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April 21, 2001
Column #1025


     A new sexual scandal is roiling the Catholic Church. ''Sexual abuse of nuns by priests, including rape, is a serious problem, especially in Africa'' according to a major story in the ''National Catholic Reporter'' (NCR) published March 16.

     The article was based on four secret reports by senior members of religious orders and a fifth by a U.S. priest who has worked in Africa on AIDS. One of the reports was given to a Catholic cardinal in Rome back as 1995, but the Vatican refused comment until after the NCR's page 1 story was published. The Vatican then said church officials were aware of the problems and ''working'' on them. 

     Sister Maura O'Donohue, a physician who worked six years as AIDS coordinator for  Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, wrote in 1994 of her ''shock and disbelief'' at the ''magnitude'' of the problem that she documented in 23 countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.

     ''Groups of sisters from local congregations have made passionate appeals for help to members of international congregations'' because when they complain to local bishops they simply ''are not heard,'' O'Donohue wrote. In fact, the Vicar General of one diocese said, ''Celibacy in the African context means a priest does not get married but does not mean he does not have children.''

     She states that ''sexual harassment and even rape of sisters by priests and bishops is allegedly common,'' and that ''sometimes when a sister becomes pregnant, the priest insists that she have an abortion.'' In one case, a nun died from the abortion and the offending priest officiated at her requiem Mass! When the leadership team of one group of nuns complained about 29 sisters being impregnated by priests, team leaders were fired by the bishop.

     If a nun becomes pregnant, she is often fired, while the priest is ''often only moved to another parish - or sent for studies.''

     Why is the problem acute in Africa? TIME magazine reported Feb. 12 that ''Casual sex of every kind is commonplace. Everywhere there's premarital sex, sex as recreation. Obligatory sex and its abusive counterpart, coercive sex.'' TIME says women are taught from birth to obey men and feel powerless to protect themselves.

     Consequently, 25 million of the world's 36 million HIV-positive people live in Southern Africa. Priests who had once gone to prostitutes, now seek out nuns for sexual favors, since they are unlikely to be infected. 

     They use slick lines: ''We are both consecrated celibates. That means we have promised not to marry. However, we can have sex without breaking our vows.''

     The current issue of the National Catholic Reporter takes the disgrace to a new level.  Africans in this country praised the accuracy of NCR's reporting. One came from ''Laura,'' a former nun in Africa who said she was ''overjoyed'' that public spotlight was put on the problem.  

     ''I am a victim of this abuse,'' she wrote. ''I saw many young nuns who are victims. I have left my community because I became very sick as a result of my inability to get help.'' 

     She told horrifying stories about ''rampant immorality of priests.'' Unlike most nuns she retained her virginity for 10 years by being ''very aggressive'' with harassing priests, threatening to expose them. This made her unpopular with priests and even with many nuns in her religious order. Finally one priest raped her while she ''fought him throughout,'' and was traumatized by it.

     A. W. Richard Sipe, author of ''A Secret World,'' which exposed surprisingly high sexuality by U.S. priests, wrote an article in NCR about the African scandal. He looks in vain ''for some sign of reform from church authorities.'' He writes, ''One word is never mentioned. Crime. Rape (sexual abuse and harassment, too) is a crime. Collusion to cover up crime is itself negligent and reprehensible. So is conspiratorial silence, so is the failure to protect the endangered and warn the innocent. Church authorities cannot plead ignorance, nor innocence.''

     Sister Margaret a. Farley, a Yale Divinity School professor, writes in NCR, ''In the face of sexual abuse of any kind, the perpetrators must be stopped...the care of present victims must be attended to.'' She said the church should not ''foster the degradation and subservience of some for the gratification of others.''

     The scandal raises a more fundamental question, the efficacy of celibacy itself. The time has come to debate that issue widely in the Catholic Church before a new Pope is named.

     Hopefully a consensus for reform will emerge that makes celibacy optional.

Copyright 2001 Michael J. McManus.

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