The present scandal with respect to sexual abuse in schools under the Spiritans/Holy Ghost Fathers invites a question that is rarely posed and never answered with satisfaction. What about the nuns who, at least until the mid-1960s, were far more numerous than priests or religious brothers in schools and wider society and were responsible for an array of institutions giving them authority over young people? Were they too involved in crimes against children? In Ireland or elsewhere?
My research into this question in the United States concludes that sexual predator nuns were indeed a problem in at least three institutional settings: boarding schools for Native Americans, orphanages and Catholic schools. This, coupled with what we know in relation to the Magdalene laundries, suggests that the problem of child abuse in Irish schools is not confined to priests.
The history of Catholic nuns and child sex abuse in the US, while rarely reported on, makes for disturbing reading. Following the Indian Wars of the 1860s and 1870s, boarding schools were established on reservations to sever Native American children from parental influence while subjecting them to intense cultural and religious resocialisation. Some of the schools were operated by Catholic missionaries. In 2011, a class action lawsuit was brought by 95 former students of the school on Montana’s Flathead Reservation against the Ursuline Sisters, who had run the school since 1890, charging them with physical and sexual abuse over several decades. Six sisters were identified as sexual predators in the lawsuit. In 2015, the Ursulines settled out of court for $4.45 million.
Catholic orphanages don’t have a great reputation in caring for children and tales of harsh treatment have emerged from several countries in which they operated. And sexual abuse too. The St Vincent-St Thomas Orphanage run by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in Louisville, Kentucky, entered the headlines in 2004 when 50 former inmates filed a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse by the sisters and resident chaplain. No less than 13 nuns were identified as sexual predators. In 2006 the sisters agreed to an out-of-court settlement worth $1.5 million while not being required to acknowledge any wrongdoing.
Sr Norma was a special case since she was one of only two American nuns successfully prosecuted under criminal law
And then there were Catholic schools, where the majority of American nuns were deployed as educators. It would be impossible to do justice to the incidences of abuse in these settings in this brief account. But I will mention one case that stands out above the others. Beverly Giannini, known as Sr Norma, was a Sister of Mercy who worked as a teacher and principal in the Catholic schools of Illinois and Wisconsin beginning in 1949. In 2006, two former male students brought criminal charges against her claiming she’d sexually abused them in Milwaukee during their teenage years. Sr Norma did not contest the charge and spent a year in the Milwaukee House of Detention.
Sr Norma was a special case since she was one of only two American nuns successfully prosecuted under criminal law. Why so few prosecutions amid so much criminality? The vast majority of survivors of abuse preferred civil litigation where the probability of success was greater because of the lower standard of proof. It was also a better path to financial compensation.
Why did predators emerge in a population of women pledged to lives of chastity and the renunciation of sensual pleasure? Clues may be found in the austere regimentation of convent novitiate programmes where nuns in training were taught to live without emotions while their psychosexual growth was arrested at an adolescent level. Immature, confused about human sexuality, and denied opportunities to develop relationships with adults, some nuns turned for intimacy to those most accessible and least likely to resist: the children under their care.
How did religious orders and their leaders respond when complaints about sexual abuse by their members were brought to their attention? The mothers superior drew on an arsenal of defensive tactics almost identical to that of Catholic bishops and male religious superiors. In various combinations, they resorted to suspect internal investigations, moving predators elsewhere, offering hush money, negotiating confidential out-of-court settlements and hiding behind statutes of limitation. And they were loud in their refusal to accept any responsibility for the crimes committed under their watch.
There is a considerable body of literature on nuns, most of it the work of Catholic historians who approach the past as a search for holy heroes
In a general sense, they closed ranks to protect the predators and in doing so endangered countless children. As for the complainants, they were treated as a nuisance to be brushed aside with minimum publicity and expense. It was all about propping up the system, its reputation, and its considerable assets.
There is a considerable body of literature on nuns, most of it the work of Catholic historians who approach the past as a search for holy heroes. This “research” usually produces sanitised and uncritical narratives of effusive praise which studiously avoid the dark corners of the convent system and particularly anything to do with sexual abuse. This literature is badly in need of substantive revision.
- Brian Titley is Professor Emeritus at the University of Lethbridge, Canada. He is the author of Predatory Nuns: Sexual Abuse in North American Sisterhoods.