New Rochelle Nun Speaks about Childhood Abuse

By Gary Stern
The Journal News [New Rochelle NY]
November 13, 2005

A 68-year-old Ursuline nun will speak publicly for the first time tomorrow about being sexually molested by a parish priest when she was a girl, an experience that silently shaped her entire life.

Sister Claire Smith of New Rochelle said that childhood shame was one reason she joined a religious community in 1956.

"I just felt I was used goods," she said. "Who would want me? I had this secret I couldn't tell anybody. These were the days when you didn't say anything."

Smith, who went on to become a noted educator and counselor, will address the Southern Westchester chapter of Voice of the Faithful, a national Catholic lay group that formed in Boston during the sex-abuse scandal of 2002.

Smith grew up in the Bronx, near Yankee Stadium. When she was 11, her 17-year-old sister was struck by a car and killed. A parish priest stepped forward, under the guise of offering support, but soon began molesting her. It went on for several years.

"My father would have killed him — if I had told him," she said.

She told no one for more than 30 years.

As a teenager, she struggled at the Academy of Mount St. Ursula in the Bronx. The abuse, she said, was like a hum in the back of her head that wouldn't go away and wouldn't let her be like the others.

"I just wanted to hide myself away so nobody would notice me," she said.

She joined her religious community and immersed herself in study and peace rallies. Finally, in the mid-1980s, she told a friend about what had happened to her childhood. She also approached the Archdiocese of New York.

"Two monsignors came over," she said. "They were shocked out of their shoes. This shocked me because I knew others who were abused, not just by my priest, but in general."

Smith said she received a small check from the archdiocese several years later to be used toward counseling. She also had to sign papers saying she would never speak about what happened, a common practice before the recent sex-abuse scandal.

"When it was in the papers every day," she said, "I thought 'At last. At last.' "

Smith is well known in and around the College of New Rochelle, founded by the Ursulines, as a committed peace activist with an independent streak. A college alumni magazine planned to feature her this year as someone who has overcome great challenges. Smith was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1978 and has been in a wheelchair for eight years.

But when Irene Villaverde, assistant director of publications, interviewed Smith, she learned of another, darker obstacle Smith had to overcome.

"We were going to talk about life's challenges, and it was obvious this was very important to her," Villaverde said. "She probably didn't realize she needed to talk about it when she was younger. But she is honest about her life and work and is one of those special people who can take adverse parts of our life and turn them around to help others."

Smith has no doubt that the abuse she suffered has helped her empathize with students and others she has counseled through her ministries. She has taught at the grammar school, high school and college levels, even returning as principal to the grammar school she attended in the Bronx. She also taught at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers and continues to do so for the Archdiocese's Center for Spiritual Development.

In addition, Smith has counseled priests and nuns, as well as adult students at the College of New Rochelle. She has several master's degrees and is close to a doctorate in counseling.

"I wanted to hide away, but I also liked the community's notion of service to people," she said. "It was a ministry that transcended being a do-gooder."

Smith is determined to speak before the Voice of the Faithful, even though she recently suffered two broken legs in an accident. She'll tell her story and offer her message: that those who have been the victims of sexual abuse can move on to lead rewarding lives.

"There is a place for peace and reconciliation for anybody who experiences this," she said.

Smith does not want to identify the priest who molested her, even though he died some time ago, feeling that it would accomplish little. But she will talk about going to see him when he was in a nursing home. She recalls that he hardly knew who she was, and that she left without forcing the past on him.

"I decided I would not have him go to death with the burden I'd been carrying," she said.

But after he died, Smith was notified that he had left her some stock.

"Maybe he thought he had to make it up to me," she said.