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Dozens Allege Sex Abuse by Nuns

SNAP calls on victims to tell stories, appeals to female clergy conference

By Frank Langfitt, Baltimore Sun
July 14, 2004

SILVER SPRING - Spotlighting the role of female clergy in sexual abuse for the first time, a victims advocacy group said yesterday that it had identified about 100 people in the United States who said they had been assaulted by Catholic nuns, sisters and other female religious workers.

At a news conference, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) called for other victims to come forward so they could share their stories and receive help. The group also asked the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a national female clerical organization based here, to allow victims to speak at their annual meeting next month in Fort Worth, Texas.

'Hear our stories'

"We would like them to hear our stories from our mouths," said Landa Murriello-Vernon, 30, a SNAP official, who said a nun sexually assaulted her during her senior year at an all-girls Catholic high school in suburban Connecticut. "I know that with our help, they can do a better job than the bishops."

SNAP officials acknowledged that the alleged abuse cited yesterday covered many decades, with at least one case stretching back to 1928. They also said that they had no sense of how big the problem might be.

"We have no idea of the numbers," said David Clohessy, SNAP's executive director. "We'd love to be proven wrong, but if history is any guide, we have to be prudent and assume that there are many others."

Clohessy said his support group learned of the cases through phone calls, and has encouraged alleged victims to file criminal complaints, but does not have the resources to investigate the allegations itself. Clohessy added that SNAP was raising this issue now and doing so in front of the offices of the Leadership Conference in Silver Spring in hopes of getting a chance to address the group's August meeting.

Priest sex abuse

The Catholic Church has spent the past 2 1/2 years wrestling with a priest sex abuse scandal that has involved more than 4,000 male clerics and more than 10,000 victims over a half-century. Statistical studies show that in the general population, males account for the overwhelming majority of sexual abuse cases.

Annmarie Sanders, director of communications for the Leadership Conference, said her organization had no immediate comment on whether it would permit victims to address its annual meeting, a request SNAP made in a letter delivered by hand yesterday. As to the scope of nun sexual abuse, Sanders said it was "not extensive, as far as we know, but we don't have statistics."

The conference, based in Silver Spring, serves as a sort of professional association for female Catholic clergy, but has no punitive powers, Sanders said. The group has 450 member organizations, including the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Sisters of St. Francis. It represents 75,000 nuns and sisters around the nation.

Speaking to the public

At yesterday's news conference, several people shared wrenching stories of sexual abuse at the hands of nuns. Speaking for the first time publicly, Patricia Anne Cahill, a 52-year-old therapist from Lancaster, Pa., described how a nun seduced her at 15 and carried on a liaison that continued for a dozen years.

"She took me under her wing and into her bed," said Cahill, who said one of the instances of sexual abuse occurred in a hotel in Emmitsburg when the pair traveled to visit the shrine of Mother Seton, the first American-born saint.

"I didn't know sex between women was an option; she taught me," said Cahill, who added that she has struggled with alcohol and post traumatic stress related to the abuse. "I paid such a tremendous price for this."

Cahill said she hoped her story would encourage others to come forward. She said she also hoped it would force leaders in the nun's order to take stronger measures to prevent her from abusing others.

Cahill, who declined to name the woman, said officials had removed the nun from her job as principal of an elementary school in New Jersey but have permitted her to continue working at a nursing home where girls serve as volunteers.

Late yesterday afternoon, Murriello-Vernon said the group's media work yesterday appeared to be paying off. Two people who saw SNAP on national television had called to talk about alleged incidences of abuse.

"I think that anytime a victim comes forward, it's a huge success for us," she said.

Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun


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