A friend in the sisters of Loretto told me after a trip to Ghana in the early 1990s that sisters there reported that priests forced them to have sex before they were allowed to receive grants from groups abroad. Many of us in the Catholic community had heard these kinds of stories before, but it wasn’t until March of this year that the National Catholic Reporter, a liberal weekly, published a report documenting the sexual abuse of women by priests and bishops—abuse that had been covered up by church leaders. Much of the information came from two memos, written in 1994 and 1995 to the Vatican by Sister Maura O’Donohue of the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, an aid agency based in the U.K.
The O’Donohue memos provide an anecdotal rap sheet of offenses that include incidents such as nuns being coerced into sexual intercourse in return for permission from priests to study abroad. While the memos often don’t mention specific dates or the country in which each offense was committed, 23 countries were cited, including Brazil, India, Ireland, Italy, and the U.S. Many of the cases focused on Africa, where priests sexually abused nuns in an attempt to avoid the transmission of HIV/AIDS.
O’Donohue cites the case of a priest who brought a pregnant nun to a Catholic hospital for an abortion. The nun died during the procedure, and the priest then officiated at her requiem mass. In another case, a mother superior complained to her archbishop that priests in the diocese had impregnated 29 of her nuns. The archbishop subsequently relieved the nun of her duties. And then there was the instance of a mother superior who was approached by priests requesting that sisters be made available to them for sexual favors. When she refused, the priests explained that they would have to go to the village to find women, and thus might contract HIV. In 1995, O’Donohue met with Vatican officials in an effort to end the abuse.
Many of us hoped that the Vatican would take swift action. But nothing was done, and indeed nuns reported four years later that the problem was worse. When the story finally broke this year, the Vatican said the problem was “restricted to a limited geographical area.” It blamed the victims—after all, the sisters in Africa were not well educated—and excused the perpetrators by claiming that African culture did not respect celibacy. Even one of the authors of the report published in the National Catholic Reporter worried that going public could “scapegoat” Africa.
The Vatican has a history of protecting priests who rape and impregnate women. In 1984, a 22-year-old Filipine American charged seven priests in the Los Angeles archdiocese with having sex with her when she was a teen, and one of them with fathering her child. The diocese provided the one priest who ultimately corroborated her story with a monthly stipend while he was living in the Philippines, where church officials had dispatched him until the controversy died down. Other examples of Vatican misogyny abound:
* In 1993, the pope called on women who had been impregnated by rapists during the Bosnian conflict to “transform an act of violence into an act of love” by becoming mothers.
* In 1994, the Vatican beatified a woman because she chose to stay with a physically abusive husband rather than violate the marriage sacrament by leaving.
* In 1996, the Vatican withdrew its annual contribution to UNICEF because the fund had endorsed a health manual for refugee populations that mentioned the use of emergency contraception for women who had been raped.
* In 1998, the Vatican strove to exclude “forced pregnancy” from a list of war crimes, fearing that it could be used to support abortion. The campaign failed.
* In 1999, the Vatican condemned a U.N. resolution providing emergency contraception to women who had been raped during the conflict in Kosovo, this time claimi