The nation's Roman Catholic nuns have suffered as much sexual abuse as the four in 10 U.S. women who report the experience, though sisters have known it less in childhood, a new study shows.
The study, by Catholic researchers with the support of major religious orders, dispels what the authors call an anti-Catholic canard that girls fled to convents and vows of celibacy to escape sexual advances.
Yet during religious life, nearly 30 percent of the nation's 85,000 sisters experienced some kind of "sexual trauma," ranging from harassment to exploitation to rape, and 40 percent report at least one such experience in a lifetime.
"The main reason for doing the study is that it had never been done before," said John T. Chibnall, a psychologist at St. Louis University, a Jesuit-founded school.
"By doing this, we wanted to build trust in the church," he said.
Some sisters said their orders long have provided care and counseling for members with such trauma, but the public disclosure is a new development.
"I see it as a benefit to show we're just like other women in society. We are family people," said Sister Lucy Regalado, president of Our Lady of Victory Missionary Sisters in Huntington, Ind.
Sister Anne O'Donnell, a member of the Sisters of the Notre Dame and professor of English at Catholic University, said hearing about abuse was not prominent in her 31 years of religious life.
"I am not generally aware of sisters having trouble," she said. "I am more aware of hearing about alcoholism in the family of sisters."
Mr. Chibnall said the findings, published in the current Review of Religious Research, will be helpful in counseling services, in setting policy guidelines to avoid abuse in religious settings and in screening candidates for various orders.
The sisters "are absolutely not in the position of asking for or wanting anybody's pity," which often can be a public perception when abuse is publicized, he said. …