Contact: Mary Dispenza
Email: [email protected]
By Mary Dispenza
NUNS, NUNS, NUNS. I used to be one. I loved the nuns. It was a long time after I left my religious community that I remembered the day a superior took my 18-year-old face between her hands and kissed me all over. It was years before I finally named this incident as abuse, not just a “creepy” story. A small invasion, some may think – just kisses. Yet it left a lasting impact of confusion with me. In that moment spirituality and abuse came face to face trapped between the superior’s hands as her power loomed over me.
Unlike being abused by a priest who is “GOD,” men and women sexually violated by nuns must contend with the belief that women, especially nuns, would never, ever hurt a child. We hear expressions like “Women don’t do that,” “Women are caring and maternal”. While mostly this is true some women, rape, physically abuse, and irreparably ridicule and shame children, mostly because of their power - often as teachers, Mothers, and nuns. Nuns have the added benefit of the “halo” effect because of their Godly stature and reputation of kindness and love.
Men abused as boys by nuns carry deep shame, believing they were weak, a sissy, not boy or ‘man’ enough to stand up to Sister when week after week she either punched him, kissed him, bullied him, put him over her lap and beat him, or had sex with him. Young girls abused and used by nuns have the additional burden of unravelling the belief that they were in love with the nun, and that she was in love with them. As adults, women survivors often must face the fact that it wasn’t love, not even an affair – it was sexual abuse. They know what a ‘broken heart’ feels like and the betrayal that goes with it. Girls abused by nuns often speak of the psychological and spiritual damage done to them, stolen childhood and adolescent years of friendships, dates, dances, and often God.
Women Religious orders are very closed systems, more so than the priesthood. Religious communities often function like an incestuous family protecting each other at all costs from being exposed as sexual predators among them. Their culture is built on secrecy, power, and protecting the sisterhood. It has been nearly impossible to break through this wall of secrecy. Survivors abused by nuns are ignored by most religious orders and the Catholic Church. Justice is mostly an illusion. The Leadership Conference of Religious Woman (LCRW) has yet to show any desire to work with survivors in healing themselves, the past, present, and in shaping a safer future for children and adolescents. SNAP is working to change that. The timeline below shows the actions SNAP has taken to date.
- 2002 - LCWR refuses to participate in USCCB’s “Policy for the Protection of Children”
- April 5, 2002 - LCWR issues statement on clerical abuse
- August 24, 2002 - LCWR National Board issues statement on sexual abuse
- June 12, 2004 - Nun survivors meet for the first time in Denver at SNAP Conference
- July 13, 2004 - Hand-delivered to LCWR and USCCB from nun survivors regarding Plan of Hope, Respect, and Open Healing. Also requested nun survivors be allowed to speak at LCWR-CMSM Joint Assembly in Ft. Worth. To date, we received no answer from USCCB.
- August 5, 2004 - Letter to LCWR from SNAP expressing dismay over their decision not to let us speak
- August 9, 2004 - E-mail to National Review Board to intervene on our behalf
- August 13, 2004 - LCWR Press Release: Response of LCWR President Sister Constance Phelps, SCL saying we can’t speak in Ft. Worth
- August 19 to 22, 2004 - Joint LCWR – CMSM Assembly in Ft. Worth, TX. Nun survivors attempt to attend event but are refused.
- October 3, 2004 - Meeting with LCWR Leadership in Chicago
- November 22, 2004 - LCWR letter to SNAP refusing to work with SNAP members who are survivors of sexual abuse committed by nuns and sisters
- August 2, 2005 - Not allowed to speak at LCWR National Conference in Anaheim, CA; we are present – we delivered letter
- August 17, 2006 - Not allowed to speak at LCWR National Conference in Atlanta, GA; we are present – we delivered letter
- August 24, 2007 - LCWR contacts us to meet to talk but LCWR does not provide an agenda after numerous requests; Not allowed to speak at LCWR National Conference in Kansas City
- September 19, 2007 - LCWR responds to SNAP, denying all five requests
- August, 2008 - LCWR rebuffs us via letter; SNAP holds night-time vigil
- October 9, 2008 - SNAP meets with Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious in St. Louis; requests are denied
- February 23, 2009 - SNAP asks to speak at the LCWR conference in New Orleans
- March 26, 2009 - LCWR denies all of SNAP's requests
- August 11, 2009 - Not allowed to speak at LCWR Conference in New Orleans; we deliver letter
- August 14, 2010 - Not allowed to speak at LCWR Conference in Dallas; we are present
- August 16, 2011 - LCWR National Conference in Garden Grove, California
- August 7, 2012 - LCWR National Conference in St Louis; SNAP members deliver letter and hold vigil
- August 8, 2012 – Letter sent to Bishops
- August 2018 – Designed a Power Point Presentation giving statistics/data about nuns in the United States as abusers (2019) Will be updated for 2023. (Dan McNiven and Mary Dispenza)
- April 3, 2019 -- SNAP forms first support group for those abused by nuns
- August 16, 2019 – First time ever and the last time since that any leader of the LCWR spoke openly and honestly about their role in abusing and harming children.
- February 21-24, 2019 – SNAP in Rome during the Papal summit on the Abuse of Minors. the first press conference on Nuns Abusers was held followed by a MARCH to the main headquarters – the UISG (International Union of Superiors General). A letter was delivered outlining concerns and demands of survivors abused by nuns. The letter was never acknowledged. SNAP representatives were Mary Dispenza, Tim Lennon, Esther Hatfield Miller, and Carol Midboe.
- February 23, 2019 – During the Papal Summit SNAP joined with ECA (Ending Clergy Abuse) in the Global “March for Zero” Tolerance through the streets of Rome.
- August 14, 2019 – Mary O’day, Mary Dispenza, Tim Lennon, and a small group from SNAP protested outside The Fairmont Hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona in 115-degree heat. Snap was denied access to the Hotel property. SNAP’s demands of LCRW were to speak at conference, have religious orders mount an aggressive outreach drive to find and help others violated by nuns, Post names on its websites of credibly accused child molesting nuns, urge Attorney Generals investigating clergy sex crimes and cover ups to include nuns and their victims in these probes, and to beg anyone who may have seen, suspected or suffered wrongdoing to come forward, start healing, protect others and call law enforcement. (David Clohessy). TV and media coverage of this event was excellent.
- February 19 -22, 2020 – Four SNAP representatives were sent once again to the Bishop’s summit in Rome: Tim Lennon, Sean Dougherty, Brenda Brunelle, Kevin Bourgeois, and Mary Dispenza. Their message to the Bishops and Pope Frances was “WE ARE NOT GOING AWAY.”
- On the second day of the 2020 summit another press conference was held on Abuse by Nuns/Religious women. Another march took place. This time the goal was to speak to Sister Pat head of LCRW at that time. The good news is that Mary Dispenza and Tim Lennon sat around the small table with Sister Pat. Concerns were share by Tim and Mary on behalf of survivors. Upon returning to US, Mary Dispenza wrote a follow up letter to Sister Pat. Several months later Mary received a very short thank you of no substance.
- February 25, 2021 – An article in the National Catholic reporter features four survivor’s stories, and a conversation with Mary Dispenza and Sister Carol Zinn of LCWR. In the article Carol Zinn said that Mary Dispenza was asked to speak to LCWR, and she declined. That was not the truth.
- April 24, 2021 – Breaking Free, Personal SNAP Stories by Those Abused by Nuns was aired.
- December 21, 2021 – Mary Dispenza, SNAP, speaker at Voices of Faith International 2021 Conference on Abuse of Power Inside the Church. (see Document 7)
- February, 2022 – Started second Support Group for Those Abused by Nuns
- July 22-24, 2022 – SNAP Denver 22 Conference. A breakout session called “What About Nuns? Was presented by Mary Dispenza and 2 survivors of Nun abuse, Gabrielle Longhi and Marya Danzer.
Document 1: Letter sent to bishops (Aug. 8, 2012)
Dear Archbishop Sartain Bishop Blair, Bishop Paprocki
We write you with great sadness and reluctance. Each of you, like most of your colleagues, has done a poor job of dealing with child sex abuse and cover up. Still, each of you have a chance to prod US nuns to do a better job in this regard. For the sake of prevention, healing, openness and justice, we hope you seize this opportunity.
We have little faith in "internal" church "investigations" and reports on clergy sex crimes and cover ups. We have even less faith when they're conducted by bishops or “outside” firms hand-picked and hired by bishops.
Still, something is often better than nothing. That’s the case today with abuse and cover up by nuns. Right now, there's very little known about child sex crimes and cover ups by nuns. No one's apparently trying to learn more. And as best we can tell, no one inside or outside of the nuns’ community is trying to prod them to do a better job of protecting the vulnerable and healing the wounded.
So with considerable reluctance and distrust, we're asking you to expand your “oversight” of the LCWR into what the organization – and America’s religious orders of women- are doing and are not doing regarding child sex crimes and cover ups by nuns.
Why does this matter? Because we believe that
- many abusive nuns have never been exposed or disciplined.
- many who have seen, suspected or hidden their crimes have similarly never been exposed or disciplined
- many who were abused by nuns have coped by essentially denying and mischaracterized the crimes they suffered, and minimizing the impact of those crimes, so they suffer in confusion, denial, isolation, shame and self-blame.
We suspect that fewer nuns molest than priests. (Research suggests that more men are sexual predators.) At the same time, however, that’s just speculation. And regardless of the rates or percentages of abuse, two other facts are important. First, there are more nuns than priests. (55,944 nuns in the US versus 41,406 priests) Second, many more nuns had more access to more kids, largely because they worked and work in schools.
Ultimately, however, the numbers or percentages are not especially relevant. If there are 400 or 4,000 or 40,000 adults who were victimized by nuns in this country, every single one of them deserves help. And if there are 4 or 40 or 400 children who may be victimized in the future by nuns in this country, they need protection.
Again, we take this step with great sadness and reluctance. Everyone knows most nuns don’t commit or conceal child sex crimes. Everyone knows that most nuns do wonderful, selfless work, often to help society’s marginalized.
But we see little or no evidence that nuns – either in or through the LCWR or their individual orders – are in any way, shape or form “trailblazers” in making the church or our society safer from clergy child predators or making substantial contributions to the healing of those who suffer because of clergy child predators.
It’s a painful truth to acknowledge. It’s unusual and unsettling for us to seek your help in dealing with it. But our concern – for the vulnerable and the wounded – and our inability to get the LCWR to be more pro-active, leave us with few other options.
Click HERE to download a .zip archive of correspondence between SNAP and the LCWR, SNAP and LCWR press releases, and other coverage of the groups (4.76 mb
Document 2: Face facts, says LCWR president: Sisters have been part of Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal by Dan Stockman (August 6, 2019)
Document 3: Leadership groups condemn abuse by nuns but leave solutions to local congregations by Dawn Araujo-Hawkins. (Feb 25, 2021)
Document 4: Letter International Union of Superiors General (UISG) March 3, 2020
Dear Sister Pat and members of the Board,
Thank you for welcoming Tim Lennon and myself to the table to meet with you. We were very grateful to have time to share our concerns and listen to yours. This is the first time anyone from SNAP has been invited to sit and talk face to face with someone from the leadership team of UISG or LCRW. It was a welcomed moment especially for me.
For the past two years, I have had the honor and challenge of listening to survivors of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse by nuns in various orders. Some survivors are nuns within religious communities who were abused by nuns still living in community — others were abused as children, teens, and vulnerable adults. There is something new resounding in the stories I hear. Besides pain, anger, and loss, I hear a deep, burning desire and longing for justice from each survivor — justice for what was lost and taken from them by nuns they trusted. As I see it, this is where you, as religious women, come into the story.
Clearly, we can’t undo the past. We can face it. Work to understand it, so as to end it. Most importantly, we can transform the past by right and just actions now.
What follows are 3 areas of immediate concern to survivors that hopefully lead to a continued conversation between us:
Survivors who were or are nuns and experienced sexual, emotional, or psychological abuse within their communities want their perpetrators gone, reports filed and their names and reason for leaving the community posted. They also want the secrecy about it all to stop. They want their religious communities to engage in candid and open conversation about the problem.
Adult survivors of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse by nuns as children, teens, vulnerable adults who have registered a valid complaint want religious superiors to listen to their stories seriously, believe them and work with them for resolution and justice. They want right action when it is warranted such as filing a report with local authorities and removing the perpetrator from children or other potential victims. Some want and desperately need financial recompense for their pain and suffering. Some want reconciliation and an apology. All want to be believed. All want religious communities to acknowledge that they failed to protect them.
Survivors find some hope in Pope Frances, moto propio, which took effect last June 2019 and instituted for the first time a mechanism for reporting and investigating allegations of sexual abuse and offers protections to whistle-blowers yet falls short of any set consequences or reporting of crimes to law enforcement. The pope expanded his view of abuse to include children, people with mental disabilities, seminarians, nuns and women in religious orders, children in orphanages, indigenous people—all of whom have been victimized by leaders in Church and religious orders. The law also demanded that alleged victims must receive, support services and all they need for their healing journey. Survivors would like to know that the UISG and LCRW have in place policies and procedures for handling allegations of abuse, including reporting them to local law enforcement agencies.
I hope these ideas on our minds as survivors of nun abuse give us some starting points for discussion. It’s our desire that we continue to dialogue with the shared goal of finding ways to protect children from all types of abuse, especially by those they trust, and to give survivors of the past the justice they do desire and deserve. I have always held these lines from scripture as essential to my life, “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8.)
Thanks, Sister Pat, and members of the Board for this opportunity to work together.
Respectfully, Mary Dispenza,
SNAP Leader for those Abused by Nuns.
CC: SNAP Executive Director, Zach Hiner
SNAP President, Tim Lennon