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

She had traveled to a New Delhi retreat center, a collection of concrete buildings where she gathered with other young nuns. A priest was there to lead the sisters in reflection.

The nun, who like others interviewed for this story spoke on condition that she not be identified, is a strong and forceful woman who has spent years working with India’s poor and dispossessed, from battered wives to evicted families.

However, when she talks about the retreat her voice grows quiet, as if she is afraid to be overheard in the empty room: “I felt this person — maybe he had some thoughts, some attraction.”

He was in his 60s. She was four decades younger.

One night, the priest went to a neighborhood party. He came back late, after 9:30pm, and knocked at her room.

“I need to meet with you,” he said when she cracked open the door, insisting that he wanted to discuss her spiritual life.

She could smell the alcohol.

“You’re not stable. I’m not ready to meet with you,” she told him.

However, the priest forced open the door. He tried to kiss her. He grabbed at her body, groping wherever he could.

Weeping, she pushed him back enough to slam the door and lock it.

It was not rape. She knows it could have been so much worse, but decades later, she still reels at the memory and this tough woman, for a few moments, looks like a scared young girl.

“It was such a terrifying experience,” she said.

Afterward, she quietly told her mother superior, who allowed her to avoid other meetings with the priest. She also wrote an anonymous letter to church officials, which she thinks might have led to the priest being reassigned.

However, nothing was said aloud. There were no public reprimands and no warnings to the many nuns that the priest would work with through his long career.

She was too afraid to challenge him openly.

“I couldn’t imagine taking that stand. It was too scary,” she said. “For me it was risking my own vocation.”

So the fierce nun remained silent.

Catholic history is filled with women who became martyrs to their own purity: Saint Agatha had her breasts torn off for refusing to marry; Saint Lucy was burned alive and stabbed in the throat for defending her virginity; Saint Maria Goretti was 11 years old when she was killed by a man who tried to rape her.

“It is a sin,” Maria is said to have cried out. “God does not want it.”

However, for a nun, fighting off a priest’s advances means pinballing through centuries-old sexual and clerical traditions. Celibacy is a cornerstone of Catholic religious life, as is sexual purity among nuns. Many nuns say that a sister who admits to a sexual experience — even if it is forced — faces the risk of isolation within her order and possibly even expulsion.

“You’re not sure if you’ll be kept in your congregation, because so much is about your vow of chastity,” said Sister Shalini Mulackal, a New Delhi-based theologian. “That fear is there for the young ones to disclose what has happened to them.”

At the same time, priests are seen as living representatives of Christ, with obedience to them being another Catholic cornerstone.

Then there is the isolation of young women struggling to find their way in new communities after leaving their homes.

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