Vatican Moves to Address Sex Abuse Problem: Pope Offers Apology, While Religious Life Leaders Focus on Exploitation of Nuns. (World)

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2001 | Go to article overview

Vatican Moves to Address Sex Abuse Problem: Pope Offers Apology, While Religious Life Leaders Focus on Exploitation of Nuns. (World)


Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter


Against the backdrop of a dramatic papal apology for sex abuse by clergy, a joint body of Vatican officials and leaders of religious communities has heard new proposals to address the sexual exploitation of nuns by priests.

The ideas set before that group, the Council of 16, include financial and human support for struggling diocesan communities of nuns, and the development of policies, procedures and sanctions, by religious orders and by conferences of bishops, to deal with cases of abuse.

Meanwhile, the seriousness of the problem of sexual abuse of women religious by priests found fresh confirmation in an interview with a Vatican adviser published in the October issue of a leading missionary journal.

Though discussed in the Council of 16 and elsewhere since at least 1994, detailed information about the abuse of women religious by priests was first brought to public attention in the March 16 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.

The confidential reports obtained and published by NCR suggest such abuse is a global phenomenon, though the documents focused on the Third World, above all on Africa.

The strongly worded papal apology came in Ecclesia in Oceania, the concluding document of the December 1998 Synod for Oceania, which includes Australia, New Zealand, the Malay Archipelago, Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. The document was presented Nov. 22 in Rome. John Paul II had hoped to travel to the region for the ceremony, but the 20-hour plane trip was judged too arduous for the ailing 81-year-old pontiff.

Instead the pope released the text on the Internet, pushing a button on a laptop at midday in the Vatican's "Sala Clementina" to send it via e-mail to the dioceses of Oceania.

Damaging to church

The 123-page text is devoted to a variety of topics, loosely unified by the theme of evangelization. It was the language on sexual abuse, however, that made headlines.

"Sexual abuse by some clergy and religious has caused great suffering and spiritual harm dto the victims," John Paul said. "It has been very damaging in the life of the church."

The pope stressed that, "Sexual abuse within the church is a profound contradiction of the teaching and witness of Jesus Christ."

Participants in the synod, he said, wish to "apologize unreservedly to the victims for the pain and disillusionment caused to them." They also want "open and just procedures to respond to complaints in this area" and want to offer "compassionate and effective care for the victims, their families, the whole community and the offenders themselves."

Like many regions of the Catholic world, Oceania has been hit hard in recent years by lawsuits related to sexual misconduct by priests and religious. At least one order, the Australian branch of the Christian Brothers, had to sell property to settle judgments.

The new proposals for dealing with the sexual exploitation of nuns by priests came in a Nov. 16 report by Sr. Adele Brambilla, superior of the Comboni Sisters, a missionary congregation with a strong presence in Africa.

Brambilla's document, a copy of which was obtained by NCR, represents the first clear indication of what sort of strategies church officials are pondering.

"The problem has been recognized and verbalized," Brambilla told the Council of 16 in mid-November. "Now the hour has arrived for finding paths to confront and prevent it."

The Council of 16, so called because it has 16 members, is a tripartite body of representatives from the International Union of Superiors General, the umbrella group for women's congregations; the Union of Superiors General, the companion body for men; and the Vatican congregation overseeing religious life.

Brambilla's paper focuses on women's communities that belong to a specific diocese, rather than forming part of a larger international order such as the Dominicans or the Franciscans. …

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