There has been almost no publicity about the abuse of women by male members of the clergy and, despite the evidence, the Church appears to have done nothing.
Some women do have fully consensual relationships with male clergy but they are a small minority. When their stories make the media, they are usually of the more lurid 'priest has mistress and secret children' variety.
There is some abuse of adult men but a 2008 survey in America found that 96% of the victims were female.
Abuse falls into two categories, congregants and nuns.
Research findings about the prevalence of this abuse vary. One American report states that 'although clergy of any denomination can sexually exploit children, teens, men or women, over 95% of victims of sexual exploitation by clergy are adult women'. Another study found that 3.1% of regular women congregants (women in the congregation) had suffered sexual abuse.
Although the figures vary, there is plenty of evidence that this is a major problem. There are many websites and organisations for the abused, for example SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. This and many other websites, like the MACSAS one (Ministry and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors) has first-hand testimonies.
One reason for the lack of media coverage is perhaps that child abuse makes for more shocking headlines. Another reason is that, while evidence for child abuse is increasingly being revealed and the churches are being forced to confront it, the abuse of women is still largely hidden by religious bodies. But the evidence is clear.
'There is no question that abuse of women [by priests] has been vastly under-reported' according to AW Richard Snipe, a former priest and psychotherapist who has studied priests' sex lives for over 30 years. 'There's a tremendous bias against women in the US - and the world - and a tremendous callousness about sexual abuse against women.'
Gary Schoener, a Minneapolis psychologist whose walk-in counselling centre has worked on more than 2000 cases of clerical sex abuse, says the majority of abusers that he and his staff deal with (from several denominations) victimize girls and women. Yet, he says, public perception is that far more males are abused, and that the harm they suffer is more serious than that experienced by females: 'Women and girls are every bit as much at risk as boys and men. But the sexual abuse of a boy is treated far more seriously, and is considered a far worse offence'.
In the early 1990s, an American researcher who was looking at previously published work on sexual victimisation and the clergy found two different studies on sexual harassment. One involved a survey of female rabbis, the other of women in the United Methodist Church.
73% of the women rabbis and 77% of the UMC women said they had been a victim of sexual harassment. (Abuse in other religions is beyond the remit of this article, but the figure is included for comparison).
This is not just an American problem. An article in the Observer in 2003 said that 'While the Church of England remains in turmoil over the sexuality of its bishops, some believe the mounting catalogue of sexual abuse against women is the real untold scandal of the Church. (...) Britain's leading investigator of sexual abuse in the Church is Margaret Kennedy, a former social worker who was a pioneer in raising the issue of child abuse in the Roman Catholic and other Christian churches (...) Kennedy believes the sexual abuse of adults by clergymen is just as serious as child abuse'.
The article continues: 'The evidence reveals a disturbing picture of how vulnerable women have turned to churchmen for pastoral help, only to be preyed upon. (...) Even a woman priest can be preyed on. A devastated Dr Tanya Jenkins, the vicar of Llangefni on Anglesey in North Wales, is still off work three years after she was sexually assaulted by Canon Geoffrey Hewitt of Bangor Cathedral'.
Another problem facing abused women is that religious leaders to whom they report abuse characterize it as 'an affair' and often blame the women for seducing the man. Women's sexuality has traditionally been seen as dangerous by some sections of the church (and other religions), dating right back to Eve.
Blaming the woman or downplaying the importance of the abuse are convenient tactics rooted in misogyny. The fact that misogyny still underlies many societies, albeit in disguised or watered-down form, makes this an easy excuse. The low rate of conviction for rape may make it even harder for women to speak out. More women are reporting rape in the UK but only about a quarter of suspects are charged. Around 12% of cases reach court and only about 6% result in conviction.
Many sections of the Church still cast women as second class citizens who must submit to men. There was a story recently about a Church of England vicar telling women that they should be silent and subservient to their men. Even when the sexism is not obvious, there is a sense that these are adults who can look after themselves and if they didn't - why not? They should have just said no.
Schoener (op cit) says: 'The church is so dominated by men that there's a tendency to portray girls as provoking the crimes against themselves. The depositions read like rape cases used to: Did you enjoy it? What were you wearing?'
Adult women who have been abused face the toughest fight of any, Schoener believes. Their abuse by priests - often during spiritual or marital counselling sessions - wins little public attention compared to abuse of children. In addition, they are often held responsible for the relationship.
Kennedy says: 'One of the major problems is that the perpetrator is a male member of the clergy who is seen as above reproach. The woman is often seen as the seductress who has tempted the priest into a sexual relationship.'
Great pressure is brought on the women to keep quiet about the abuse. Kennedy found that: 'The level of violence is surprising and the need to silence the women at all times was a universal story. Women told of the priest/minister getting angry if they dared to tell anyone anything about the 'relationship'. They were told time and again that they were special people and that the minister depended on them. The power and control exerted by the ministers over the women was multi-factored'.
When women do report the cases, the results are predictable. One Cardinal told a woman who had been abused and made pregnant by a priest that she should have an abortion. 'Bishops try to turn the discourse to one of boundary issues, that priests and ministers have just got their boundaries confused. It is not about boundaries, the stories these women told were of rape, assault and violence; these were crimes, not boundary issues,' said Kennedy.
Not surprisingly, 'The women reported complete confusions at what was happening. Some were told that rape was good for them.'
The consequences of abuse are many and devastating.
In America, NOW (National Organisation for Women) has called for the sexual exploitation of women by priests to be criminalized. Their statement includes: 'adult victims of clergy sexual exploitation are routinely blamed for this abuse and revictimized by the public, severely ostracized by their own congregations, and disbelieved by religious authority figures from whom they seek solace and protection, resulting in devastating social isolation and confusion'
and: 'in addition to coping with the physical and emotional impacts of sexual violation, victims of sexual exploitation by clergy often also suffer loss of faith, loss of religious tradition, loss of spouse, loss of employment within religious organizations or with faith-affiliated educational institutions, self- blame by the victim, and loss of support from family, congregation and community'.
Abuse of nuns by the clergy is even more concealed. Researcher Ann Wolf said: 'The bishops appear to be only looking at the issue of child sexual abuse, but the problem is bigger than that. Catholic sisters are being violated, in their ministries, at work, in pastoral counselling'.
One survey of nuns done in the US in 1996 was never publicized. It was paid for, in part, by several orders of Catholic nuns. The findings were published in two religious research journals in 1998 but have never been reported in the mainstream press.
The researchers believe the numbers are more likely to be an underestimate than an overestimate of the true prevalence of sexual victimization: 'The fear and pain of disclosure would be sufficient enough to discourage responding in some sisters'.
In 2001, the Catholic Church in Rome was forced to admit that it knew priests from at least 23 countries had been abusing nuns after confidential reports were obtained by an American Catholic newspaper. Some of the reports had been in circulation for at least seven years. The US article was based on documents some of which senior women in religious orders and priests had presented to the Vatican over a period of a decade.
Most of the abuse occurred in Africa where priests who had previously gone to prostitutes turned to nuns to avoid contracting AIDS. In some cases, nuns who became pregnant were pressured to have abortions. In one case, a nun died while having an abortion and her abuser led the funeral mass. Another case involved 29 nuns from one order who all became pregnant to priests in the diocese.
There were also cases of novices who applied to their local priest or bishop for certificates of good Catholic practice which they needed to carry out their vocation. In return, they were made to have sex.
Sister Maura O'Donahue, an AIDS co-ordinator for the charity Cafod quoted a case in 1991 of a community superior being approached by priests requesting that nuns be made available to them for sexual favours. 'When the superior refused, the priests explained that they would otherwise be obliged to go to the village to find women and might thus get AIDS.' She heard cases of priests encouraging nuns to take the pill, telling them it would prevent HIV. Others 'actually encouraged abortions for the sisters' and Catholic hospital and medical staff reported pressure from priests to carry out terminations for nuns and other young women.
When Sister Marie McDonald, mother superior of the Missionaries of Our Lady of Africa put together a paper and addressed bishops on the problem, many of them felt it was disloyal of the sisters to send reports. She said: 'The sisters claim they have done so time and time again. Sometimes they were not well received. In some instances they are blamed for what happened. Even when they are listened to sympathetically nothing much seems to be done.' While the offending priests are usually moved or sent away, the women are normally chased out of their religious order. Some end up as prostitutes.
In the same way that some Catholic apologists have tried to deflect attention from child abuse by pointing out that it happens in other religions and in families, Father Giulio Albanese said 'Missionaries are human beings, who are often under immense psychological pressure in situations of war and ongoing violence. On one hand it's important to condemn this horror and it's important to tell the truth, but we must not emphasize this at the expense of the work done by the majority, many of whom have laid down their lives for witness.'
The Pope's official spokesman at the time, Joaquin Navarro Valls said: 'The problem is known and involves a restricted geographical area. Certain negative situations must not overshadow the often heroic faith of the overwhelming majority of religious, nuns and priests.'
Sister O'Donohue has evidence of abuse not just in Africa but also in India, Ireland, Italy , the Philippines and the United States.
Even if it were just in Africa, this dismissal combines the usual misogyny with racism, implying that it happens in a more 'backward' culture and that these women are somehow less important than European nuns. While numbers of nuns are falling in most of the world, they are growing in Africa.
In 2001 the European parliament passed an unprecedented motion, blaming the Vatican for the rapes of African nuns in the 1990s. The motion:
- Calls for those responsible for these crimes to be arrested and brought to justice; calls on the judicial authorities of the 23 countries cited in the reports to ensure that all appropriate judicial action is taken to establish the truth about these cases of violence against women;
- Calls on the Holy See to take all allegations of sexual abuse within its organisations seriously, to co-operate with the judicial authorities and to remove the perpetrators from office;
- Calls on the Holy See to reinstate those female officials who have been removed from their posts for drawing their supervisors’ attention to these abuses and afford the victims the necessary protection from and compensation for any discrimination which might ensue.
Head of the Vatican Congregation for Religious Life, Cardinal Martinez Somalo, set up a committee to look into the problem. So far, nothing much seems to have changed.
Celibacy is regularly blamed for all clerical abuse, of both adults and children, but this is clearly a simplistic response. In the study (op cit) that found 3.1% of regular women congregants had suffered sexual abuse, 2.2% of women (the majority) were abused by married clergy. The evidence above of abuse by clergy in non-celibate religions and sects also shows this cannot be the whole story.
There are certain common patterns of abusive behaviour. It is commonly not a one-off opportunistic event. It often happens gradually, with the woman being desensitized to increasingly inappropriate behaviour while being rewarded for her tolerance of it. Offenders may use religious language, prayer and Bible quotations to justify and sanction their actions.
Research shows that, unlike men, women go to clergy for many reasons rather than to more suitably qualified professionals - 86% rather than 12% to professionals. Chaplains in the military and at colleges may particularly fulfil a more pastoral need. This is one factor making women easier prey than men.
The clergyman's position of power and the trust the woman has in him may cause her to doubt her own ability to interpret his intentions when she would have instantly understood in a relationship with someone else. Many women surveyed said that they were uncertain about what was happening; their trust of the abuser was stronger than their trust in their own judgement. This self-doubt can lead to fear of making public a situation that turns out to be harmless and being humiliated or ostracized. This is even more the case for nuns whose whole lives and identities rest on their faith. The cognitive dissonance can be massive, leading to denial and total inability to face the reality of the situation.
In some cases, women's partners and family encourage them to trust the religious leader and spend time alone with him, seeing it as a privilege both for her and the family to get his attention.
Many women are already in a vulnerable position, turning to religious leaders for counselling or support in a time of family crisis or loss. In some cases, he is also a father figure, increasing the level of trust.
He may use knowledge from the woman's confessions or private conversations about their personal lives to manipulate them, to keep a hold over them and force silence, effectively blackmailing and intimidating them.
The bottom line is that men in positions of authority have the motive, means and opportunity for abuse and some of them take advantage of that. Religious leaders may find abuse easier to get away with than men in some other professions because they do not have to account to anyone for how they spend their time. Their charisma and exalted position in the community divert suspicion, the woman's evidence is discredited, downplayed, denied and concealed. Even when the truth is revealed, it is often a Pyrrhic victory, with the woman still coming out the loser.
Until the abuse of women is treated as seriously as clerical child abuse by the media, the law, the churches and society in general it is unlikely that much will change.