Friday, 12 March 2010

Sexual Abuse of Women in the Church

There has been widespread media coverage of the abuse of children by Catholic priests and few people are now unaware of it.

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.


25 comments:

  1. This is a really interesting post.

    "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"

    Reminded me of several kings (and probably noblemen of all sorts) whose entourage pushed their most nubile daughters to the forefront to gain family favours. Henry VIII was only one of many odious oligarchs in this respect.

    The heirarchical and ossified structure is very much the same ... and it's a structure which does not include women in any significant positions of power.

    The whole undemocratic and 'arguement from authority' setup is anti-modern and must contribute to the issue being endemic.

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  2. A very enlightening post, for which I thank you.

    Do you have a postscript of appropriate academic references for it prepared?
    I should not wish to go through this extremely time-consuming process, should you have already so done.
    (I am considering writing a formal paper on this very subject.)

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  3. Michael - did you click on the links? Who would you write the paper for? I'd be happy to collaborate.

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  4. I just noticed your blog has a subtitle "Tessera are the small pieces that make up a mosaic" which first rang a bell and immediately afterwards set off my grammar nazi alarm bell, as I remembered that 'tessera' is a singular and the plural would be 'tesserae'.

    Latin lessons: great for anally nitpicking on the internets, disappointingly bad for learning how to salsa dance, mix mojitos, etc.

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  5. Very good article. I think we are only experiencing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Catholic abuse.
    I was brainwashed into the Catholic religion. Despite rejecting the whole sham in my teens, the anti female, anti sex doctrine that was instilled into me through fear, ruined my sex life for many years. Many ex Catholic women I know say the same thing. There must be thousands out there like me full of anger for this huge, hypocritical power hungry fear based religion.

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  6. ever heard about the death of Sister Abhaya in the south india state of kerala? try http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sister_Abhaya_murder_case for some back ground on the events. A case of particular significant where a whole corrupt systems dances around the notion of religious immunity to stomp over the abuse of women (sometimes forced into) in religious institutions.

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  7. Thank you - it isn't just Catholic priests and the victim isn't always a small child. I was a young mother whose pastor came to her home on the guise of visiting her sick child. His real reason was to rape me. Fortunately, his attempts were thwarted but his intent was clear.

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  8. Great article. Well done!

    Survivor of child sexual abuse by a rc priest ~ who knows several adult female survivors as well.

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  9. Great article which I'm glad I found and even gladder that you wrote. How I wish I was a journalist with the clout to get this kind of information onto the front pages of the national press, especially as the UK is bracing itself for the Pope's visit. Religion, especially it seems Catholicism, seems to me to be all about brainwashing people in order to control them. How can we prevent this?

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  10. This is an excellent article. I have a new book ready for release entitled, "Understanding the Abuse of Adults by Catholic Clergy and Religious." It is important to recognize that adult women (and men) are often abused by priests, nuns and religious brothers. Unfortunately, the abuse is often termed "consensual," which doesn't show an understanding of the power differential between a religious leader and those they serve. I pray that this struggle can be brought into the light so that healing can be found.

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  11. Over my girlfriend for a long time ridiculed the Catholic priest, he persuaded her to have sexual relations. She was persecuted by the Catholic priests and nuns. Humiliate her in front of all the people offended. Please, if you can help her to prove the facts of violence. We have appealed to various organizations, the journalists, to the senior management of the Vatican. But the threats and insults continued. Church cover their crimes. Help them to reveal

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  12. Women have to stand strong and report these horrendous crimes and not give up when they are not taken seriously. If we stand up and be strong, perhaps we can make a loud enough voice that someone will listen. At the very least, we can help other women who are remaining silent and living in shame know that they are not alone. Do not be afraid, and even if you are, be afraid but still do what needs to be done to bring this into the light. ~ Mary Magdalena S.

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  13. I was not sexually abused by a priest but I was emotionally abused. I was led into an emotional relationship with a priest in 2005. He was handsome and he flirted with me endlessly, let me catch him staring at me all the time and smiling, etc. I was emotionally vulnerable, had placed my trust in him as a confidante and he knew it and he abused his position for his ego. The only physical relationship we had was embraces in private, but he let me know he was attracted to me and knew I was attracted to him and had feelings for him. He encouraged me to meet him in private for 16 months. He left here a year later for a distant state and after that refused my phone calls and only occasionally answered an e-mail. I only recently realized, after 5 years of emotional pain, that I was actually abused.

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  14. i was sexual abuse by a priest too i to is a young woman in canada alberta

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  15. Re; anonymous. Poor you, I feel for you God Bless you. Can really identify with the above. Was emotionally abused by an exorcist priest whose prayer ministry to me caused me to react badly to prayer thereafter. Although I did not made the link at the time, I later found out this was a serious abuse of his priestly ministry. In fact, I 'lost' a year of my life, through being in a distressing altered state, under his complete control. He relied on my status as married woman (lots of them target married women for this reason) to deter me from discussing the situation with anyone and displayed outbursts of furousness punishing me by emotionally withdrawing, if he thought I had 'talked'. Even worse, I was subjected to several exorcisms by his team during which they psychologically broke me down, by intimidating me into believing that I was a 'bad woman' who had tried to lead a good and holy priest astray. Thank God, I was eventually freed from this cycle of abuse by an actual 'good and holy priest' - another exorcist, who told me the exorcisms were simply a means of protecting the priest (and shutting me up). I reported it to the safegrarding officer who immediately saw the situation as an abusive one and seemed confident of being able to address it, but backed off when he met with a brick wall from the church, although he is instrumental in taking a lead in formulating a National policy for exorcists. I am still pursuing this complaint and am becoming more isloated from the parish community with each step I take - it is a silent, gradual, insiduous ostracisation and yes, after initially feeling supported and listened to by the church, once they established I had no evidence - abusers always ensure that you cannot prove anything - they have started to ask me if I did anything to encourage the priest etc... MACSAS have been a great source of support and say they get many similar stories from women dotted all over the country, so are quite isolated in themselves. We have to stick together and share information!If you are reading this, please say a prayer for my intention.

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  16. It isn't just clergy that commit abuse. I and two women in a neighboring parish have been victimized by male employees here in Louisiana. In the other parish, the two women, employed for over twenty years, were summarily fired by the new pastor. I have been amazed at the people who so readily condemn me as a liar, saying I just want money. When I first filed, I stated I wanted no money, I only wanted the man--and I use that term very loosely--placed in another position and tested. He refused to be tested and I was informed that the church people could not force him to agree. There has been SO much cover-up and transfer of priests who knew the situation--part of me feels as though it's the child abuse cases all over again. If only women would get together to fight this, we could accomplish something. Women here are too afraid to help me. They have all stated that they are afraid of reprisal. What the male employee told me several times is apparently true: "They'll never fire me; I know too much."

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  17. These postings are comforting in knowing that I am not alone. These trusted so called professionals know how to exploit & abuse their position when women are at their most vulnerable. You are made to feel special & important to them, given false promises & hopes all to stroke their ego, sexually exploit you & leave you emotionally wrecked. You then invariably discover that there is a pattern & you are not the only one to have been targeted. I have survived the abuse, sought therapy which has rid me of all the 'false guilt' I was carrying but know that the healing process will be long & difficult. Self care is what I am focusing on now. At times of crisis we need a 'rock' not an abuser.

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  18. It's over three years since I wrote this and I'm still being contacted both here and elsewhere by women who come across it. I'm pleased if it helps anyone but not so pleased that almost nothing has been done since then.

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  19. This is an intresting blog that you have posted, you shares a lot of things about Counsellors West London,Families CounsellingSexual Abuse Counselling . Which are very informative for us.Thanks

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  20. Thank you for this article. I still wrestle with confused feelings following advances by a priest in the church office I worked at. Some of the tactics you cited to lure someone were used by him, and it wasn't until I saw things in hindsight that I even saw the trickiness in conditioning me. It's been three years since, and even though my pastor was a blessing and supportive of me, I still can't shake the damage the advances made to my ability to trust, and some aspects of church authority. I pray for healing.

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  21. anonymous, how do you begin to heal from the abuse from a priest? I am struggling.

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  22. Anonymous, how do you begin the healing process having been emotionally abused by a priest?

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  23. How do you heal from the emotional abuse?

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