Sexual Abuse By Nuns: Why Are There So Few Lawsuits? [Part 2 of 3]

By Attorney Patrick Noaker
Patrick Noaker
May 5, 2015

As is discussed in part 1 of this series, Nun sexual abuse is more prevalent than most originally thought. If that is the case, then why have there not been as many lawsuits for sexual abuse involving nuns? This article discusses some of the unique aspects of bringing civil claims relating to sexual abuse by nuns.

There is no question that civil lawsuits have played a major role in exposing and understanding clergy sexual abuse. In fact, Fr. Thomas Doyle, one of the heroes of the child protection movement in the Catholic church stated “The twists and turns of the civil discovery process have been the most important factors in exposing the extent and nature of clergy sexual abuse.” [1]

So, why have there been so few civil lawsuits involving nun abuse been filed? There have been a brave few who have brought sexual abuse lawsuits involving nuns; however, those lawsuits have been somewhat sporadic. Why?

Disclosure is difficult

Initially, it must be noted that disclosure of any kind of sexual abuse as a child is extremely difficult. Sexual abuse causes trauma and survivors are often fearful of coming forward. In addition, sexual abuse may cause a wide variety of psychological problems that can cause survivors to experience shame, fear and grief as a result of the abuse. Disclosure is sexual abuse is extremely difficult and those who are able to report the abuse, normally do so only after years struggling with where, when and how to report.

So, why do fewer nun sexual abuse victims disclose the sexual abuse by filing a lawsuit than those sexually abused by priests? An article by Myriam S. Denov, Ph.D from the University of Ottawa titled “The Long-Term Effects of Child Sexual Abuse by Female Perpetrators” may be instructive on this issue.[2] According to Dr. Denov, the general public and even child welfare police and social workers have historically perceived sexual abuse of children by women to be less harmful to victims than sexual abuse by men, often leaving victims of female perpetrators feeling trivialized. When those same victims were evaluated, those who had sexually abused by both men and women reported that the sexual abuse by the female perpetrator was more harmful.

In my experience, almost every survivor of sexual abuse fears that he or she will not be believed. The difference between victims of female perpetrators is that even if he or she is believed, the victim fears that the sexual abuse will be trivialized. Some research suggests that this fear is even more profound in male survivors.[3]  In any event, it is clear that survivors of sexual abuse by female perpetrators, such as nuns, face significant obstacles in disclosing the sexual abuse they suffered. This may partially explain why there are not as many lawsuits for nun sexual abuse.   On the other hand, there are attorneys who have taken the time to understand this survivor experience who can be very helpful in pursing legal action.

Confusion About Who Was Responsible for the Nun

Finger pointing. Anyone who has attempted to report sexual abuse by a nun has experienced finger-pointing between the diocese and the religious order. If the abuse is reported to the diocese, the diocese will explain that the nun is a member of a religious order and not the diocese, so the diocese has no responsibility. If the abuse occurred in a parish school, the diocese will explain that they have no control over the parish school, the parish is responsible for the parish school. If the parish school is approached, they will point to the diocese and the religious order. If the religious order is approached, they point at the diocese and the parish school. In reality, they are all responsible for the safety of children in a parish school and responsible for supervising persons working in those schools. The Diocese, the parish and the religious order should all be named in a sexual abuse lawsuit.

Religious Orders are Structured Differently. Nuns are members of Catholic religious orders. The head of any religious order reports to the Vatican, in Rome. Religious orders are structured differently than Catholic diocese. Generally, a diocese covers a specific geographic area. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has responsibility for certain counties in Minnesota. The entire world is carved into Catholic dioceses. Religious orders do not have responsibility for specific geography. Religious orders often perform a function, such as run schools, orphanages and other programs, within a diocese. A religious order cannot operate within a diocese without the permission of the bishop of that diocese.

It is common for a religious order to have only one program or facility within a diocese and no administrative offices within a diocese. Religious orders have administrative offices and persons with responsibility to supervise nuns who are working at schools, orphanages and social service offices, at an office called a province. These offices are regional offices. When bringing a civil lawsuit, it is important to name the province as a defendant because, someone at that level normally has supervisory responsibility for the local program or facility and the offending nun.

Nuns are difficult to track. The Catholic Church in the United States publishes the Official Catholic Directory (“Directory”) every year. The Directory contains information about every diocese and religious order operating in the United States. With a few exceptions, the Directory also contains information about all priests who are ordained or working in the United States, including where the priest is assigned that year. The Directory does not contain that same information for nuns. The only time that nuns appear in the Directory is when they are a Principal at a school, hold a position of authority in a diocese, or hold a position of authority with the religious order. Thus, the vast majority of nuns never appear in the Directory. This makes tracking the nun’s assignment through the years difficult to find before filing a lawsuit. This should not discourage anyone from pursing legal action. This information can be obtained from the religious order during the discovery phase of the lawsuit.

Nuns are also sometimes difficult to track because they often have names of the Saints. Prior to the Second Vatican Council (“Vatican II”) around 1965, nuns surrendered their birth/baptismal names when they professed vows with their religious order. After Vatican II, nuns are given a choice whether to surrender their birth/baptismal names or to take the names of patron Saints. Some nuns combine both and take the names of saints for their first and middle names and keep their last name. Add to this the practical consideration that children tend to remember the names of their teachers or other caregivers that were used in the school or program. For example in a recent lawsuit filed by my firm, the boy remembered Sister Mary Regina, not Sister Mary Regina Hebig. As is seen by this lawsuit, a survivor of nun abuse can file a civil lawsuit even if he or she does not know the nun’s full name.

All in all, even though lawsuits involving abusive nuns are somewhat different than lawsuits involving offending priests, the differences can and will be overcome by an attorney with experience in nun cases. Survivors of sexual abuse by nuns can and should bring claims. These claims will be the only way that perpetrators and those who protected them can be exposed.

Patrick Noaker is an attorney with the Noaker Law Firm LLC who aggressively represents clients in the courtroom, mediation and arbitration and has presented cases to judges, juries, arbitrators and mediators across the U.S. for the past 24 years. Patrick has handled hundreds of clergy sexual abuse cases in Minnesota and across the United States. Patrick can be reached at his office: 333 Washington Avenue N. # 329, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401, (612) 839-1080,, @Noakerlaw.

[1] Doyle, T. P. & Rubino, S. C. (2003) “Catholic Clergy Sexual Abuse Meets the Civil Law,” Fordham Urban Law Journal, Vol. 31, Issue 2, Article 6, p. 551.

[2] Denov, M. (2004), “The Long-Term Effects of Child Sexual Abuse by Female Perpetrators: A Qualitative Study of Male and Female Victims,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Vol. 19 No. 10, 1137-1156.

[3] Sorsoli, L. Kia-Keating, M. and Grossman, F. K. (2008), “”I Keep That Hush-Hush”: Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse and the Challenges of Disclosure,” Journal of Counseling Psychology, Vol 55, No. 3, 333-345.


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