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Complaints of Sex Abuse by Nuns Begin to Emerge
The pain is strong for accusers just coming to terms with
what they say happened to them.
Pamela Miller, Minneapolis Star Tribune
June 25, 2006
Even now, decades later, the victims' voices falter as they describe
the encounters that damaged them in ways they cannot fully cast off.
Mary Dunford tells of a molester visiting her dormitory bed when she
was 15. Susan Pavlak speaks of the teacher who talked to her of love,
then seduced her at 16. Siblings Christine Bertrand and Karen Britten
and their childhood friend Patricia Schwartz describe how their piano
teacher touched them in ways no adult should touch a child.
In each case, the perpetrator was, or recently had been, a Roman Catholic
The five women, who said they were abused in the 1950s, '60s and '70s,
are among about a dozen Minnesotans and an estimated 400 women and men
nationwide who have recently come forward to talk about being sexually
abused by nuns.
Last month, Britten, 48, of Highland Park, Ill., and Schwartz, 51, of
Eden Prairie, sued the Sisters of St. Francis in Rochester over alleged
abuse by a nun in the 1960s. Bertrand, 51, of Sierra Madre, Calif., filed
suit against the same nun last year.
Most reports of sexual abuse by nuns have emerged well after the surge
of news about abuse by Catholic priests and brothers, and there is little
evidence that abuse by nuns has continued. But survivors are increasingly
coming forward to seek apologies and reparations.
St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, who specializes in clergy sex-abuse
cases, said he has received about a dozen plausible reports of abuse by
nuns with Minnesota ties.
The issue, Anderson said, "has only been on my radar for a few years.
We're likely to see more cases in the years to come."
Accusers interviewed for this story say they've come forward only recently
because it took them years to fully remember or process the abuse and
decide how to deal with it.
Sexual abuse by nuns has gone largely unaddressed and unreported until
now in part because of cultural biases about gender roles and sex, say
those knowledgeable about the cases. Women often abuse in seductive ways
that silence and confuse victims, Anderson said.
And when abuse is alleged, it can be difficult for victims to assign
accountability in the maze of 450 women's religious orders. The Catholic
Church says it has no jurisdiction over the orders.
But slowly, more victims are telling their stories. The Survivors Network
of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) says it has received as many as 400
reports nationwide of sex abuse by nuns, "which probably just scratches
the surface," said executive director David Clohessy.
Molested at boarding school
Dunford, now 67 and living in Eagan, was molested by a nun at the Villa
Maria boarding school in Old Frontenac, Minn., in the early 1950s.
"It happened after lights-out," she said. "She'd kiss
me on the mouth, then take her clothes off down to the waist and have
me kiss and suck her nipples. She told me she loved me."
The experience "has profoundly affected my life," said Dunford,
who graduated in 1956, married Dan Dunford in 1959 and raised three children.
She couldn't talk about it, she said, until age 50, when she realized
that the abuse lay at the root of her depression and other problems.
In 1990, she wrote a letter to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis,
which forwarded it to the Ursuline order in Missouri. She was told that
the alleged perpetrator was no longer in Minnesota and no longer worked
around children, and that an investigation would take place.
When the sister admitted to abusing Dunford, the Ursuline order paid
for counseling for both Dunfords -- it later also returned her tuition
-- and in 1997 arranged for the nun to apologize in person, Dunford and
the Ursulines say.
"We talked about how what she had done had damaged us," Mary
Dunford said. "When we were done, she said, 'You weren't the only
one hurt,' and her provincial [supervisor] turned to her and said, 'I
love you and support you.' There I was, the victim, and the sympathy was
for the perpetrator."
The sister who molested Dunford continued teaching college students after
the order "determined that it was a one-time offense and that there
was no threat to others," said Ursuline Provincial Sister Peggy Moore.
The nun died in 1999.
Since she began telling her story, Dunford said, she has been contacted
by more than 200 alleged victims of nun abuse.
A trio of young students
Bertrand and Britten claim to have been molested by Sister Benen Kent
during piano lessons in the early 1960s at St. Juliana School in Chicago.
In 1965, Kent was transferred to Rochester, where, Bertrand and Schwartz
say, she molested them in 1967 during family visits.
Kent, who died in 2003, "insinuated herself entirely into our families,
and was a trusted friend and confidante to our parents," Bertrand
Britten was the first to reveal the abuse. In 1991, she called Sister
Dolore Rockers, president of the Rochester Franciscans, to tell her what
had happened when she was 6: Kent "would rub my back, then sexually
assault me with her fingers" at piano lessons.
Next to reveal her story was Schwartz, who says she didn't recognize
what had happened to her as sexual abuse until late 2001, when she heard
Britten's story. Kent "was considered a saint in our family,"
Schwartz said. "I thought it was just another uncomfortable thing
I had to take."
Bertrand's memory of being molested did not fully emerge until 2002.
"One morning ... my husband came up behind me and startled me, and
the memory burst back," she said. "I ran to the bathroom, retching."
The women then went to the Franciscans as a trio. Despite a flurry of
calls, registered letters and meetings assuring the women that the case
would be investigated, their lawsuits claim, little happened.
"Then I got a letter saying she had died," Bertrand said. "That
was the turning point. I said, 'Sue them.' "
Bertrand said she's convinced that Kent, who worked at many schools over
her career, victimized more children. She said she has received several
calls from others saying they were also victimized by Kent.
Bertrand, Britten and Schwartz are seeking at least $50,000 apiece from
the Franciscans, but say their main goal is to protect others.
The Rochester Franciscans have not responded to repeated calls and e-mails.
Culture and circumstance
Cases involving nuns feature complex sociological and psychological factors,
said Minneapolis psychologist Gary Schoener, a national expert on clergy
sexual abuse. Women are less likely to sexually abuse children, but nuns
have access to children in schools, orphanages and at music lessons, he
In the past, he said, "arrested social development" among some
nuns, who often went directly from high school to the convent, fostered
a climate where sexual touching of children and novices "occurred
without anyone involved even fully understanding it was abuse."
Cases that Anderson has seen, most involving girls, occur "not because
perpetrators are lesbian, but because they have access to and power over
children," he said.
Author Ashley Hill, who lives in New England, told of being molested
at age 7 in a New Hampshire school in her book "Habits of Sin,"
which also chronicles other women's stories. Since it was published in
2000, she said, she has heard from scores of alleged victims.
Hill said she found "a lot of mental illness, which made for a very
As a 16-year-old at a St. Paul Catholic high school, Pavlak, now 51,
of West St. Paul, said she was drawn into a sexual relationship with a
teacher who had been released from her vows at her own request. She said
that her abuser was sexually involved with another nun and that nuns "colluded
within this closed, highly sexualized system to hide relationships."
The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, the former order of the alleged
perpetrator, said via spokeswoman Ann Thompson that the woman was not
part of their order when the alleged abuse occurred. However, the Archdiocese
of St. Paul and Minneapolis arranged for Pavlak to have her tuition returned,
The legal issues
Many cases alleging abuse by nuns will never go through the legal system.
Attorneys are less likely to take nun cases than cases involving male
clergy, said Clohessy of SNAP, because "lawyers know that the deference
shown to priests is even more intense with nuns."
And most cases cannot clear Minnesota's six-year statute of limitations
on lawsuits, Anderson said.
So far, six cases with Minnesota connections have led to suits -- those
of Bertrand, Britten and Schwartz; a Winona case settled in 1992 involving
a woman who does not wish to go public, and two cases involving abuse
at a school in Washington state run by Mankato's School Sisters of Notre
Dame that were settled in 2003 and 2004.
The lawsuits against the Rochester Franciscans seek to circumvent the
statute by focusing on recent recognition of the abuse and on the order's
response, Anderson said.
The Rev. Kevin McDonough, vicar general of the Archdiocese of St. Paul
and Minneapolis, said statutes of limitations serve "the important
social purpose" of preventing lawsuits that can't be adequately defended.
"One claim was 75 years old -- how can you find people and evidence
to defend a case like that?" he asked.
But Bob Schwiderski, a Minnesota priest-abuse victim, said: "Extending
the limit would affirm that post-traumatic stress often causes a child
victim to delay reporting. Why doesn't the church work with former victims?
Why is it that the victims, grown up, have to do the most important work
toward accountability and prevention?"
Response and reaction
Many victims look first to their dioceses for help. In the Twin Cities,
McDonough said, the church offers them counseling and help in communicating
with those responsible.
"But we do not have the right to tell the nuns how to respond,"
he said. "Frankly, we have our own housecleaning to do on the priest
abuse situation. We don't want to make it look like we're putting the
spotlight on nuns to get it off of us."
Some victims have turned to the national Leadership Conference of Women
Religious. But that group angered victims when it declined to adopt the
U.S. Catholic bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Young
People, drafted in 2002. It has refused victims' requests to speak at
its gatherings, they say.
Annmarie Sanders, communications director for the Maryland-based conference,
said it has no control over how orders have handled cases, but began in
the 1990s to push member orders to punish misconduct, help victims and
prevent further abuse.
Spokeswomen for the orders to which alleged perpetrators belong say they
have provided counseling and financial compensation to victims and have
improved anti-abuse policies and education.
But those who have reported abuse say little has been done to restore
trust. Bertrand, Britten, Schwartz and Dunford have asked the orders involved
in their cases to look for possible other victims at the locations where
the perpetrators lived and worked. The orders, citing confidentiality
concerns and logistical difficulty, have refused to do so.
Is it still going on?
There have been few modern-day cases alleging abuse by nuns. The reason
may simply be that there are far fewer nuns. In 1965, the number of U.S.
nuns peaked at 180,000. Now there are about 75,000, many of them elderly.
Representatives of female religious orders say better education and policies
have squelched the problem.
But victims' groups, attorneys and psychologists point out that clergy-abuse
victims often don't come forward until middle age.
"There will always be new perpetrators," Clohessy said. "We
owe it to our kids to err on the side of caution."
Meanwhile, victims find some comfort in pressing for accountability --
and in the faith almost all of them say survived the trauma.
Said Bertrand: "For the first couple of months after I remembered
my abuse, I went to church with my husband. But I could not worship. A
nun would walk in and I would begin shaking. ... I remain faithful, but
there's a lot of rebuilding that needs to take place."
Pamela Miller 612-673-4290
©2006 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.