he was the father of her child, a boy, who was being looked after by a church run orphanage. The bishop continued in his position as shepherd of the flock."

Brief public appearances

Occasionally the issue becomes public – at least briefly – before retreating beneath the surface again.

The first study of the problem was in 2000 when the Women and Gender Commission of the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines did research on the sexual abuse of women in the Church. They presented their partial findings to the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).

In 2003 the CBCP came up with "Pastoral Guidelines on Sexual Abuses and Misconduct by the Clergy." The final document was signed by Archbishop Quevedo, then president of CBCP on September 1, 2003.

At that time I was Executive Secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India's Commission for Women as well as the Executive Secretary of the Women's Desk in the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences Office of Laity & Family.

Spurred on by the Philippines survey, I began to investigate the issue in India. I found Indian sisters shy about talking about it so I approached a Mother General from Switzerland. She confirmed that it was an issue, but that congregations were asked to deal with the issue "in house".

The drawback of this approach was that only the Religious sister concerned was "dealt with", rather than the problem itself.

Prepared to speak out

Some sisters were prepared to speak out, although few appeared to hear them. When 26 Indian women theologians met in Bangalore in 2002, they issued a statement saying:

"We raise our voice of concern and protest against the individual clerical abuse of women.

"We decry Institutional injustice to women that strips them of dignity and renders them powerless."

But progress in addressing the problem was slow and frustrating. I worked with the then Executive Secretary of the Commission of Clergy and a woman theologian to produce a syllabus on sexuality, to be used in the training of seminarians.

It was rejected.

I feel the response to the issue was a questioning of the links between the women theologians' group and the CBCI Commission for Women. They were subsequently de-linked in 2003.

Once again, the problem slipped back beneath the surface. But women's voices could not be fully silenced and we continued to hear stories and the cries for help.

At a seminar for Religious, some years ago, I sat with a group of sisters to talk about the impact of patriarchy on women in the Church. One sister spoke about her experience as a nurse being summoned by the priest in the mission area as he was sick. When she was attending to him, he pulled her down on top of himself.

An elderly sister sitting by my side said to me: "Virginia, this is a big problem, something must be done about it!"

I agreed, but where to start? For a long time I was not able to do anything except raise the issue at various talks and discussions in the Church.

Hopeful signs

However, there were some hopeful signs that some men in the Church were prepared to address the problem. Calcutta Jesuit Provincial Father George Pattery, for example, raised it when talking to at the February 2006 General Body meeting of the Conference of Religious of India.

"The tendency is to silence the victims whenever complaints of sexual abuse are made. From now on, we will work to formulate a policy that will ensure justice for all within the Church."

Montfort Brother Mani Mekkunnel, national secretary of the Conference of Religious India, a strong defender of women's rights in the Church, also spoke of the need to chart a policy on sexual abuse of Religious within the Church.

But the momentum only really began to gather over the past year or so. With the avalanche of child sex abuse cases in the Church coming to light in different parts of the world, women began asking, "what about the sexual abuse of women which is also a violation of women's dignity, abuse of priestly position, and violation of the vow of celibacy?"

Sexual misbehavior

More women began to approach me personally.

In February this year, a Religious sister from Asia living in the UK contacted me because she had suffered from the sexual misbehavior of an Indian priest while he was in the UK. He even boasted to her about his other sexual escapades!

Since then, I have been accompanying and supporting this brave and tenacious woman on her journey to bring justice and healing to herself and other victims of this priest.

As she has pursued her case of sexual harassment, she has found that the priest's boasts were far from idle. Reports to the authorities came to light from when he worked in India of his sexual misbehavior with many women, included sending inappropriate emails, betraying their trust and physical abuse.

In May this year I met with another victim of sexual abuse by a priest. She said that she had emotional problems and went to retreats organized by the priest, looking for counseling and healing. She was convinced by the priest that healing came from God in the form of his "loving touch", which developed into a sexual relationship.

She later discovered that he had relationships with other women who also came to his retreats for counseling.

Time for action

More cases came to light during the East Asia Bishops' Institute on Women in Taiwan in May this year, where the issue of violence to women in society and in the Church was brought up.

Virginia Saldanha

A participant from Taiwan shared tearfully her own experience of sexual abuse by a priest while Sprout women's group in Taiwan said that they have helped with a case of sexual abuse in the Church and developed a course for sexual harassment prevention in all the dioceses of Taiwan.

But the time for talk is over. We in the Church need to address this problem urgently.

First we need to acknowledge a problem exists. Then we need a survey to quantify the scale of the problem and then we need action – to bring justice and healing in existing cases and to do our best through education and policy to address this issue in future.

But most of all we must ensure that no more are women left to cry for help and not be heard.

Virginia Saldanha is the former executive secretary of the FABC Office of Laity and Family. She can be contacted on and would like to hear, in absolute confidence, from any women who have suffered from sexual abuse in the Church


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