Vatican Acknowledges Sex Scandal

The Italian newspaper la Repubblica quotes the Vatican report as saying that some priests in Africa, worried about the risk of AIDS, have instead targeted nuns.

VATICAN CITY, March 20, 2001 | Reuters

The Vatican is now acknowledging allegations first reported in the Catholic press. (CBS)

The Vatican acknowledged Tuesday a report alleging that some priests and missionaries were forcing nuns to have sex with them and in some cases forced their rape victims to have abortions.

Other nuns were forced to take birth control pills, according to the report cited in the Rome daily newspaper la Repubblica.

The Vatican said the issue was restricted to a certain geographical area, but the report cited cases in 23 countries, including the United States, Brazil, the Philippines, India, Ireland and Italy.

Missionary news agency MISNA condemned the abuse while recalling that missionaries often worked "at the limit of human endurance." It urged the media to remember the good deeds of missionaries around the world as well as their failings.

A Vatican statement said "in relation to the news of cases of sexual abuse against nuns committed by priests and missionaries…the problem is known about and is restricted to a certain geographical area. The Holy See is dealing with the issue in collaboration with bishops, the Union of Superiors General (grouping of heads of male religious orders) and the International Union of Superiors General (heads of female religious orders)."

While the Vatican did not name the geographical area, the report said most incidents of sexual abuse against nuns occurred in Africa where the nuns were identified as "safe" following the onset of the HIV and AIDS viruses devastating the continent.

Charges made in the report, signed with names and surnames, were made known to Church authorities on several occasions throughout the 1990s, according to the article by Marco Politi, la Repubblica's Vatican correspondent.

The author of the report was nun and physician Maura O'Donohue, who presented it to the head of the Vatican's Congregation for Holy Orders, Cardinal Martinez Somalo, in February 1995.

He ordered a working group from the Congregation to study the problem with O'Donohue, who was AIDS coordinator for Cafod, the London-based Roman Catholic Fund for Overseas Development.

O'Donohue made specific reference to certain cases, one in which a priest forced a nun to have an abortion, after which she died. He then officiated at her requiem mass.

In reference to Africa, her report said: "It is impossible (there) for a woman or an adolescent to refuse a man, especially an older man and in particular a priest."

In Africa, certain priests sought out nuns "for fear of contracting AIDS with prostitutes."

"There are cases in which priests make nuns take the pill...and there was one case of 20 nuns in one religious community being pregnant at the same time," the artile cited the report as saying.

A mother superior was continually ignored by the local bishop when she complained that priests in the diocese had made 29 of her nuns pregnant. The bishop relieved her of her duties, the report said without identifying the diocese.

The charges first appeared in the Kansas City-based National Catholic Reporter weekly on March 16 and in a small Italian religious news agency, Adista, which also publishes a weekly.

In 1998, Marie McDonald, mother superior of the Missionaries of Our Lady of Africa, presented her report on "sexual abuse and rape committed by priests and bishops."

The Vatican is monitoring the situation, making sure bishops were aware of the phenomenon, but no direct action has been taken, the article said.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said in his statement: "We are working on two fronts, training of people and finding a solution to individual cases. Some negative cases cannot let us forget the often heroic faith expressed by the large majority of those men and women in religious orders and of the clergy."

MISNA echoed his words, complaining in a statement that "in general, people only ever talk about missionaries when they die, are kidnapped or when they make mistakes. If on the one hand... these incidents of alleged sexual abuse cannot and should not be denied or justified, on the other hand they prompt us to reflect on the conditions in which the majority of the tens of thousands of missionaries live on the fringes of the so-called Third World. Many of them live in situations of extreme psychological and physical hardship, at the limits of human endurance."

La Repubblica quoted McDonald as saying: "As far as I know, no inspections have taken place...There are some nuns who become financially dependent on priests, who can then ask for sexual favors in return."

"Then there is the conspiracy of silence which makes the problem worse. Only if we confront this together, will we be able to find a solution," she said.

By Steve Pagani © MMI Reuters Limited. All Rights Reserved.