State Claims to Have Solid Case against Nun

By Kate Wiltrout and Jon Frank
The Virginian-Pilot [Virginia Beach VA]
February 12, 2004

VIRGINIA BEACH — Commonwealth’s Attorney Harvey L. Bryant III said he would have been hesitant to prosecute a former nun for sex crimes if the only evidence in the 34-year-old case came from her accuser.

But Bryant said Wednesday that multiple witnesses attest to seeing Eileen Rhoads molest an elementary school student, a 10-year-old boy, years ago.

The abuse allegedly occurred during the 1969-70 school year at St. Gregory the Great Catholic School on Virginia Beach Boulevard.

Rhoads, now 64, would have been 30 or 31 years old at the time, and was known then as Sister Francis Therese, Bryant said.

Rhoads was arrested Tuesday in a Philadelphia suburb and released on $20,000 bond. A judge there ordered her to surrender to Beach authorities by Friday.

Court documents show that Virginia officials were worried about Rhoads’ stability and mental health, asking that the indictment be sealed until her arrest.

During the investigation, Rhoads was involuntarily committed “as a threat to herself,” said the court motion, which was granted.

To build a case, investigators subpoenaed school records and information from Rhoads’ former order, Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, based in Immaculata, Pa., outside Philadelphia.

Sister Marie Roseanne Bonfini, the order’s director of information services, said Rhoads joined the congregation in the late 1950s and left for personal reasons in 1972.

“We were not aware of any of this until June, when we received a call,” Bonfini said. “The congregation has cooperated.”

According to the Delaware County Times in Pennsylvania, Rhoads joined the lay faculty at Holy Cross Grade School in Springfield, Pa., in 1973, teaching fifth grade until she resigned in 1994.

At Holy Cross, no complaint was ever made against Rhoads, according to the diocese.

As members of religious orders, nuns do not answer to the local bishop but to a superior at their particular order.

While the Catholic Diocese of Richmond keeps files on priests, it has few records on Rhoads or other nuns, said the Rev. Pasquale J. Apuzzo, the diocese’s spokesman.

St. Gregory’s principal, Sister Patricia O’Donnell, sent a letter home to parents Wednesday, explaining the situation.

“I do not know whether the allegations are true or false,” O’Donnell wrote. “I take the responsibility of educating and protecting your children very seriously.”

Allegations against Catholic priests have been well-publicized in recent years, but charges against nuns are rarer. Bryant said he has never been involved in such an investigation of a nun.

“It’s the first one that I know about,” he said.

Bryant said witnesses claim to have seen the sexual contact.

Rhoads was indicted by a Virginia Beach grand jury last week on two felony counts, enticing a child to fondle or feel her genitals and indecent liberties with a child under 14.

There have been 1,200 to 1,800 sexual-abuse cases involving Catholic male clergy since 1950, according to various sources.

Victim advocates said reports of nuns having molested their charges are rising.

“Abuse by nuns, we’re convinced, is less widespread than by priests, but more widespread than anybody has been led to believe by church authorities,” said David Clohessy, national executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “We have been getting more and more reports.”

Neither SNAP nor Voice of the Faithful, a national Catholic reform group formed in response to clergy abuse revelations, keeps statistics on abuse by nuns.

Clohessy said it was possible that victims of nuns were less likely to report incidents because they did not know who had authority.


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