Sun, Jan 06, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Nuns in India tell of enduring abuse in the Catholic Church

There is an engulfing silence — talking about the church’s troubles could end with the nuns being cut off from what they have always known — but some of them are speaking up

By Tim Sullivan  /  AP, KURAVILANGAD, India

Illustration: June Hsu

The stories spill out in the sitting rooms of Catholic convents, where portraits of Jesus keep watch and fans spin quietly overhead. They spill out in church meeting halls, bathed in fluorescent lights, and over cups of instant coffee in convent kitchens. Always, the stories come haltingly, quietly. Sometimes, the nuns speak not much above a whisper.

Across India, the nuns talk of priests who pushed into their bedrooms and of priests who pressured them to turn close friendships into sex. They talk about being groped and kissed, of hands pressed against them by men they were raised to believe were representatives of Jesus Christ.

“He was drunk,” said one nun, beginning her story.

“You don’t know how to say no,” another said.

At its most grim, the nuns speak of repeated rapes and of a Catholic hierarchy that did little to protect them.

The Vatican has long been aware of nuns being sexually abused by priests and bishops in Asia, Europe, South America and Africa, but it has done little to stop it, The Associated Press reported last year.

Investigating the situation in a single country — India — the AP uncovered a decades-long history of nuns enduring sexual abuse within the church. Nuns described in detail the sexual pressure that they endured from priests and nearly two dozen other people — nuns, former nuns and priests, and others — said they had direct knowledge of such incidents.

Still, the scale of the problem in India remains unclear, as it is cloaked by a powerful culture of silence. Many nuns believe that abuse is commonplace, insisting that most sisters can at least tell of fending off a priest’s sexual advances. Some believe that it is rare. Almost none, though, talk about it readily and most speak only on the condition of anonymity.

However, this summer, one Indian nun forced the issue into the open.

When repeated complaints to church officials brought no response, the 44-year-old nun filed a police complaint against the bishop who oversees her religious order, accusing him of raping her 13 times over two years. Soon after, a group of her fellow nuns launched a two-week public protest in India’s Catholic heartland, demanding the bishop’s arrest.

It was an unprecedented action, dividing India’s Catholic community. Inside the accuser’s convent in rural Kerala state, she and the nuns who support her are now pariahs, isolated from the other sisters, many of whom insist the bishop is innocent. The protesting nuns get hate mail and avoid going out.

“Some people are accusing us of working against the church, of being against the church. They say, ‘You are worshiping Satan,’” said one supporter, Sister Josephine Villoonnickal. “But we need to stand up for the truth.”

Villoonnickal has been a nun for 23 years, joining when she was a teenager. She scoffs at the idea that she wants to harm the church.

“We want to die as sisters,” she said.

Some nuns’ accounts date back decades: such as that of the sister, barely out of her teens, who was teaching in a Catholic school in the early 1990s.

It was exhausting work and she was looking forward to the chance to reflect on what had led her — happily — to convent life.

“We have kind of a retreat before we renew our vows,” she said, sitting in the painfully neat sitting room of her big-city convent, where doilies cover most every surface, chairs are lined up in rows and the blare of horns drifts in through open windows. “We take one week off, and we go for prayers and silence.”

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