A decade later, struggle for accountability within LCWR on abuse continues

by David Clohessy

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Last week, we in the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests celebrated our 25th anniversary. This week, we take note of another, less positive milestone.

It's now been 10 years since we first began prodding the largest group of U.S. nuns to take action on abuse by women religious. It's been a frustrating and fruitless decade.

Almost every August since 2004, we have shown up at and held news conferences outside the annual gathering of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, America's largest organization of nuns. We've begged LCWR to expose the truth about child sex crimes and cover-ups by women religious. We've politely but firmly urged it to take simple steps to protect the vulnerable from abusive nuns and heal those wounded by abusive nuns.

And we've been politely but repeatedly rebuffed. (Our website lists each of our interactions with the LCWR over the past decade.)

How many boys and girls over the decades have been sexually violated by nuns? No one knows. We in SNAP have roughly 250 men and women who report having been molested by women religious, most as children, a few as adults. Who knows how many more are out there, likely suffering in silence, shame and self-blame?

Specifically, we've asked the leaders of the LCWR to:

  • Put a link to our website on the LCWR website so victims of abusive nuns are given options if they want to heal or take action;
  • Ask member orders to do the same;
  • Invite SNAP members who are victims of sexual abuse by women religious to speak to LCWR member communities during LCWR national and regional conferences;
  • Give us a list of member orders with addresses and names of contact people if a survivor of nun sexual abuse would wish to find healing and comfort from an order;
  • Set up a national review board for sexual abuse by women religious to ensure this abuse comes to an end and so that those who were sexually abused by women religious can begin their journeys of healing.

Sadly, however, there has been no progress on any of our requests, and LCWR officials have not made any counterproposals that would show a good-faith effort to help prevent abuse in the future or help those hurting from abuse in the past.

We hear virtually the same excuses from LCWR officials that we heard year after year from bishops.

"It's really just a tiny problem," they assure us.

"Our group isn't structured to take collective action," they claim. "Each religious order is self-governing and answers only to Rome."

"Our annual meetings," they say, aren't the "appropriate forum" to address sexual abuse.

But we believe the number of abusive nuns is very likely much higher than anyone knows or suspects. And while maybe it would be tough or unprecedented for LCWR to take real steps to address abuse in its midst, we are firmly convinced it's not impossible.

Our prodding of LCWR isn't popular. Each time we point out that the organization has done and is doing little to protect children, we get criticism from Catholics.

"Your real target," we're told, "is the Vatican or the bishops."

"Nuns have almost no power," we're told, and "are being threatened by the male hierarchy."

And we do sympathize with the plight of U.S. nuns. We know what it's like to feel powerless in the face of questions and attacks by bishops and cardinals.

We sympathize even more, however, with men and women who struggle daily to cope with the devastation caused by child sex crimes at the hands on trusted sisters and, on top of that, seek healing and prevention from the nation's largest organization of nuns, which largely continues to ignore their cries for justice.

[David Clohessy the director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.]

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