"a Spiritual Rape': Female Survivors Say Sex Abuse by Nuns Has Been Overlooked by Public
By Jeff Truesdell
April 11, 2019
Two women who have been sexually abused by nuns are speaking out, saying that amidst the well-documented scandal of widespread abuse of boys by priests, their traumas have been overlooked.
“It’s a spiritual rape, it really is,” survivor Anne Gleeson tells HuffPost in an exclusive video interview. “It steals your faith. I envy people who have faith.” (A 4-minute clip of the interview is shown above.)
Another survivor, Patricia Cahill, tells the outlet, “The boys thought they were the only ones for a hundred years. The girls [who were abused] think they’re the only ones. They don’t have any other survivors to see.”
Several nuns were named among those credibly accused of child molestation in a report released earlier this month from Jeff Anderson & Associates, a Minneapolis-based law firm that has brought civil actions in child sex abuse cases across the country. Although the so-called “Anderson Report” focused on the Archdiocese of Chicago and other dioceses in Illinois, its inclusion of female abusers suggests a potential next wave of accusations.
“Nuns kind of get a free ride,” says Gleeson, who said her abuse at the hands of Sister Judith Fisher, her 8th grade homeroom teacher at a Catholic school in suburban St. Louis, began when she was 13.
“She always, always described it as ‘God’s love’ — ‘this is God’s love, nobody else is going to understand it,” Gleeson tells HuffPost.
“You think of women as being nurturing, and you trust them more,” she says. “And when it’s done gently, and sweetly, and they paint it to your benefit, you believe it. It’s a true form of brainwashing. I have to believe that, because how else could I have been so blinded?”
Cahill says her abuser, Sister Eileen Shaw, whom she met while a student in Catholic school in New Jersey, started to abuse her when Cahill was 15 and Shaw was 36 “and had taken the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. She stole from my body, my mind and my soul. The woman was a thief who did not keep her vows.”
Cahill already was a victim, alleging that she earlier had been raped by her uncle, a priest. As an adult alcoholic, Cahill initially blamed her drinking on that incident. “And yet [Shaw] was the first person that gave me alcohol and drugs. Continually,” she says.
She recalls that while in a 12-step program, she deliberately protected Shaw by initially refusing to talk about her. “My sponsors, they were the first ones that said ‘this is not a relationship.’ I thought they were crazy,” she says.
“She told me she loved me. She bought me presents. She took me all over alone, camping, sleeping in the same sleeping bag. They said, ‘That’s not a relationship. That’s sex.'”
After Cahill reported her abuse by Shaw in 1994 to the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth, she was paid a $70,000 out-of-court settlement, reports CBS News.
A response from the Sisters of Charity obtained by HuffPost says an investigation by the congregation’s response team “substantiated the sister’s improper conduct,” and that Shaw had been removed from ministry and barred from working with anyone under age 21. “She accepts responsibility for her actions and the harm that they have caused. She continues to pray daily about this,” it said.
PEOPLE reached out to the Sisters of Charity, which confirmed the statement.
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PEOPLE also reached out to the Sisters of St. Joseph in Carondelet regarding Gleeson’s accusations against Fisher — who died in 2004 before she could provide a deposition in a lawsuit filed by Gleeson — but received no immediate response.
In a statement to HuffPost, the order said: “The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet are committed to doing everything within our power to prevent the sexual abuse of minors and to bring healing to those who have been abused. Out of the respect for the privacy of any person who reports abuse, we are not in a position to offer public comment.”
Says Gleeson: “I wished that I could get some answers, that we could talk about it, that she could come clean. It wasn’t the money that I was after. It was some closure.”
She says she twice tried to kill herself — once in high school, and again in college. Not until her early 40s did a therapist push Gleeson to confront the question: “Oh my God, could it be that it really was abuse?”
“I feel strong enough to tell my story right now because there’s not a lot to lose,” says Gleeson. “I can’t imagine something happening to me in life that would hurt me like this has.”
“If I should die tomorrow I’d be sad if I had not spoken when I could have, if there’s some kid or parent that would hear me, ’cause it’s real and it’s the kind of wound that stays no matter how strong you are, no matter how much therapy you get, no matter how many loves you have, or diversions, or excuses.”
To contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline, call 1-800-656-4673.