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By Patrick McAuliffe

The New York Times reported last week that Pope Francis finally began to speak on the issue of sexual assaults of nuns by clergy. Apparently this scandal has been going on since the 1990s, when the first reports of assault were filed, but the rampant child abuse scandals have overshadowed the problem. The surging popularity of the #MeToo movement, however, is finally forcing the Catholic Church to come to terms with the nuns’ testimonies and figuring out how to deal with the power dynamics that sharply contrast with the values espoused by those same abusers. How can the Church redeem itself against a “no true Scotsman” scenario in the public’s mind?

Many of the abuses of nuns happen in more underdeveloped countries such as Malawi, where priests used local nuns for sexual outlets during the AIDS crisis, or India, where one nun accused a bishop of repeated rapes between 2014 and 2016. Similar stories from accusers were compiled by the Associated Press in July of 2018 with reports of assaults and rapes in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. The consequences are very medieval for the nuns victimized; many are suspended from their convents if they try to report an assault. The most impactful part of this situation is that many of the priests force the nuns to get abortions should they conceive a child from the assault.

All of the sources that I’ve found frequently comment on what little measures the Vatican has taken to address the problem on a global scale. Pope Francis has only now addressed the issue directly, and even then his answers were vague and noncommittal. He mentions his predecessor Benedict XVI’s efforts to address problems of what he called “sexual slavery.” However, even Benedict’s efforts did not target the source of the problem; upon hearing of the abuses committed within the Contemplative Sisters of Saint-Jean in France, the entire order was dissolved instead of working with the sisters to find the abusers.

As a former Catholic with many remaining sympathies towards the Church, I try to look at this issue with more of a critical eye than those wrapped up in the fervor of both the child abuse scandals and the #MeToo movement. If the past few years have taught us anything about jumping to ruin someone in the court of public opinion, an issue as potentially huge as this one needs special care and attention. Statistics, records, and official, reliable testimony should be the evidence for deciding how widespread this problem is. However, this is hard to do when the Vatican has a history of keeping its scandals under wraps. As one of the world’s biggest religions, they have very little accountability to any one person or organization. In addition, the reveal of the child abuse scandals makes the possibility of another similar problem very feasible. Even in terms of sheer probability, the assault of nuns should not be dismissed out of hand.

What should the Church do now? Just like in the wake of the child abuse scandals, Catholics everywhere need to examine the dichotomy between the salvation offered through the bride of Christ and the failings of the earthly people heading said bride. Faith in the Church is and should be shaken. Using a personal point of view is something I try to stay away from, but if I was still a Catholic, I would feel a bit helpless in the face of problems within my Church that I personally can do very little about. The Church hierarchy is solidly built on tradition and within its own context is a vehicle to salvation, but this advantage also has its disadvantages in that the average layman has little ability to impact decisions by the Church. Even if my priest isn’t one raping nuns or children, the doubt is now in my mind, and short of leaving a faith that I had adopted as the one true path to salvation, my pleas to my bishop or archbishop have no promise of being fulfilled.

Here is where the now-memed “thoughts and prayers” may be best applicable. I don’t mean to say that appeals to a higher office in the Church won’t work in addressing a problem should one have suspicions, but bishops are not elected (and, frankly, shouldn’t be. Decentralizing one’s holy doctrine leads to far deeper religious problems down the line). Lack of accountability is dangerous when paired with a philosophy teaching obedience and faith. This is not to say that the Church has no incentive in trying to keep their disciples. In the grand scheme of the Church moving forward, they need to remember two things. First, in caring for the least among us, priests found to be raping nuns need to be held accountable in their vocation and their victims need to be cared for by the Church they pledged their lives to. Second, the Vatican should prove to the millions and millions of Catholics struggling to make sense of the issue that top Church officials are doing whatever they can to give weight to their calls for justice for the most marginalized of the world, especially those within their own ranks.

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