Confronting the Nuns
Victim Advocate Draws Attention to Abuse

By Kim Martineau
Hartford Courant
October 3, 2004

Hamden - Landa Mauriello-Vernon kept the secret for more than a decade. She hid it from her parents, even her husband. But when it all came out, she did not hold back.

In a May 2003 lawsuit, she accused her former religion teacher of sexually assaulting her as a student at Sacred Heart Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school in Hamden. Opting against a Jane Doe disguise in the case that is still pending, she revealed her identity to the world. But she didn't stop there.

In February, Mauriello-Vernon, 30, founded the Connecticut chapter of a national support group for victims of child sexual abuse by clergy. Since then, the mother of two has drawn national attention to the problem of nuns who abuse, a situation that until now has been eclipsed by the church's larger sex abuse scandal involving priests.

She will be in Chicago today to meet with leaders from the nation's largest consortium of nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious -- a move that would have seemed unthinkable just a few years ago.

"For the longest time in my head, I thought, 'It must have been me; I'm the only one,"' she said.

Her story is not unique, as recent headlines have shown. In August, a group of women who spent time in a Kentucky orphanage filed a lawsuit claiming they were molested and beaten with leather straps decades ago by the nuns who ran the orphanage. Since May, 18 former students of the Boston School for the Deaf have filed lawsuits claiming they were beaten and sexually molested decades ago by the nuns who ran the school.

There has been little research on women who sexually abuse children -- even less is known about nuns who abuse. Some findings suggest the problem is relatively rare; others claim it's simply underreported.

Of the 5,000 people who belong to the national support group, Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, about 100 -- or 2 percent -- claim they were abused by nuns. A recent study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that more than 10,000 children were sexually abused by priests over the past 50 years. Nuns were not included in the study.

The nuns and advocates for victims have agreed to meet at a neutral spot -- an airport hotel. Mauriello-Vernon will be there, along with four others abused by nuns, including an 82-year old woman from Milwaukee. The meeting came about after Mauriello-Vernon led a demonstration outside the Leadership Conference of Women Religious headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., in August.

The leadership conference has 1,000 members -- nuns who hold senior positions in 450 orders across the country. Each year, the conference holds a national meeting, which the victims had asked to speak at. Their request was denied but later, the president of the organization agreed to meet with them privately.

Steve Theisen, 52, is one of the victims who want to be heard. He's a former police officer and altar boy from Dubuque, Iowa, who says he was abused by a nun over two years, between fourth and sixth grade. He came forward last year, after battling anger, depression and shame for four decades.

"The more you talk about it, the more healing there is," he said. "Forty years of living with misplaced shame and guilt when, damn it, I was a 9-year-old boy. I didn't do anything wrong."

The abuse started on a day he had stayed after school. His fourth-grade teacher asked if he knew how the Eskimos kissed; he did not. Before long she was teaching him how the Americans and the French kissed, he said. She wore a ring on her finger, symbolizing her marriage to God, which only made the abuse more frightening, he said.

Last year, he filed a complaint with the Archdiocese of Dubuque. But the man the church hired to look into the claim had no investigative training and was married to a former nun, he said. After he complained, a retired sheriff was appointed to investigate. His investigation found the complaint credible but a church review board ruled it "unsustained," he said. He does not understand how the church reached its conclusion and doubts justice will be done.

"There's no room for secrecy if they truly want the victims to heal and if they truly want the church to heal," he said. "I don't go to church anymore. Not because of my abuse or my abuser but because the bishops, priests and order are not dealing with this truthfully."

Only a small number of nuns report to the archdiocese in their area, as priests do. Most are accountable to a group in Rome: the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life at the Vatican. The victims chose to bring their concerns to the leadership conference, a voluntary association, because of their influence. "They comment on Iraq -- they comment on everything," Mauriello-Vernon said.

"Nuns have always been known as agents of change and speaking out for those oppressed and suffering," Theisen said.

The conference said it is doing all it can. Even before the priest scandal hit, it held workshops to educate nuns about the problem of child sexual abuse, in the early '90s, said Sister Annmarie Sanders, director of communications.

As unprecedented as the meeting today is, many are doubtful that anything will be accomplished.

"The church seems to have taken the position the church is being persecuted," said Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer in Boston.

Garabedian sued the Boston archdiocese in the 1990s on behalf of dozens of men abused as boys by defrocked priest John Geoghan. Their allegations became a catalyst for other victims to come forward, turning a local scandal into a national crisis for the Catholic Church.

Garabedian is now representing the former Boston School for the Deaf students who claim they were physically and emotionally tormented by the nuns who ran the school. More than 60 other victims have come forward, he said.

Ashley Hill, author of the 2000 book "Habits of Sin," said it is a challenge to get people to take the problem seriously. Society still views women as caregivers and rarely as sexual beings, she said.

"If you weren't molested by a man, it doesn't really count," she said.

Carol Mauriello sent both of her girls to Catholic school because she thought they would get a good education, in a safe environment. But she and her husband grew alarmed when Mauriello-Vernon, their oldest daughter, lost interest in volleyball and the choral group her senior year, in 1991-92. She asked for permission to join the convent -- instead of going to college. Her parents refused. They repeatedly complained to the school, worried that their daughter had fallen under the spell of her religion teacher, Sister Linda Cusano, they said.

"I didn't believe it was a calling," Mauriello said. "Callings don't happen overnight."

Her daughter eventually left for college and tried three schools before dropping out. It was not until Mauriello-Vernon was looking to place her daughter in preschool in 2002 that the anxiety forced open the past. When Carol Mauriello found out, she was stunned. But as she replayed her daughter's last year in high school, it all clicked into place.

Unlike her daughter, she still goes to church for prayer but no longer puts her faith in the clergy. "They feel they can get away with things, which is not what Jesus teaches," she said.

As her recovery progressed, Mauriello-Vernon thought about joining a support group. But there were none in Connecticut. Another chapter of the survivors network offered to send her a manual -- so she could start her own group. It was not what she had had in mind.

But she tried it. She went to her first support meeting the day before starting the Connecticut chapter -- in Brooklyn, N.Y.

"It's very emotional because you're dealing with survivors in very different levels of recovery," said David Cerulli, head of the New York City chapter. "You're dealing with phone calls at home, all hours of day and night. Until your own healing is at a certain point, it's very difficult to step into that role."

Mauriello-Vernon has thrived as a leader yet she seems unaware of her success.

"I think about what I would have been," she said. "The abuse really stole my potential."

It is a common complaint. Theisen expressed it. So did a mother from Vernon, who had come to a support group meeting in East Hartford to talk about her son -- she said he was abused by a priest who ran the church youth group.

"You never know what your child would have been like," she said. "I'll never know the potential he might have had."

That sense of loss has pushed Mauriello-Vernon.

"Being a mom," her mother said, "she doesn't want this to happen to her children."


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