Missing in Action: Where are the Nuns?

Guest blog by Mary Dispenza

Recent news articles about the burial of hundreds of indigenous children neglect to mention a major player in this story: nuns. Why are they missing from this unsettling story? Nuns were also abusers, or accomplices as puppets at the hands of Bishops and priests in carrying out devastating acts.

Often their actions were covert, complicit and complacent.

Two-thirds of Canada’s 139 Indian residential schools were run by the Catholic Church.

The Kamloops Indian Reservation School in Canada, where 215 remains have been discovered is one example. In another recent example, the remains of 751 persons were found in Saskatchewan. (1)

Many of the schools were under the direction of the Oblate Fathers of Mary. The Sisters of St. Ann were the teachers and everyday managers of the schools. They were responsible for the day-to-day operation of these schools, guilty of initiating and carrying out some of the physical, emotional, sexual, and spiritual abuse many native children suffered and/or witnessed.

To confirm the truth that nuns were among the worst perpetrators, we have only to listen to the stories and testimonies from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada and from the brave men and women whose stories recount the abuse by nuns. Unfortunately, many survivors are not here to tell their stories. They have either committed suicide, are too ashamed or broken to speak out, or have died. The Canadian Government also confirms that sexual and physical abuse were factors in the loss of many lives. (2)

This is not a time to vilify Canada. The United States has its own sordid past to face. Consider the arrogant words of Captain Richard H. Pratt in 1892: “Kill the Indian and save the man.” Pratt really believed that the only good Indian was a dead Indian. He believed that everything that makes up an Indian such as his or her language, culture, rituals, religious beliefs, and tribal ways, must die or be killed so that the Indian could be civilized and assimilated into white America ways. (3)

Nuns, to a large degree, took on the role of “killing” all that was Indian within the children. The underlying message to children was “You are worthless as an Indian.” No one stopped the nuns, not the government, Bishops, or superiors of the Religious orders involved, just as no one stopped the enslavement of Black people or the seizure of land from Native Americans.

Nuns seem to be a protected class when it comes to sexual and physical abuse of children then and now. It’s difficult to wrap our minds around the fact that women, even nuns can be abusers. No one cares to talk about the possibility. An eerie silence shrouds this subject. Could it be that nuns are held in such high esteem as holy and maternal that we are unable to face the facts that some are also sexual predators?

Many of us who went to Catholic Schools had wonderful experiences of love, caring and excellent teaching from the “Sisters.” The nuns were often a “Mother away from home.” It’s difficult to imagine that a nun would abuse any child who came under her care.  The truth is most don’t. Some do. And we cannot keep shying away from this reality. There are thousands of survivors abused by nuns, nationally and internationally, left behind in darkness with little justice, restoration, or reconciliation possible.

Young girls entered convents in droves in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. The goodness of a life dedicated to God, service, teaching, love, and caring for others was compelling. It drew me in. As a former nun, a Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, from 1958 to 1973, I experienced the best of nuns. My love, respect and admiration continue today for the good nuns and their various missions.

I am sad to say that as a leader for a support group for those abused by nuns, I have also heard the dark side of nuns. The stories shared are heart wrenching. Their longing for justice and reconciliation is like that of those abused in residential schools. Victims’ abuse doesn’t end when the abuse ends; it measurably affects their entire future, and it’s a heavy weight to carry.

We have an opportunity in history to set things right. While it may be true that “What’s done is done,” it does not mean that it is finished or that there is nothing more to do to make it better. For starters, public apologies are due by the Catholic Church, Bishops, other faith-based institutions, the government, and Religious orders of women whose nuns served in indigenous residential schools in the United States and in Canada.

To date, no Religious order from the United States has issued a public apology to the First Nations for their intentional and or unintentional abuse of indigenous children in their care. The Sisters of St. Ann in Canada who served in four schools are getting it right. They are leaders in showing the way to healing.

At a recent Conference in June, the Sisters pledged complete transparency. They bravely acknowledged their part they played in the abuse of innocent children, made a public apology to the First Nation families and survivors, and released records which tell the story of this tragic piece of their history. This is the only way to move forward. It is high time for Religious Orders of women in the United States to follow the lead of the Sisters of St. Ann in Canada. (4)

There are two leading organizations of religious women in the United States. They are the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, (CMSWR), and the Leadership Conference of Religious Women (LCRW). CMSWR, has a membership of a 100 plus leaders of religious communities in the United States representing nearly 6,000 women religious. LCRW has approximately 1,300 members who represent 302 religious congregations that includes 33,431 women religious. (5)

Both organizations are comprised of powerful religious women who have a responsibility to speak out about the past and present reality of physical, sexual, and spiritual abuse of others. It is their time to beg forgiveness, to make restitution and retribution to the hundreds of survivors who experienced abuse in Indian residential schools in the United States.

My plea to them: Let the public know about your sorrow, shame, and pain. Beg forgiveness. Be transparent. Tell the public and survivors what you are doing now to mend the past and change the future. Be the difference. Show up. Your voice counts to many. This is not a time to remain silent.

MARY DISPENZA is a former Catholic nun, educator, and National Distinguished Principal. She is an activist for LGBTQIA equal rights and for the protection of children. Mary is the Puget Sound Seattle representative for SNAP, Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (and nuns). She has been featured on KUOW, Public Radio, and KOMO and KING TV in Seattle. Mary’s articles and opinion pieces have appeared in CNN Opinion, The Seattle Times and The Los Angeles Times. Mary lives with her spouse in Washington State.

Contact information: [email protected], 425-941-6001/425-644-2468



(1)  List of Indian residential schools in Canada – Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org › wiki ›

 Residential School Photos Show Canada's Grim Legacy of ...https://www.nytimes.com › World › Canada

(2)  Canadian Indigenous group says more graves ... - AP News https://apnews.com › article › canada-982aae1a74c8ca2...(3) A century of trauma at U.S. boarding schools for Native ...

https://www.nationalgeographic.com › history › article

(4) https://crc-canada.org/en/ressources/royal-bc-museum-and-sisters-of-st-ann-reach-new-agreement-to-facilitate-the-sharing-of-ssa-records-with-indigenous-communities/

(5) Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious - Wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org › wiki


Showing 3 comments

  • anne gleeson
    commented 2021-10-19 17:08:31 -0500
    Mary, thank you for the precise summary of our efforts to compel the sisters to stand by their promises to “come clean”. We keep trying, but they won’t. I suppose the power they yearn to retain by their cover-up of the ones who abuse has served them well, but if goodness wins, their victims will eventually be acknowledged, the perpetrators’ sins confessed, and survivors healed by transparency. It’s a dream long awaited, and I don’t know if it will ever come to light. “Still… we rise.”
  • Mary Dispenza
    followed this page 2021-08-12 15:16:57 -0500
  • Zach Hiner
    published this page in Official SNAP Media Statements 2021-08-11 13:35:08 -0500

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