Reporting sexual abuse in the Catholic Church
By: Bailey Brown
Though sexual abuse survivors in the Catholic Church have found some hope in Pope Francis’ 2019 announcement that clerics and women-religious are obligated to report abuse to their local church, some survivors feel it an empty gesture as the reporting is only to church officials and not to law enforcement. There are no consequences for not reporting to law enforcement.
Every diocese in the world must have a reporting system to file any claim of sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable persons – any person in a state of infirmity, physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of personal liberty which, in fact, even occasionally, limits their ability to understand or to want or otherwise resist the offence – by June 2020. However, the motu proprio “Vos Estis Lux Mundi/ You Are the Light of the World” does not specify as to how, where, when or to whom the system is to make the reports at the initial level. It also does not specify the reporting of a victim who is 18 years or older and does not classify as a vulnerable person. However, the papal decree acknowledges to report instances of “forcing someone by violence or threat or through abuse of authority, to perform or submit to sexual acts.”
In 1948, a seven-year-old Mary Dispenza was raped by a parish priest. Though she told no one about her abuse, she knew that God loved her no matter what she had done or what had been done to her. When she turned 18, she decided to become a nun. One day, as her and 12 other sisters were walking to their chapel for prayer, she was tapped on the shoulder by a Mother Superior who motioned for her to follow her to her room.
Confused as to why she was pulled out of the line, the young sister knelt beside the Mother Superior, a customary action when a sister is speaking to a superior.
“I don’t know what she said before or after, I only remember that she took my hand and my face between her hands and kissed me all over my face and then I just remember leaving,” said Dispenza recently from Washington where she lives. “I felt like I did when I was abused as a little child, lost, alone, abandoned, afraid, confused and scared.”
Patrick Wall, a former priest and monk who is now an advocate at Jeff Anderson and Associates Law in California, said he was aware of nuns who were being abused in the church.
“Some of [the nuns experienced] psychological abuse, physical abuse, and sexual assault,” he said. “Some of them were impregnated, then the female religious was sent off either to have the baby, to leave the convent, or to leave the religious order. Some of the priests actually had them procure abortions.”
Wall left the Catholic Church because he wanted to work the clergy abuse crisis from the outside since not much was changing on the inside. He has since helped a handful of nuns with legal action despite there being no civil litigation remedy to help them.
Wall said the sisters who have been abused by a cleric are afraid to speak up because they don’t want to break the covenant they have made with God. The hierarchy of the church places ordained priests as the most revered so the nuns are to respect them as such.
As the Catholic Church keeps all records private, there are personnel files that may never come to the surface. The church can release as much or as little information necessary, Wall said.
“All of the data is available in their archives. But their silence, their silence is deadly,” he said. “If [the Catholic Church] is really interested in bringing zero tolerance and justice, then they need to debate it. Since we are in the world of #MeToo, it’s the perfect time.”
If sexual abuse or misconduct occurs in a convent, either between nuns or between a nun and a cleric, the Mother Superior can choose to report it to a bishop or choose not to, depending on the circumstances. If the bishop is aware of abuse, they are not obligated to report the abuse to the authorities or to the public.
The Catholic Church keeps record of abuse accusations and some have published lists of clerics who have been deemed credibly accused. An allegation is deemed credible after “review of reasonably available, relevant information in consultation with the Archdiocesan Review Board or other professionals, there is reason to believe it is true” according to the Archdiocese of San Antonio, a conglomeration of all churches in the city which has 650 sisters.
After an alleged abuse, a clergyman can be re-assigned to a different district. Once they are relocated they will follow orders from the bishop in their district with their record on file. The Catholic Church is not obligated to report every instance of sexual abuse that occurs in the church to law enforcement or to the public.
In January 2020, ProPublica published a database of clerics and religious brothers and sisters who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse or misconduct from each diocese in the United States. There are 57 names of male clerics from the Archdiocese of San Antonio who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing a child. Along with the accusations of abuse there is a list of each church they were reassigned to. Some have been moved multiple times. For example, Father David Benigno Zumaya Gonzales faced nine allegations and had been moved to 11 parishes for reassignment, according to the Archdiocese of San Antonio’s credibly accused list.
Sister Corrine Uher, 70, a Sister of the Child Jesus, has been a Carmelite nun for almost 50 years.
Uher said Pope Francis does not want the bishops and archbishops to move these priests with allegations to a new parish.
“That is not the answer to the situation,” she said. “[The church] isn’t healing or saving anything and that is certainly not helping the person. It is true parishes need priests, but not that kind.”
Ellis Simani, a reporter at ProPublica who worked on the Credibly Accused Database, said there is a chance there could be names of accusers that may never become public.
“Over the course of our reporting in the story there were two instances that had allegations that were deemed credible and still didn’t include the names,” he said. “It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that there are still more names in the Diocese of San Antonio.”
The Archdiocese of San Antonio oversees the Villa Maria Residence which is under the Religious of Mary Immaculate order and is run by four nuns who provide housing for female students and workers who are 18-29 years old. The Sisters of Mary Immaculate follow orders from Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller of San Antonio.
Sister Andrea Navarro, 42, a Sister of Mary Immaculate, is responsible for recruiting women to live at the residence. During her Novitiate, which is training and preparation to become a nun, she said she was encouraged to speak up if any type of abuse happened to her.
“The teacher told us, if something happens, as soon as that happens we have to tell them immediately,” she said. “Thank God in my congregation we haven’t experienced that kind of abuse.”
In her 20 years as a nun, she said she has not experienced any sexual abuse from a clergyman or from another nun in her congregation.
“Pope Francis said if something is wrong you have to be responsible for your actions,” she said. “The church is working on that. I think only if the person is stronger than you and they rape you, then that is real abuse. The communication is very important. If you are an adult and another adult likes you and wants to be close to you, you have to stop them. It is your responsibility. When [priests or nuns] abuse kids, no one can forgive them but God.”
Father Wanjiru Ndungu has been a priest for two years and currently is a parish priest at Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in New Braunfels. He said that while in the seminary they watched a video about abuse that can happen in the church and how to handle it.
“Every three years you watch that video then you get a temporary certificate that is valid for those years and then you renew it again, but other than that there is no mission or workshop in the seminary to train us about [sexual abuse],” he said.
He said the church can take different steps to address the types of allegations that are brought to their attention.
“When there is an allegation, that is the beginning of the investigation,” he said. “Some things are going to involve the police, some things are going to involve internal investigations with the judge, depending on what you are being accused of. Sometimes it involves these two agencies working together, to come to realize exactly what happened; whether that allegation is valid or is not valid.”
The Order of the Discalced Carmelite Convent in San Antonio will soon have 15 sisters as they are merging with the Carmelites of the Holy Trinity in New Caney. The oldest sister is 105 years old and the youngest is 25 years old. The Carmelite nuns are autonomous – a separate religious order – and they are not obligated to follow any order from a bishop or archbishop.
Uher said that if any kind of abuse was happening to a sister they would need to address it to the Mother Superior so it can be taken care of immediately. During Formation, the stages of discernment to becoming a nun, if a woman was trying to abuse another member she would be immediately removed. If an ordained sister abused another sister she would be given a form of obedience to sign by the council of the convent stating that the behavior is not tolerable and if it happened again she would be removed.
“There was a young woman here who was in Formation who was very verbal and beginning to become aggressively physical with someone. So that ended immediately,” she said. “She was told she could not have a vocation. We called her parents that day and they came and picked her up. We can’t have that for the safety of our community and for her own safety.”
The Archdiocese of San Antonio released a credibly accused list of priests involved in child abuse cases in January of 2019. Uher said there needs to be a system in place for all religious orders to prevent these abuses from occurring.
“There needs to be dialogue and talk about a situation that can come up,” she said. “There are webinars for how to be aware of situations and how to respond to them if they happen, but the education needs to be more [than that].”
Mary Dispenza, 79, a survivor of childhood priestly abuse and a survivor of nun abuse at age 18, said when she turned 52 she realized two important things in her life.
“I faced for the first time that I indeed was raped by a priest when I was seven and I acknowledged the way I loved in the world, that I loved women; that I was lesbian,” she said.
She now works for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, which is an advocacy group for victims of clergy and nun abuse. Two years ago, during an interview for SNAP she realized that what happened to her when she was 18 was sexual abuse.
Dispenza was a nun for 15 years and left the convent in 1973. After leaving she was still working for the church and in 1992, the year she embraced her sexuality, she was fired from her position as the director of the pastoral life services department for the Archdiocese of Seattle. The reason for her termination was because in an article written about her, she was asked about the churches’ view on homosexuality, and she said, “the Catholic Church teaches us that we can be who we are but we can’t live that out. I don’t think God would give us our different sexualities and not let us live those out in return.”
Today she does not identify as Catholic but said she still loves God and is faithful. She has never named the nun who abused her.
In February of this year, five leaders of SNAP, including Dispenza, went to Rome to mark the Second Anniversary of the First Summit on the Abuse of Minors. Dispenza held a press conference to draw attention and keep the focus on Pope Francis to carry out the promises he has made and hold accused clergy and nuns accountable.
Currently Dispenza knows of 90 survivors of nun abuse. Five of those 90 were nuns who were abused by nuns and two of the five are still in their religious communities.
While in Rome, Dispenza met with Sister Patricia Murray, the secretary of the International Union of Superiors General, which is an international forum for Superior General nuns to share experiences and information.
“Since 2002 we have been trying to talk to somebody, we felt for the first time honored and respected,” Dispenza said.
After the meeting, Dispenza sent Murray a letter addressing the immediate concerns survivors of nun abuse have.
The letter was sent in March and she has yet to hear a response.
SNAP will continue its support of survivors of nun abuse and nuns who have been abused in the church and provide resource as they can, Dispenza said.
She will continue to try to work with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious – an association of the leaders of congregations of Catholic women religious in the United States – to bridge the understanding that survivors want to be acknowledged and have their stories heard.
Patti Waller Koo, the SNAP leader for San Antonio, sent Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller of San Antonio a letter last year “requesting that all diocese’ lists of accused clergy be more inclusive, including nuns, church staff, church volunteers, all religious orders, any clergy visiting the area from outside dioceses, and those clergy accused of abusing vulnerable adults.”
She has yet to hear a response.
Koo plans to send another letter this year to the archbishop outlining the needs of survivors of abuse in San Antonio.