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Survivors Of Sexual Abuse By Nuns Want Greater Visibility For Their Accusations

Patricia Cahill pauses to collect herself as she recounts her story of child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.
Emma Lee
Patricia Cahill pauses to collect herself as she recounts her story of child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.

When Patricia Cahill was 15, she received an unexpected request. A nun who taught at a Catholic high school near her home in Ridgewood, N.J., called her at home and invited her to perform at an upcoming "hootenanny" Mass.

"This was [the] 1960s, you know. Peter, Paul and Mary and all that," Cahill said. "I didn't really play guitar, but a nun — a nun! — asked me to."

Cahill grew up in an Irish Catholic family and attended parochial schools. As invitations from the nun kept coming, she said she felt flattered by the attention, and her family welcomed the nun into their home.

Then, during an outing to a house at the Jersey shore, Cahill said the nun gave her tea laced with intoxicants.

"She took me into the bedroom and I passed out," Cahill said. "I was not conscious. I was not able to make a decision." She said this was the first time the religious sister sexually assaulted her, and the start of an abusive dynamic that would last for more than a decade.

Similar sexual abuse allegations against Catholic clergy have been in the public eye for decades. In spite of this, victims of sexual misconduct by nuns, such as Cahill, say their claims have been swept aside in the larger reckoning around sexual abuse by male Catholic leaders.

That's in part because church leadership has historically treated misconduct by diocesan priests as separate from accusations against members of religious orders, both male and female. Survivors also say the lack of awareness about sexual abuse by nuns can make it harder to come forward.

Now in her late 60s, Cahill has struggled with PTSD and addiction to drugs and alcohol for decades, both of which she says are fueled by having been sexually exploited as a minor. Today, she is sober and living in a friend's guest room in a quiet subdivision in Lancaster, Pa. Wedged into the living room sofa, she pulls out bags of pictures and slides, artifacts she now sees as evidence of abuse.

Patricia Cahill reads a card sent to her in 1992 by the nun who sexually abused her for years.
Emma Lee / WHYY
Patricia Cahill reads a card sent to her in 1992 by the nun who sexually abused her for years.

"See how long my hair is? 'Cause she told me she wanted me to wear my hair long. 'Wear these,' 'Get these glasses,' 'Don't hang around with this person.' She controlled my life," Cahill said.

Cahill's claims were eventually investigated and substantiated.

'Can my story be counted?'

There are several reasons why victims of nuns don't appear in the usual narratives around Catholic sex abuse.

With 420 Catholic women's institutes in the United States alone, it is difficult to get a complete picture of the total number of allegations against nuns. The watchdog group Bishop Accountability has compiled a list of about 100 religious sisters who have been credibly accused, meaning claims against them resulted in a lawsuit or news article.

When victims do come forward, sexual abuse claims against nuns, monks and religious order priests are usually dealt with by their respective orders, not local dioceses. Similarly, many diocese-run compensation programs aimed at investigating and resolving sexual misconduct claims only accept victims of parish priests.

Big investigations into sexual misconduct at Catholic institutions, such as last year's Pennsylvania grand jury report, also tend to focus on diocesan clergy, not on women religious. Pennsylvania's sweeping investigation named 301 priests accused of sexual misconduct by more than 1,000 victims but did not compile claims against religious sisters. It contained only one passing reference to a sexually abusive nun.

"Survivors went looking to find their stories listed among those shared [in the grand jury report], and they weren't there," said Mary Dispenza, with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. "That has caused some of them to make calls to ask, 'Why aren't there more stories? Can my story be counted?'"

Dispenza, a former nun and the point person for abuse by nuns with SNAP, said 60 people have reached out to her since last August, when the grand jury's findings were released. In response, this month SNAP started holding a virtual support group for victims of sexual abuse by nuns.

While that number pales in comparison to the thousands of known accusations against male clergy, survivors of sexual abuse by nuns say all perpetrators in Catholic leadership exploit the same religious authority.

'They could do no wrong'

"She belonged to those people that our parents and grandparents put on pedestals, and they could do no wrong," Steve Theisen of Hudson, Iowa, said about his alleged abuser.

When Theisen was 9 years old, his fourth-grade teacher at a Catholic school in Dubuque, Iowa, kept him after class.

"She had me come over to her desk where she was sitting at, and it was out of sight of the window on the door, and she taught me how the eskimos kissed by rubbing her nose against my nose," he recalled in a 2014 interview archived with SNAP.

She belonged to those people that our parents and grandparents put on pedestals, and they could do no wrong. It's very confusing at that young age.

He said she waited a few days before approaching him again, to see if he would tell anyone. "She later taught me how the Americans kissed, and again she waited ... and then she taught me how the French kissed."

Theisen began avoiding her advances in the sixth grade but said he kept quiet about what happened for more than three decades. "I think with me, like a lot of survivors, we thought we were the only ones that this happened to," he said.

Pope Francis weighs in

Acknowledgment of sexual abuse by religious sisters is growing. On May 9, Pope Francis changed the Roman Catholic Church's position of treating allegations against nuns as separate from that of diocesan priests, and issued a new decree requiring allegations against members of male and female religious orders be reported to church leadership. It goes into effect June 1.

Sister Annmarie Sanders, spokeswoman for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, said in a statement that the association "offers its deepest sympathy to anyone impacted by abuse perpetrated by Catholic sisters." The LCWR has created training materials to distribute to its members to try to prevent sexual abuse in the future, according to Sanders.

For victims of past abuse, the individual religious orders of their alleged perpetrators still hold the keys to validating their claims and offering restitution.

After many decades, Theisen approached the order his fourth grade teacher belongs to, the Sisters of St. Francis. A spokesperson for the order said that they cooperated with an investigation by the Archdiocese of Dubuque looking into his allegations, which found them to be credible but not provable.

In Cahill's case, the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth, the order of the nun whom abused her, investigated and substantiated her claims of improper conduct in 1994. A spokesperson confirmed to NPR that the order then removed the nun from her position as school principal and paid Cahill $70,000 in an out-of-court settlement. Neither order would make the accused nuns available for an interview.

Neither Theisen nor Cahill still practice Catholicism. Recently, Cahill has started going to a different church, where she finds comfort in being able to talk openly about what happened to her.

"To say, 'I was sexually abused by a nun' without immediately the cloud of, 'You're a sinner, this was a lesbian relationship, you tempted her' ... I'm not living in shame any longer," she said.

Copyright 2019 WHYY

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Laura Benshoff
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