I have spent my entire professional career studying, treating, and writing about child sexual abuse. I have extensive professional experience in the wide spectrum of sexual abuse from the predator to the child victim.
In the past thirty years, I have witnessed rise and fall of sexual abuse Sexual abuse seems to dip in favor for a few years as other natural and human-made catastrophes occupy our attention. But then, a famous victim and an even more infamous predator are revealed and sexual abuse once again explodes on the scene. As we have learned, this scourge on our innocents extends from the daycare, to the preschool, to high school sports, to teachers, coaches who ask too much, and to the priests who hid behind their frocks to hide their shame. Is there anywhere our children are safe?
However, there exists a group of sexual predators who are rarely talked about. These predators take refuge in a habit that to the outside world epitomizes kindness and compassion. Yet they take advantage of the innocence and religious authority that has been entrusted to them to sexually abuse children. They are Catholic nuns.
Throughout my practice, I have had a number of clients suffering from anxiety, depression, and/or relationship problems. It took a while to find the etiology of these disturbing symptoms since these clients were heavily cloaked in denial.
Yet, when I took a detailed background history and learned they were involved with nuns either in church, Catholic School, or Religious camp settings, their sexual encounters with the nuns were minimized. They never identified their encounters with the nuns as sexual abuse. However, when I began to explore their “friendships” with the nuns, patterns of grooming similar to male predators was evident.
The reason it was so difficult to flesh out the circumstances of the clients’ sexual abuse was they did not define the relationship they had with the nun as abusive. Rather, they saw these relationships as loving, nurturing, and supportive. Yet, when these “relationships” were more closely examined, all of the hallmarks of sexual abuse were present, along with the shattering consequences of such mistreatment; low self-esteem, sexual problems, relationship difficulties, inability to trust others and feel safe, and a general sense of shame, isolation, and anxiety. Many of these women experienced sleep disorders, substance abuse, and depression; all symptoms of women who had experienced sexual abuse in their childhood or adolescence.
With the proliferation of news coverage on priests who have sexually abused children for decades, and the cover-up that ensured to protect these predators and the Catholic Church’s reputation, I often wonder why not more is said about nuns who sexually abuse children and adolescents.
Female sexual predators are not as prevalent as their male counterparts, and many females who do sexually abuse children do so in tandem with an adult male partner.
When women sexually abuse children on their own, they couch the sexual abuse of a minor in terms of a “loving and close” relationship. Think of Mary Kay Letourneau, and the dozens of other female teachers, administrators, and nurses you have read about in the news. They claim to “have a meaningful relationship” with their juvenile victim, and thus justify the sexual activity as a “caring and consensual relationship between two people.
And society colludes with the minimization of female sexual predation. In the past, female predators have been given more lenient sentences by judges and juries who can’t fathom a woman actually harming a child and in many cases these women are never brought to justice. District Attorneys are less likely to prosecute women and more often settle for lesser sentences before going to trial.
A review of the literature on sexual abuse by nuns does not throw new light onto this subject. Significant studies do not exist regarding the deleterious impact of girls sexually abused by nuns. Several books on the subject of nun abuse are anecdotal and there is relatively little research in this area. And why is that? Why have many of these women who were violated by nuns remaining silent? Is it the same shame based explanation being given by male victims of a priest? Is it protection of the Catholic Church? Or do these women continue to deny abuse occurred and would rather couch the abuse in terms of a warm and supportive relationship?
What does it mean if a nun abuses a child? In the cases I’ve seen the victims had a very difficult time acknowledging the abusive behaviors. They believed they got so much out of the relationship and it was so meaningful to them that they continue to have fond memories of the nun and deny abuse ever occurred. However, a further look into their lives revealed they were suffering from the very same symptoms as adult survivors of sexual abuse. No matter how they viewed the sexual contact with a nun, it still had a devastating impact on their social, emotional, and occupational well-being.
The following story comes from a female client who came to therapy because she was unhappy with her life. She suffered from depression and anxiety, and was isolated and closed off to the rest of the world. (All names and identifying information has been changed to protect the privacy of my client).
Debra was twelve years old when her parents allowed her to attend a Catholic boarding school. Her family was middle class; her father worked long hours in the family business rarely attended to his wife and children. Her mother was unhappy and drank excessively. Debra was left on her own to fend for her homework, lunches, dinners, shopping, and the general care of her younger sisters.
Debra begged to be sent away. Her very best friend was attending a Catholic boarding school in a neighboring state. Debra was awarded a scholarship to the school, her parents acquiesced and she left her home for the boarding school.
Debra first met Sister Marie at orientation. Sister Marie was the counselor for the girls and coach of the swim team. Sister Marie took an immediate liking to Debra and encouraged her to swim on the team. Sister Marie began to give Debra a number of special individual swim lessons and their “friendship” bloomed. Debra found an understanding, attentive, and caring person in Sister Marie and felt happier than she had ever been before. She decided not to go home on vacations and instead stayed with Sister Marie at the boarding school.
It wasn’t long before Sister Marie asked Debra to come to her room and for the next four years, Sister Marie sexually abused Debra.
Debra was happy. Even though she felt uncomfortable with the sexual aspect of her “relationship” with Sister Marie, she accepted it as a loving and tender way for Sister Marie to show Debra she cared for her. Debra didn’t have parents who cared for her and they were too busy with work and alcohol to notice their daughter slipping away.
Senior year came and Sister Marie’s behavior toward Debra changed. Debra felt the pangs of impending loss and desperately tried to cling on. Sister Marie began to spend more time with younger students and eventually stopped asking Debra to visit her at night. Debra learned Sister Marie was “involved” with a new student, the same age as Debra when she first came to the school.
As is common in so many of these cases of sexual abuse by an older person in authority, Sister Marie was invested in the game of sexual abuse seduction; targeting, grooming, and the initiations, not in a real intimate relationship with a victim who was soon to turn 18.
Debra was bereft. Heartbroken, she left the boarding school before graduating and returned home. She never finished high school but earned her GED and got an entry-level job as an administrative assistant. As in the case with sexual abuse survivors, Debra was severely damaged by the “relationship” with Sister Marie. She continued to hold Sister Marie out as a wonderful, caring, and gentle “soul” who left her because she was unworthy and believed Sister Marie was instrumental in “saving her life.”
Unable to find sustenance in any type of intimate relationship be it man or woman, Debra lived in isolation, fear, and shame. She had tried to forge a relationship with a female roommate but found it impossible to take the friendship to a sexual level. She referred to herself as “cold and frigid.” She continued to grieve over the loss of Sister Marie and held on staunchly to the belief she was too needy, too immature, and too boring for the nun and it was no wonder she abandoned Debra.
It took many months in therapy for Debra to identify Sister Marie’s actions toward her as sexual abuse. When she was finally able to do this, we began in earnest to engage in sexual abuse recovery. She had been traumatized by the relationship with Sister Marie but she hadn’t ever identified how the relationship with Sister Marie destroyed her self-confidence, ability to become intimate, and her sexual well-being.
Does this story have familiar elements that cause you to stop and wonder about your own experiences with nuns? I am actively looking for women who as children or adolescents had sexual encounters by nuns.
I am writing a book about children and adolescents sexually abused by nuns and would be interested in hearing your story. Like Debra’s case above, all identifying information would be kept strictly confidential.
I believe it’s time for women to come forward and address this issue head on! For those of you who have suffered or continue to suffer from the repercussions of sexual mistreatment by nuns, you will finally have a voice.
Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 303-790-5585.
I look forward to hearing from you.