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

Caught at this intersection of sexual taboo, Catholic hierarchy and loneliness, sisters can be left at the mercy of predatory priests.

“There’s a lot of emotion bottled up and when a little tenderness is shown by somebody, it can be so easy for you to cross boundaries,” said Sister Dorothy Fernandes, who has spent years working with the urban poor in eastern India. “It can be hard to tell what is love and what is exploitation.”

It is particularly difficult for sisters from Kerala, a deeply conservative region that has long been the birthplace of most Indian nuns. Sex is rarely mentioned openly in small-town Kerala. Boys and girls are largely kept apart and a visible bra strap can be a minor crisis for a young woman.

“Once you grow up, once you get your first menstruation, you are not encouraged to speak normally to a boy. And the boys also vice-versa,” said a nun from Kerala, a cheerful woman with sparkly glass earrings and an easy smile.

She remembers the misery of Sunday mass as an adolescent, when boys would stand outside the church to watch girls filing in, eyes crawling over their young figures.

“We have a terrible taboo about sex,” she said. “That naivety can be costly.”

Like the time when she was a novice nun, still in her teens, and an older priest came to the Catholic center where she worked. He was from Goa, a coastal region and former Portuguese colony.

“I was in charge of visitors and we had this bad habit of being hospitable,” she said, shaking her head.

At one point, she brought the priest’s laundry to his small room, where he was sitting. As she set down the clothes, he grabbed her and began to kiss her.

At first, she had no idea what was happening.

“The kissing was all coming here,” she said, gesturing at her chest.

The confusion of that day is still clear on her face.

“I was young. He was from Goa. I am from Kerala,” she said. “In my mind I was trying to figure out: ‘Is this the way that Goans kiss?’”

She quickly understood what was happening, but could not escape his fierce grip. She also could not call out for help.

“I could not shout — he was a priest,” she said. “I didn’t want to offend him. I didn’t want to make him feel bad.”

So, she pushed herself away from him until she could slip out the door.

She quietly told a senior nun to not send novices to the priest’s room, but, like the nun who fought off the drunken priest, she made no official complaint.

A complaint against a priest means leveling an accusation against someone higher in the church hierarchy. It can mean getting pulled into a tangle of malicious rumors and church politics. It means risking your reputation and the reputation of your order.

In the church, even some of those who doubt that there is widespread abuse of nuns say that the silence can be enveloping.

Archbishop Kuriakose Bharanikulangara, a church leader in New Delhi, said that incidents of abuse were “kind of sporadic — once here, once there.”

However, “many people don’t want to talk,” he added. “They might talk in the community, but they don’t want to bring it to the public, to the court.”

Speaking up can also risk financial troubles, since many congregations of nuns are financially subservient to priests and bishops.

The silence is magnified in India by demographics, religious politics and a deep-seated belief that women have little value.

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