To Ex-Nun, "Therapy" Was Abuse

By Kathryn Marchocki
Union Leader
June 2, 2003

As a young nun, Jane McDonald was told she was special and her old wounds needed healing.

In private bedroom counseling sessions, the Manchester native said her charismatic religious superior presented herself as "pure goodness" whose caresses would banish the "evil mother" of McDonald's youth and restore her to wholeness.

Today, McDonald calls it sexual abuse.

And McDonald claims she isn't the only one who endured these alleged assaults under the guise of a controversial therapeutic technique Sister Jeanne Wilfort practiced at the Homes for Growth houses she co-founded in Manitoba, Canada, as part of her ministry with the Sisters of the Holy Cross, a Roman Catholic religious congregation.

"There is a whole group of us that went out and never came back," said McDonald, 51, explaining Wilfort coaxed her to leave her Manchester family and friends behind to join her in the western Canadian province in 1975 and again in 1978.

Four years after she revealed her experiences with Wilfort to her Canadian superiors, McDonald today lives cancer-stricken, alone and exiled in a shabby, downtown Winnipeg apartment, according to interviews with McDonald, her doctor, psychotherapist, attorney, friends and affidavits supporting her lawsuit against Wilfort, the order and Homes for Growth.

Left bereft and betrayed by her order and uncertain how long she will live, the 1970 graduate of former Immaculata High School in Manchester said the order would rather see her dead than open the doors on its dark secrets.

"They have treated me like I'm just a piece of garbage. I really believe they are hoping that I am going to die," McDonald said in a telephone interview from her Winnipeg home.

Hospitalized twice this year for pneumonia developed after breast cancer metastasized to her lungs, McDonald is unable to work and recuperates at home while she undergoes chemotherapy.

"I gave up 30 years of my life. I gave up having children. They have no right to tell me it was not of value. My family paid an emotional price for me to be here. I can't have that be thrown out the window because they have to protect a secret," she added.

Letter to superior

In 1999, McDonald said she began writing Sister Liette Finnerty, her current superior general in Saint-Laurent, Quebec, expressing her concerns about Homes for Growth and Wilfort's therapeutic practices, urging the order to stop supporting them to keep others from harm.

Through telephone calls and letters with Finnerty and in personal meeting with Sister Lucienne Landry, the head of the Western Region in Edmonton, Alberta, McDonald said she persisted in trying to get them to respond to her concerns.

"Basically she (Finnerty) said I needed to learn to forgive and forget," McDonald said.

Landry, reached by telephone last week, said, "I don't want to comment on this." She referred further questions to the order's attorney.

McDonald went to Archbishop James Weisgerber of Winnipeg in 2000 with her story, triggering a Vatican investigation into Wilfort's activities and the abuse allegations, according to McDonald, her therapist and affidavits.

While the results of the probe remain sealed, McDonald's poor health prevents the lawsuit she filed last year from moving forward because she cannot sit through lengthy depositions and cross-examinations requested by attorneys for Wilfort, the order and Homes for Growth, her lawyer Anthony H. Dalmyn of Winnipeg said.

"The order is standing on its (due process) rights, which could be interpreted as stonewalling. I think there is a wait-and-see attitude and part of that wait-and-see attitude would be to see if she dies before taking them successfully to court," Dalmyn said.

Meanwhile, he said, "they have not filed one scrap of paper denying these allegations. There is nothing from Sister Wilfort saying it did not happen."

Montreal attorney Pierre L. Baribeau, who represents Wilfort and the order, would not discuss the case.

"I have no comment to make," he said yesterday.

Winnipeg lawyer Rocky Pollack represents Homes for Growth Inc., which he said continues to operate in Manitoba.

"These allegations have not been proven. They have not been tested," Pollack said of McDonald's claims.

According to Baribeau, McDonald "is no longer a sister." He would not elaborate.

Dalmyn said defendants' attorneys have argued that McDonald no longer is a member of the congregation because she applied for a dispensation from her vows in 2001.

But McDonald refused to sign it until the order agreed to assume responsibility for the pain and suffering she says she endured and provided her transitional financial assistance normally granted a departing member.

"The moral conscience of the congregation has died," McDonald said.

"There has to be one sister of the Holy Cross out there who still has a conscience and is still willing to act morally in this," she said.

Manchester roots

McDonald and her four siblings grew up in Manchester and belonged to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish.

"Back then, we didn't have a care in the world. We were invincible," her Immaculata High School classmate and long-time friend Kathleen Burnell, 51, of Manchester said.

Fun-loving, prankish McDonald wasn't the type of person her friends ever expected to become a nun, said Burnell and childhood friend, Louise Duval, 51, of Bedford. But she returned from a senior class retreat a changed person.

"We got to homeroom Monday morning and Jane announced to everybody that she was going to be a nun. I laughed because I couldn't picture this girl a nun," Burnell said.

"It was like God had hit her and said you will be one of my servants," she added.

McDonald joined the Sisters of the Holy Cross in 1972 when she was 20 and did her religious training in Franklin, N.H. and other novitiates in New England and New York.

Franklin retreat

She first met Wilfort in 1975 at a Franklin retreat center where the order's New England Province invited Wilfort to speak on the therapeutic therapy method she trained in known as Personality in Human Relationships, McDonald's affidavits said.

Wilfort, then about 40 years old, was provincial superior of the Western Canada Province.

"Jane was charismatic. She had a way of controlling the room just by walking into it. She attracted young people from throughout the congregation to come here to live," McDonald said.

Wilfort returned to New Hampshire at least once a year to "counsel people" at an order house in Londonderry, she added.

Followed Wilfort to Manitoba

McDonald said she was among the first group of religious sisters who followed Wilfort to Manitoba, first living in Edmonton in 1975 then returning in 1978 to live at a Homes for Growth house in Lorette, Manitoba.

Wilfort, who was McDonald's religious formation director, practiced her therapeutic technique on McDonald during private bedroom counseling sessions, McDonald's affidavit said.

Aware that McDonald had been sexually, physically and emotionally abused as a child, Wilfort said "she could heal old hurts and make me a whole person and would act as a good mother to me," McDonald's affidavit said.

Telling McDonald she was "special," Wilfort came into her bedroom at night, got into her bed and undressed, directing McDonald to do the same, the affidavit said.

During the first several sessions, McDonald said she refused to remove her underpants, but later agreed.

"She would pull me on top of her and say that now we could be really close and that this was much better," McDonald's affidavit said.

The alleged abuse began in 1978 and included caressing, penetration and bathing, and was carried out as part of her religious formation and personal counseling by her superior, the affidavit said.

It ended in late 1979 when McDonald refused Wilfort's demands. Wilfort "flew into a rage and struck me," later humiliated her and isolated her from her congregation and barred her from educational opportunities, the affidavit said.

Attorney Baribeau would not comment on Wilfort's present status with the order or with Homes for Growth.

McDonald said "no one knows" where Wilfort is.

"I've just heard she is being moved from place to place," she added.

Ministry with urban poor

McDonald eventually left Homes for Growth and began a drop-in center called Chez Nous, or Our Place, in downtown Winnipeg in 1987 where she ministered to the urban poor.

She lives today in a walk-up apartment above the center.

McDonald was called "Winnipeg's Mother Teresa" for her work among the city's drug users, prostitutes, mentally ill and alcoholics when she was chosen as one of several residents of the city to receive the Winnipeg Free Press-sponsored "People Who Make A Difference Canada Day Awards" last July.

McDonald claims Homes for Growth was a "cult" and said two other woman have contacted her alleging Wilfort also abused them. A former Holy Cross sister who witnessed alleged abuses at Homes for Growth also called her, she said.

Dalmyn said he has interviewed three individuals who say they either were abused or witnessed alleged abuses. One is a former Holy Cross sister from New Hampshire.

Neither McDonald nor Dalmyn would disclose their names to protect their confidentiality.

McDonald said she hopes her story will inspire others to come forward.

"There have been so many sisters who have been affected by this," she said.

"They were told there was something wrong with them. I want people to know there wasn't something wrong with them if they opposed the system."


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