Woman as Reason: Church abuses nuns

March 10, 2019

From the March-April 2018 issue of News & Letters

by Terry Moon

A great deal is being made about the fact that the Pope—only in answer to a reporter’s question—said, “It’s true, there are priests and bishops who have done that.” “That” is sexually abusing nuns, forcing them to have abortions—sometimes more than one—and throwing them out of their convents if they have a child which the father, who’s sworn to celibacy, most often refuses to acknowledge.


The shocker isn’t that priests and bishops rape and abuse women—that’s been known for centuries. The shocker is the Pope admitted it. But then he had to, because women were speaking out. Nuns and other women have always been speaking out; but now, thanks to the Church child abuse scandal and the #MeToo movement, they are finally being heard.

Pope Francis began by telling the truth. But then he didn’t: “Should something more be done?” he continued, “Yes. Do we have the will? Yes. But it’s a path we’ve been on for some time.” No! It’s a path the Church has not trod on for centuries, a path they have avoided and hidden by shaming, threatening, and terrifying those whose entire lives they control: finances, housing and healthcare.

If the “will” is there, why hasn’t the abuse of women been taken up along with the abuse of children? It’s because sexism is built into the very innards of the Church. Children are perceived as “innocent”; women are not. As Karlijn Demasure, a leading expert on sexual abuse done by clergy, put it: The clergy “can always say ‘she wanted it.’ It is also difficult to get rid of the opinion that it is always the woman who seduces the man, and not vice versa.”[1] In other words, women, including nuns, are sluts. “She asked for it.” One recent example in India shows the barriers to nuns seeking justice.

The unnamed nun accused Bishop Mulakkal of raping her multiple times for two years beginning in early May 2014. She told church authorities in January 2017—she informed not just one but over ten, including bishops, a cardinal and Vatican representatives. Their response was to order her not to report the rapes to the police! On Jan. 28, 2018, she even wrote to the pope’s representative in India at the Vatican. He never responded.


Nothing happened until five nuns defied Church rules, took matters into their own hands and traveled to the High Court in Kerala, India, and protested for an entire day in September 2018. Their protest was genius. They created a huge poster of Michelangelo’s Pieta, but instead of holding the dead Jesus in her lap, Mary cradled a dead nun.

Only then did the Vatican move, stripping Mulakkal of his duties. The police finally arrested him on Sept. 21. To quiet the brouhaha, the Church blamed the nun, saying “If she thought the church was not acting properly she should have gone to the police sooner”! When Mulakkal was released on bail, “He was cheered and showered with flower petals” and “his church posted a banner with his picture and the words: ‘hearty welcome.’” Now the Church is attacking the protesting nuns, ordering them to stop their continuing protests.[2]

The Church uses the same excuse for not stoping abuse of women as it did for children: “the decisions about priests accused of abuse are made by bishops—not by the Vatican hierarchy.”[3] Clearly, the only thing that makes the Church move to end abuse of women or children is a prolonged, well-publicized outcry that threatens the Church’s very existence as it did in Ireland and is now doing in the U.S.

Nuns have been actively fighting and gathering facts about the rape of nuns by the clergy since the early 1990s. See, for example, a multiyear 23-nation survey on nun abuse. Now the world is beginning to know the truth. Has it made a difference? Or—as looks more likely given the recent do-nothing Summit on sexual abuse called by the Pope and held at the Vatican—will the Church’s well-known virulent institutionalized misogyny and protect-the-Church-at-all-cost—once again rule?

[1]After decades of silence, nuns talk about abuse by priests,” by Nicole Winfield and Rodney Muhumuza, AP News, July 26, 2018.

[2]Nun’s Rape Case Against Bishop Shakes a Catholic Bastion in India,” by Maria Abi-Habibi and Suhasini Raj, The New York Times, Feb. 8, 2019.

[3]Abuse Victims Ask Court to Prosecute the Vatican,” by Laurie Goodstein, The New York Times, Sept. 14, 2011.

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