Book lifts veil on abuse in women’s religious communities

In his new book, “Il Velo del Silenzio” (“Veil of Silence”) Italian journalist and author Salvatore Cernuzio writes of meeting a childhood friend who had joined a cloistered community of nuns.

Ten years later, a “tribunal” of older sisters decided she did not have a vocation and sent her packing.

Just days earlier, Jesuit Father Giovanni Cucci, professor of psychology and philosophy at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University, published an article calling for greater church attention to psychological and physical abuse in communities of women religious.

So began a journey for Cernuzio, who set out to speak to women willing to share their stories.

The book includes interviews with 11 women; one was sexually assaulted by a priest but was told by her superiors that she must have led him on.

Others recount abuses of power and psychological or emotional abuse, mainly through acts of cruelty, humiliation and a denial of medical or psychological assistance.

Several of them mention how, particularly in the novitiate, they were required to ask permission to do or to have anything — including to take a shower or to have sanitary products during their menstrual cycle.

One told him she is looking for a way out of her community.

“I don’t know where I’ll go, I just want to follow Jesus, and it’s not possible here. I can’t live in this situation anymore and I’m afraid of destroying my physical, psychological and spiritual health. I hope to find help, maybe from some laypeople because I know that my congregation doesn’t care about me,” she said.

“As I have heard so many times: the fault is always with the one who leaves.”

Cucci said the 11 women’s stories have several things in common. One is the tendency in some more traditional orders to keep the same superior or superiors in office for decades. This can lead them to “confuse their will with the will of God” for the sisters in their community.

They also confuse uniformity with the unity of or peace within the community and treat any form of questioning as not only a challenge to the superior, but as a rejection of God’s will.

The stories also show how slow the church is to change the way it deals with sexual abuse.

“‘Safeguarding’ the good name of the institute is the priority, sacrificing the victim. The abused religious is transferred after being accused of seducing the priest and the priest stays in place, continuing his predatory activity undisturbed.”

In the book’s preface, Xavière Missionary Sister Nathalie Becquart, one of two undersecretaries of the Synod of Bishops, said the church must listen to the victims of such abuse.

In her view the solution is to adopt Pope Francis’s model of a “synodal church” where every baptized person is respected, listened to and takes responsibility for caring for one another and being missionaries in the world.



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