Gospel-inspired boldness calls the church to justice

This story appears in the WOW2015 feature series. View the full series.

by Christine Schenk

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"What is needed now … is a gospel-inspired boldness that refuses to be silent and speaks out in a strong, loving voice to call the church to justice."  

So spoke Sheila Peiffer quoting the late Bill Callahan when she introduced a panel presentation Survivor Justice and Ending Violence Against Women, at the Women's Ordination Worldwide conference last month.

Peiffer is a former pastoral minister and current board member with the Women's Ordination Conference, the organization that hosted the international event held in Philadelphia September 18-20.  

One of the goals of the WOW 2015 conference, Peiffer said, was "to demonstrate the interconnection between the exclusion of women in ministry and the global damage the church does to the status and treatment of women and girls."

Four women panelists shared wrenching stories of intolerable injustice suffered at the hands of institutional Catholicism, but also, in Peiffer's words, stories "of wrongs righted, lives restored, and hope infused because of 'gospel inspired boldness.'"  

An unexpected subtext is the redemptive dynamic of reform that emerged when each woman refused to be silent in the face of injustice and abuse.

Barbara Blaine spoke of her middle school desire to be a priest and subsequent selection by her pastor to do odd jobs around the parish, including serving as a sacristan. She related being filled with "shame, guilt and disdain for my femininity" after being sexually abused by an assistant pastor: "He led me to believe it was my fault. My becoming a woman made me irresistible, I was only 12. Something bad in me caused the holy priest to sin. I hated being female."  

As a Catholic Worker in Chicago Blaine won a work study grant toward a Master's in Divinity from Catholic Theological Union, an experience she described as "bizarre:" "In order for me to have the privilege of sitting in class with the guys, among other things, I had to clean their bathrooms … being female left me doing the dirty work and had I been male, I would have had my whole tuition paid. "  

Simultaneously with her studies she was painfully facing the sexual violence she endured as a teen: "I was seeking healing and justice from church officials in Ohio and dealing with betrayal, empty promises, even blatant lies from provincials and bishops. But it was disconnected and denied while going to theology classes and working with the homeless in Chicago."

Blaine would go on to become the founder and president of Survivor's Network of those Abused by Priests: "It didn't take long to realize that the church officials weren't going to help me. I still needed healing so I looked for other survivors and started SNAP, using a self-help model."

Growing up, Shannen Dee Williams' only real life experiences with Catholic sisters were those she saw on television who were mostly white. Whoopi Goldberg's Sister Act movie portrayal notwithstanding, she knew nothing about the rich history of black sisters. "The mere idea of a black nun, no matter how talented and lovable, was nothing short of fraudulent," she believed. "Real sisters were white."  

But while searching for a paper topic in graduate school at Rutgers, she came upon a newspaper article about the National Black Sisters' Conference. "Suddenly for the first time in my life I could name several black women who had dared to embrace the religious state in the U.S. church. … They were black and Catholic and undeniably proud of these two facts." Williams eventually joined a small community of scholars working to document the subversive history of black sisters. She has researched over 20 archives and collected over 75 oral history interviews with current and former sisters.

Williams was amazed to learn that the history of sisters of black African descent predated the development of female religious life in Europe by two centuries. She was inspired by Sr. Gwynette Proctor, a descendant of Catholic slaves from southern Maryland "who steadfastly refused to abandon her call to religious life despite being spat upon (literally) by white Catholic parents and children" when she walked to a parochial school that she helped to desegregate.

Williams also decried the shame of thousands of black vocations lost to the church due to racism and the exclusionary admission policies of segregated white communities. Pointing with pride to the "black women and girls who resolved to answer God's call no matter what," she concluded, "Their unyielding faith in the face of unholy discrimination proves that Catholicism can be free of white supremacy and racism."   

She went on to earn her Ph.D. and is now an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. She is currently at work on her first book, Subversive Habits: Black Nuns and the Long Struggle to Desegregate Catholic America.

"Black sisters and their history came into my life at the very moment that I was planning to leave the church, and I don't think it was a coincidence," she believes.

Mari Steed spoke movingly of her Irish mother, Josephine, who in 1961 was forced to relinquish her daughter to a U.S. adoption agency by one of Ireland's infamous Magdalene laundries. Josephine would then work in the Magdalene sewing room for ten years to resolve her debt.

In the course of searching for her birth mother, Steed discovered that Josephine had herself been born out of wedlock but no Irish family had ever adopted her. When Josephine herself became pregnant out of wedlock, Steed found "her only hope was that I be sent to an American home to spare me the possibility of not being adopted in Ireland, and facing the same existence she had suffered." Josephine's efforts to trace Mari and make sure she was well placed and happy were rebuffed by the nuns in Cork.

In 1978, Steed herself would relinquish a daughter in a forced adoption in the U.S.  She said she ran into similar "brick walls" searching for her daughter in 1996-7, though their eventual reunion came about much more quickly than the search for Josephine. She has now been "joyously reunited" with her daughter, Kerry, since 1997 and enjoyed a "close, loving relationship" with Josephine from the time they were reunited in 2001 until her death in 2013.

In 2003 Steed cofounded Justice for Magdalenes (now JFM Research), an advocacy organization that successfully campaigned for a state apology and restorative justice for survivors of the Magdalene Laundries. She also serves as U.S. coordinator with Adoptions Rights Alliance, working in conjunction with The Philomena Project and continues to assist Irish-trafficked U.S. adults who are seeking their family origins and working for legislative change.

Steed's boldness has yielded rich fruit not only for her but also for hundreds of others whose precious family ties were ruptured by coercive adoptions.

Virginia Saldanha has been speaking boldly about sexual abuse of women by priests in India and Asia for over 13 years. In 2002, after the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines prepared a report documenting abuse of women for the Philippine Bishops Conference, Saldanha decided to investigate sexual abuse of Indian sisters and lay women.  She did so in her capacity as the executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India's Commission for Women.

She went on to document serious sexual abuse of both sisters and laywomen by Indian priests. One laywoman in Bombay had turned to a priest for counseling about a deep emotional hurt. He responded by having sex with her claiming he was showing her God's love. She later discovered he was having sex with other women who came to his  retreats. This priest was eventually removed but no one in his parish was told why.

After a coalition of 26 Indian female theologians issued a 2002 statement protesting "individual clerical abuse against women," Saldanha worked with the executive secretary of the Commission of Clergy and a woman theologian to produce a syllabus on sexuality, to be used in the training of seminarians. The syllabus was rejected.

In the course of her investigations, leaders of religious communities of women told Saldanha they preferred to deal with the problem "in house," leading her to conclude: "The drawback of this approach was that only the religious sister concerned was 'dealt with,' rather than the problem itself."

Some recent outrageous examples of why 'in house" doesn't work include that of a Sister whose privacy was violated by a seminarian who sexually harassed her while she was taking a shower.  When she complained to appropriate authorities she was blamed instead of the seminarian, who was  sent to Rome for further study.  

In 2011 a high school teacher, Sr. Anitha, was expelled from her convent after complaining about unwanted sexual advances by a priest. The Kerala Catholic Reformation Movement took up the sister's cause and recently won a financial settlement for her.

In June 2010, Saldanha broke open the sexual abuse of women issue in India by publishing an article addressing the clerical sexual abuse of women. After extensive consultation and with the help of a lawyer and a bishop, a group that she was part of drafted guidelines to deal with cases of sexual abuse in the church of India.

These were presented  to the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India in 2013.

"But to this day the bishops have not adopted these norms for enforcement," said Saldanha. Instead the group was told that the bishops "are still looking into the matter."

Saldanha closed her presentation with a quotation by Bangalore theologian Shaji George that aptly summarizes what is at stake when we are silent about abusive behavior, whether sexual or authoritarian:

The pattern and development of the abuse scandal puts into question the very structure of the Church, the concept of priesthood, the existing system of gender relationships, the administration of justice within the Church, the lack of dialogue and participatory leadership in the Church.  Many feel that even the sincere attempts to tackle the issue without radical changes in the very structure of the Church will be ineffective.

The witness of these courageous women is one of several powerful engines driving responsible reform of the Catholic church.

Our bishop leaders should be on their knees every day thanking God for such graced fidelity.

[A Sister of St. Joseph, Sr. Christine Schenk served urban families for 18 years as a nurse midwife before co-founding FutureChurch, where she served for 23 years. She holds master's degrees in nursing and theology.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Christine Schenk's column, Simply Spirit, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

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