Former Nun Grapples with History of Abuse
Eileen Rhoads Prays for Forgiveness for Molesting Students for Years. Her Victims Say They Can't Forget

By Nancy Phillips and Mark Fazlollah
Philadelphia Inquirer
September 14, 2005

Eileen Rhoads, a former nun turned convicted sex offender, can't erase the pain she left behind. All she can do is pray.

"If I could bring every one of those kids here now," said Rhoads, 66, weeping as she sat beneath a small wooden cross in her Drexel Hill home, "I would get on my knees and beg their forgiveness."

Her victims say they can't forget or forgive. Not her - and not the church that they say failed to stop her.

Warned that Rhoads was "very disturbed," church leaders released her from her nun's vows in the early 1970s - but hired her as a teacher at a Catholic school, where she found more victims.

"Oh, my God, what she has taken from me," said Linda Curran, 39, who was sexually abused by Rhoads throughout her teens. "She is sick and twisted, a fraud and a degenerate who, just like the church, is not being held responsible for what she has done."

Among the scores of abuse cases that have come to light, Rhoads' is one of the most disturbing: A repeat offender, she spent years having sex with boys and one girl.

In an unusual interview last week, Rhoads tried to make sense of how she fell from nun and teacher to victimizer.

Rhoads grew up in Southwest Philadelphia, attended Catholic schools, and entered the convent in 1957.

"In our day, you went to a Catholic high school, you either became a nurse, a nun or a secretary - or you got married," said Rhoads, who wears a medal of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

After working in several parishes in Philadelphia, Rhoads - then Sister Frances Therese - was sent by her order to teach in Virginia Beach, Va., in 1969.

There, prosecutors now say, Rhoads showed Playboy to her fifth-grade students, fondled boys in the coat closet, and had them reach through her nun's habit to touch her genitals.

She returned to Pennsylvania in 1970 and abused a boy at Our Lady of Charity School in Brookhaven, Delaware County, court records show. Again, the crime was not reported.

By 1972, Rhoads wanted out of religious life. She was becoming increasingly troubled, and her superiors knew it. She was taking Valium and seeing a psychiatrist for depression.

One supervising nun wrote that Rhoads had difficulty keeping her vow of chastity. Another sent the Vatican a letter, saying: "Sister is inclined to be too familiar with the children and permits them to be too intimate with her."

Yet the church allowed her to teach in area Catholic schools for 21 years. Donna M. Farrell, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, would not answer questions about Rhoads.

No longer a nun, Rhoads found new victims at Holy Cross Elementary in Delaware County.

Curran, starting at age 11, became a favorite. Rhoads took her to parks and bought her cheeseburgers at McDonald's.

In 1980, when she was 13, the sexual assaults began, Curran said. She said Rhoads gave her alcohol and marijuana, then masturbated her and forced her to have oral sex.

"I knew it was wrong, because I went to Catholic school," said Curran, now married and living in Springfield, Delaware County. "But I couldn't say anything... . If anyone found out about it, I would have committed suicide immediately. I was literally dying of shame."

The abuse continued until Curran, then 18, began to rebuff Rhoads' advances, she said. But they remained friends for many years until Curran learned of Rhoads' arrest.

When asked about Curran, Rhoads brightened and reached for a photo album, showing off snapshots of her and Curran on a trip to Ireland in 2000.

"I will always love Linda," Rhoads said, adding that she prays daily for her forgiveness.

Curran thought she was the only victim. There were others.

Kevin Nolan says Rhoads invited him and other Holy Cross students to her apartment in Drexel Hill, where she played them Moody Blues and Simon and Garfunkel records, supplied beer and cigarettes, read stories from Penthouse magazine, and took turns taking them to bed.

Nolan, who now lives in Cape Coral, Fla., said he had intercourse with Rhoads more than 200 times in the mid-1970s, starting at age 12.

Nolan, now 41, said he was "disgusted" to learn that Rhoads had abused a boy in Virginia years before him, and furious that the church allowed her to keep teaching.

"They knew and they kept it hidden all these years," he said.

The Immaculate Heart of Mary religious order, based in Immaculata, Chester County, said it did not know of any abuses until long afterward. The archdiocese did not know either, lawyers say.

"I assure you, there was no cover-up," said Sister Maria Roseanne Bonfini, spokeswoman for the order.

It all came to light in 2003, when one of Rhoads' former students reported that she had assaulted him decades earlier, when he was 10. Rhoads at first denied it, but finally broke down and confessed to Virginia Beach detectives.

She accepted a plea on felony sexual-abuse charges and spent three months behind bars.

But her assaults in Pennsylvania will almost certainly go unpunished. Unlike Virginia, Pennsylvania has a statute of limitations on felony charges.

Lawsuits filed by Curran and others were dismissed; courts said they waited too long to file.

As recently as two years ago, Rhoads worked at Child Guidance Resource Center in Media, counseling troubled children. An executive said she passed a background check and no problems were reported there.

Today, Rhoads lives with her cat, Honey, and gets by on Social Security and a church pension.

Every Thursday night, she is the only woman in a group-therapy session with other convicted sex offenders.

Rhoads still struggles to come to terms with the damage she left behind.

"I love children," she said. "I just wanted comfort, warmth."

Her voice dropped to a near whisper.

"It was terrible," she said. "I shouldn't have been that way."

Contact staff writer Nancy Phillips at 215-854-2254 or Inquirer staff writer Craig R. McCoy contributed to this article.