Catholic Nun Abused by Priest As a Teen Says Opposing Legislation to Help Victims Seek Justice Goes against Church Teachings

By Michael O’keeffe
New York Daily News
June 3, 2016

Sister Claire Smith believes Catholic leaders have abandoned survivors of childhood sexual abuse — and the teachings of Jesus Christ — by opposing legislation that would make it easier for victims to seek justice.

Smith says a priest sexually abused her for years — beginning when she was just 11. Still, the 78-year-old social justice activist says she is reluctant to bash the Catholic Church.

“The church is not the buildings or the hierarchy,” Smith said during an interview near her City Island apartment. “The church is us — it is the people of God.”

Smith still sees a therapist to talk about the trauma she suffered more than 60 years ago. The wheelchair-bound Ursuline nun, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the 1970s, once even collected bottles and cans from dumpsters to pay for counseling before she began seeing a church-affiliated psychiatrist a few years ago.

“The memories never leave you,” said Smith, an educator and counselor. “You carry it around like a burden for the rest of your life.”

Smith, a longtime professor at the College of New Rochelle, has not let her disability or the sexual abuse slow her down. She has been a peace activist and organized anti-sweatshop protests and she is also an advocate for sexual abuse victims.

She is an active member of Catholic Whistleblowers, a network of priests, nuns, deacons and others who support sex abuse survivors and support the passage of the Child Victims Act, a bill that would eliminate the statute of limitations in childhood sex abuse cases and open a one-year window for survivors to pursue civil litigation. The Legislative session ends on June 16.

At age 14, Smith was abused by her priest. (CLAIRE SMITH)

Smith lives with a retired Franciscan nun, Sister Beatrice Sobolewski, in an apartment for seniors at the south end of City Island. Sobolewski is more than a roommate — she’s also Smith’s chauffeur and friend.

“I couldn’t do what I do without Bea,” Smith said

Smith was just a kid from a poor Irish neighborhood in the South Bronx when her eldest sister was struck and killed by a car. A parish priest, Father Raymond Hyland, took Smith and her other two sisters under his wing, accompanying them to plays, the circus and other events. Smith’s parents, consumed with grief, were happy Hyland, who died in 1995, took an interest in consoling their children.

“When you were a Catholic then, priests were placed on a pedestal,” Smith said. “My parents thought we were very lucky to have a priest paying attention to us.”

Hyland started molesting Smith shortly after her sister’s death; the abuse continued until she was 16 years old, she said. Smith does not believe Hyland abused her sisters.

“I asked them about it years later and they said, ‘No, he only had eyes for you.’ It didn’t surprise them.”

Smith says failing to help victims goes against the teachings of the church and Jesus Christ. (JEFFERSON SIEGEL/NEW YORK DAILY NEWS)

The abuse eroded her sense of self-worth.

“In high school the girls talked about who they might marry,” Smith said. “I thought, ‘Who would have me? I’m damaged goods.’”

Smith also became enamored with the sisters who taught at her high school — they were educated and compassionate, and she wanted to be like them. She joined the Ursuline Sisters religious order and became a teacher and counselor.

Smith says she finally addressed her sexual abuse when she was 40 years old. She got in touch with the Archdiocese of New York and told officials she was a sexual abuse survivor. Two priests interviewed her about her allegations.

“They said priests don’t do things like that. I said, ‘Guess what, they do.’ They asked me what I did to activate his interest in me. I was 13 years old. I was still playing with dolls,” Smith said.

Smith sought compensation from the archdiocese for counseling,

“I didn’t think it was fair for my order to pay the bills,” she said.

Documents reviewed by the Daily News suggest a church official, Monsignor Edward O’Donnell — who was accused in the late 1990s of smearing other Catholics who claimed they were abused by priests — stalled Smith’s request for compensation before the Archdiocese finally sent a check in 2000 for about $14,000 to the Ursuline Sisters.

Smith said she borrowed money and collected cans and bottles to pay for therapy before she began seeing the church counselor a few years ago. Smith and Sobolewski still collect cans and bottles, but now they donate the money to Meals on Wheels and pet rescue groups.

Smith says she is optimistic the church will eventually embrace the victims of its sex abuse scandal.

“With Pope Francis, I see a real glimmer of hope,” she said. “I think we will see something good come out of the work we have done.”

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