Social Issues

Nuns empowered to speak out against abuse

The #NunsToo movement is gathering momentum at the same time as the world comes to terms with the abuse boys suffered at the hands of clergymen. Laura Walters talks to a survivor about the need to change the treatment of women in the Catholic church.

Among the #MeToo zeitgeist are a group of nuns who are raising their voices – empowered by other women who have spoken out about abuse.

Amid the Pope’s historic anti-abuse summit earlier this month, the #NunsToo movement gathered steam, with Pope Francis speaking about the abuse of power and manipulation that took place in these instances.

It followed a meeting held in November by a group of women theologians sharing their stories of sexual harassment and abuse at the hands of male clerics, and denouncing the patriarchy of the Catholic hierarchy.

As well as sexual abuse, there have been cases of clergy - in some countries - forcing nuns to carry out menial tasks with little-to-no pay, and other behaviour demonstrating a lack of respect.

The reaction was consistent from those who spoke to Newsroom: they are devastated nuns have also been subject to abuse, but they’re not surprised – especially given the power dynamics within the church as well as its tendency to cover up historical abuse, to date.

Until now, the focus has largely been on the abuse of boys and children.

In recent weeks, the world has been watching the case of Cardinal George Pell, with the ex-Vatican treasurer found guilty of sexually abusing two boys in 1996. The conviction has divided Australia, with some – including former Prime Ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott – maintaining their support of Pell.

Meanwhile, a former Marist brother is on trial in Auckland for sexually abusing a nine-year-old girl in her home, while her family sat in the same room, with their eyes closed in prayer. Michael Beaumont has pleaded guilty to the historical indecent assault, and charges relating to touching two 12-year-old girls.

But the situation facing nuns around the world has not had the same level of public discussion, despite a growing understanding of horrific sexual abuse and rape statistics.

'I felt confused and guilty'

Auckland-based Good Shepherd College lecturer Rocio Figueroa Alvear was 15 when she suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a vicar in a Catholic lay community in Peru.

Figueroa was one of many middle-to-upper class teens who were swept up in a conservative Catholic movement in the 1970s and 80s, and she joined the Marian Community of Reconciliation (MCR), a pontifically-recognised Society of Apostolic Life.

“For me, seeing so much injustice and so many poor people called to me to something,” she said.

Along with her brother and her friends, she became part of the lay community.

At the head, was the movement’s founder, who she described as misogynistic and belittling of women.

The man who abused Figueroa was the second-in command of the lay men consecrated community. She went on to start the movement’s community of consecrated women - similar to a nun - at the age of 18.

“He was abusing me, and touching me. He didn’t rape me, but he absolutely abused me... I felt absolutely confused, and I felt guilty, and I felt bad, and I felt dirty.”

The order’s vicar general, German Doig, was later be found guilty of sexually abusing multiple people, including minors.

At the time, he told her she had to do spiritual exercises, like yoga, and learn to control her body and sexuality.

“He was abusing me, and touching me. He didn’t rape me, but he absolutely abused me,” she said.

“I felt absolutely confused, and I felt guilty, and I felt bad, and I felt dirty.”

At the time, Figueroa said she couldn’t describe it as abuse, because she did not understand what had happened. “I was very naive.”

About 20 years later, while living in Rome, she realised she had been sexually abused.

Doig died in 2001, but she investigated what happened to her and others at the hands of the community’s leaders.

After leaving the order, Figueroa met her husband – a Kiwi – and moved to new Zealand, where she works as a lecturer, researcher and activist.

She now pushes for change in church structures that have allowed abuse and cover-ups to happen.

The tip of the iceberg

Figueroa said there needed to be more discussion about the situation of women and girls, especially vulnerable women, like nuns.

“Just because there has been lots of abuse in the Catholic realm towards boys, it doesn’t mean there hasn’t been lots of abuse towards girls.”

It was always more difficult to be a victim and a woman, in a society that still had problems with rape culture and misogynistic views, she said.

Because of the crisis of culture, women had begun speaking out publicly, which had encouraged and empowered others.

Bishop of Auckland Patrick Dunn said it was good the subject was finally being brought into the open and discussed, especially at the level of the Leadership Conference of Religious Women (LCRW), whose voice would be listened to.

Rocio Figueroa Alvear now advocates for survivors, and pushes for change in church structures that help cover up abuse. Photo: Supplied.

To the best of his knowledge, the Catholic Church had not received a complaint of such abuse against religious sisters in New Zealand. 

But no countries have been unscathed by the Catholic church's sex abuse scandal.

“Certainly if one did come to light, it would be dealt with promptly and effectively,” he said. “I think we are all too well aware of the unacceptable level of domestic violence and abuse of women in general in our society.”

The recent revelations about the abuse against nuns was “shocking and appalling”, Dunn said.

“These dedicated women have spent a lifetime in service to the church working as teachers, nurses and caregivers with little financial reward. They have enjoyed the esteem and gratitude of Catholic communities throughout the world for their generosity.”

A moment in time

Green MP Jan Logie, who is responsible for the Government’s work on family and sexual violence, said it was important to acknowledge the bravery of victims speaking out in the face of powerful institutions.

“I think we really have to acknowledge the bravery of these nuns, and know that there will be others who haven’t been able, or don’t feel they are in a position, to speak out.”

Logie said the world was in a moment of change, where women in particular, were speaking out about their experiences.

“Through the #MeToo movement… it offers all of us in our different sectors and institutions, an opportunity to be proactive and in trying to find out whether there’s a problem and where there is harm.”

The church has had a powerful dynamic and track record of covering up, and trying to silence victims. But this dynamic was not exclusive to the church, she said.

“And this is a moment for us to take that responsibility and act in the interests of victims.”

Logie said she would be surprised if there was not more to come of the topic of sexual abuse in the church, and other institutions with strong hierarchies.

Time for action

Last month, the Pope held a four-day anti-abuse conference in Rome, which included considering “reflection points”, to be turned into future actions to prevent and deal with abuse.

However, some survivors said they were disappointed at the lack of tangible results.

“The holy People of God look to us, and expect from us not simple and predictable condemnations, but concrete and effective measures to be undertaken. We need to be concrete,” Pope Francis said at the summit.

The recommendations included preparing a handbook for local churches to follow in abuse cases, establishing protocols for handling accusations against bishops and raising the minimum age for marriage to 16.

Figueroa said the summit was important to show Catholic leaders the issue of sexual abuse applied in all regions, not just western countries.

“But I felt it was lacking the concrete actions that have to be taken... survivors feel there was something missing there.”

Logie said survivors were clearly articulating to the church and the world that they wanted to shift away from rhetoric and towards action. “And I think they deserve that.”

Dunn said with the efforts of the Pope, the #NunsToo movement, and the LCRW, would help to raise awareness of the issue.

“In those cultures where women have traditionally had less equality and opportunity than men, it is good to hear them now being empowered to have their voices heard.”

It was early days in regard to the summit’s outcome, but the overwhelming call for reform and action throughout the church in every country was heartening, he said.

Meanwhile, there would also be a part for New Zealand’s Royal Commission of Inquiry into State Abuse to play in helping survivors tell their stories, and move towards closure and healing.

Last year, the royal commission extended its mandate to include faith-based institutions, following consultation.

This included looking at churches, and any abuse that took place in private homes at the hands of priests or clergymen.

Dunn said it would be a long process, and those with a stake in the inquiry and outcome would have to be patient. But hopefully its findings and reporting would contribute to the work of all who advise, counsel and support those who had been abused.

The inquiry will produce two reports: one before the end of 2020, and the final report by January 2023.

Where to get help

National Rape Crisis helpline: 0800 88 33 00

Safe to Talk national helpline 0800 044 334 or www.safetotalk.nz

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