Nuns Who Commit Sexual Abuse and the Annexation of Mercy


Credit: Creative Commons.

Steve Theisen, 61, is the Iowa director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). Unlike the vast majority of men and women whose lives have been positively affected by the support SNAP provides to victims of clergy abuse, Theisen was not sexually abused by a Catholic priest: he was sexually abused by a Catholic nun.
The abuse began in the 4th grade, when Theisen was just nine-years-old. He stayed after class one day to wash the blackboards. Alone with the nun in the classroom, she showed him how the Eskimos kiss: by rubbing noses. Some weeks later, she then showed him how Americans kiss. Then a few more weeks passed. The nun then said to the boy, “This is how the French kiss.” And with that, the forty-something nun stuck her tongue in the boy’s mouth. It escalated from there. As Thiesen recalls, the nun never touched his genitals, and neither of them were ever disrobed. But from 4th through 6th grade, after school and sometimes on weekends, the nun would have him on the floor, French kissing and necking. Sometimes the nun would be on top of him, other times she put the boy on top of her.
Theisen also recalls sitting next to the nun in chapel. She would hold his hand under her religious habit so that no one would see.
It was not until well into adulthood that Theisen told someone what had happened to him: his therapist. It took 18 sessions with the therapist to finally open up about the experience that so affected his life. As Theisen explained to me, trust does not come easy to victims of child sex abuse.
Theisen’s testimony is gut-wrenching to hear, for those who are willing to listen. Not only did he live in daily fear as a child that someone would find out what was happening between him and the nun, he was also wracked by guilt. For when the school children would ask the nuns why they wore rings on their fingers, the nuns would tell the children that they were married to Christ. During the abuse, Theisen thought he was committing “the most grievous sin in the entire world because he was fooling around with Jesus’s wife.”
For the last nine years Theissen and other survivors of nun sexual abuse have been pressing the two main umbrella groups of American nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), to publicly address the issue of nun sexual abuse. Theissen and his fellow abuse survivors have requested speaking time at the LCWR annual conferences so that the nuns in attendance can fully understand that women can indeed be child sexual abusers, even if the percentages of women abusers are less than men, and secondly, to help these abuse survivors establish a meaningful plan of action to reach out to nun sex abuse victims who are still living in the shadows, under a cloud of shame. Unfortunately, no substantive change has come.
Last year, when Theisen hand-delivered a letter at the LCWR their conference in St. Louis, he was first met by the LCWR’s professional conference organizer. Theisen, having never met the conference organizer, introduced himself, whereupon the organizer said condescendingly, “I know who you are.”

Credit: Creative Commons/Alex Proimos.

The behavior of the LCWR – putting their reputations above the needs of child sex abuse victims – mirrors the same behavior of so many Catholic bishops in this country and elsewhere in response to the priest sex abuse scandal.
Let’s get real: Good works should never serve as a moral pass for anything. To imply, or even formulate an indirect, roundabout rationale, that decades of “service to the needy” somehow mitigates the gravity of child sexual abuse by nuns and the cover-ups is such a distortion of the Gospel and basic human decency that it defies description. It’s precisely that mentality that has enabled so much abuse to occur within the Roman Catholic Church, including the abuses of the Irish laundries, where young women endured hell on earth precisely because an entire country, for far too long, drank the Catholic Kool-Aid that nuns could do no wrong.
It is doubtful that the LCWR will make any substantive changes in direction during its annual convention this week in Orlando. As Sister Pat Farrell, past president of LCWR, told Steve Theisen at the nuns’ conference in St. Louis last year, the conference is “not the venue” to discuss nun sexual abuse. It was an extremely odd and illogical response, given the number of nuns and nun superiors in attendance.
Ironically, it is Farrell who is to receive the “prestigious leadership” award at this year’s LCWR conference. Here’s what Steve Theisen said he would say to Pat Farrell about her “leadership” on combatting nun sex abuse on the day of her award ceremony:

Promises don’t count. Good intentions don’t count. Private conversations don’t count. Promises and policies (which, given the church’s unaccountable hierarchy, are usually ignored or violated) don’t count. And excuses – “This isn’t the right forum,” “We’re not structured like the bishops are,” “We really have no power,” – sure don’t count.
Action protects the vulnerable. Action heals the wounded. And action is what, despite our pleas, you and your sisters refuse to take.
So bask in the splendor and warmth of your award ceremony. Go ahead and pray for “the least of my brethren.” And know that just as much as the most corrupt or complicit bishop you can name, you and your sisters are endangering kids and hurting victims and concealing crimes and enabling predators and ensuring that the church’s decades-old child sex abuse and cover up crisis continues.

One of the saddest things Theissen told me was this: “The Catholic Church is supposed to be a community, but sex abuse victims are not treated as members of the community.”
Indeed, so long as the Roman Catholic Church is simply brimming with men and women who, in effect, feel entitled to annex the very concept of mercy unto themselves – as if their works of mercy somehow have more value, meaning, and holiness than everyone else’s on the planet, Christian or not – priest and nun sexual abuse survivors like Theisen will never have a place in the Catholic community: their very existence is nothing but a drain on the unceasing, inherently corrupt, inherently self-serving, attempt to annex mercy.
See also: The Bluebirds of Syria, about the U.N.-documented abuses of children in Syria and a call for Western intervention.

0 thoughts on “Nuns Who Commit Sexual Abuse and the Annexation of Mercy

  1. As a victim of abuse by a religious figure I know how hard it is not only to lose your innocence but to lose your sense of safety in the church, the one place that one should always feel safe.
    It is incredibly hard to speak out about being abused as child especially when the abuser is supposed to be holy .Steve is a very courageous man who has by his actions encouraged other survivors who are still suffering in pain to come forward so that they can not only protect children but can begin to heal.
    Someone who knew my molester once told me that he had stayed up all night with a mother dying of cancer. She then said “so he can’t be all bad. ” No amount of good works can replace my lost childhood or make up for the pain survivors, like Steve, have suffered.
    Instead of looking for ways to minimize the abuse of innocent children the church should be doing everything possible to make sure that it never happens again.
    Becky Ianni

    • becky– i was abused in louisiana–i seem to be only one here– the order of nuns lied to me in 2012 so there is still a cover up even after 50 years this abuse- touching–and even poisening happening in1962 and i was 8 –could not even talk about it until 2004– sol expired in 2001–no justice

  2. Quoted by Sister Pat Farrell, “the conference is “not the venue” to discuss nun sexual abuse”.?
    –This is dispicable.
    Just like the bishops, when the nuns are backed into the corner of truth, they tend to make outrageous excuses to not be accountable for their actions/inactions. There are many victims who have been sexually abused by nuns. It seems that the nuns too, feel they are entitled to take advantage of innocent children and ruin their lives. Many who have sexually abused children should be in jail right now. Until this happens, it appears that nothing will change. The nuns don’t have to change, because there is no punishment to deter them to do so.
    This is a perfect example as to why the statute of limitations needs to be completely removed for child sex crimes, both civil and criminal. Otherwise children are still at risk to be sexually abused by nuns today.
    Hopefully anyone who may have knowledge or may have been harmed by a nun will have the courage to come forward and report it to police, no matter how long ago it happened.
    Keep in mind your silence only hurts, and by speaking up there is a chance for healing, exposing the truth, and therefore protecting others.
    Judy Jones, SNAP Midwest Associate Director, USA, 636-433-2511.,
    “SNAP (The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) We also have members who were molested by religious figures of all denominations, including nuns, rabbis, bishops, teachers, ministers, plus victims who were assaulted in institutional settings like orphanages, summer camps, athletic programs, Boy Scouts, etc.

  3. Thank you for sharing Steve’s truth. The sexual abuse of children needs to be addresses whenever and wherever it is found! Shame on the nuns for using the poor excuse that their conference wasn’t the “right forum!”
    Melanie Jula Sakoda
    Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP)
    SNAP East Bay Director (California)

  4. I would like to have Fr. Thomas Hanley” who is located in Dover, De. arrested for what he did to me back in the 60’s” But the Statute of Limitation and the Oath they take” does interfere.
    I do believe today that the child molester found a loop hole in the Religious system” Child molesters become Priest so they can get away with raping children !
    look at the BIG picture; this has been going on for decades and for decades the Priest have gotten away with raping and hurting children.
    The Statute of limitation needs to be Abolished.

    • P.a.s.- i am sorry to year you have suffered. The statute of limitations was lifted in DE. There were several victims of abuse who took their cases to court. Not sure if you missed the two year window? It was lifted and the first state to open the window to help those who suffered abuse.

      • jennifer–the statue of limitations in louisiana is the reason i cannot do anything–i did a petition to all and even wrote to my senators–trying to ablolish this for child abuse by priests and nuns I seem to be the `1st one in our area to report nun abuse–at least that is what the cannon lawyer and convent authories said– horrible abuse–by a nun in a school was done to me –could not even recall it until after 2004–

  5. The following is a copy of a flyer handed out in New York CIty recently regarding nun abuse.
    It appears that Stuyvesant Town is a lovely community of caring and sharing neighbors, for the most part. We are here today to ask Stuyvesant Town residents to join us in calling on two nuns who live in Stuyvesant Town to do the right thing by helping a senior citizen. What do we mean?
    1) The Sisters of St. Ursula have told a former nun, sexual abuse victim, and senior citizen to take a hike. Not very neighborly, wouldn’t you agree? Consider that:
    Cecilia Springer is an 82 year-old former member of the Sisters of St. Ursula who was sexually abused as a high school student by her Principal, Sr. Mary Andrew, a/k/a Sr. Frances Doyle, a Sister of St. Ursula, at Notre Dame School in Manhattan which was located at the time on West 79th Street. The school has moved to West 13th Street.
    Cecilia Springer, who was known as Sr. Mary Grace, has reported to the Sisters of St. Ursula and Notre Dame School that the sexual assaults of Sr. Mary Andrew were real, harmful, and damaging. In 1946, Sr. Mary Andrew followed the high school sophomore, Cecilia Springer, up a dark, isolated stairway from the lunchroom and sexually assaulted her by forcefully embracing and kissing her on the lips on more than one occasion. Each sexual assault terrified the young Cecilia Springer. At least one other classmate of Cecilia has reported a similar assault.
    2) Two Sisters of St. Ursula who live in Stuyvesant Town have turned their backs on Cecilia Springer and refuse to help her live a more stress-free life.
    Sister Mary Dolan, S.U. is the regional superior (Provincial) of the Sisters of St. Ursula.
    She lives in Stuyvesant Town. Cecilia Springer was one of her elementary school teachers. While Sr. Mary Dolan lives a comfortable life, her former teacher, Cecilia Springer, struggles to make ends meet each day. Sr. Mary Dolan has the authority to help Cecilia Springer, but she has refused.
    Sister Virginia O’Brien, S.U. is the President of Notre Dame School on West 13th Street. She lives with Sr. Mary Dolan in a comfortable apartment here in Stuyvesant Town. Cecilia Springer has requested assistance from the administration of Notre Dame School in her recovery from having been sexually abused by Sr. Mary Andrew. Sr. Virginia O’Brien has turned her back on Cecilia and refuses to help her. This is not charitable behavior, wouldn’t you agree?
    Several months ago, Cecilia Springer and her attorney met with representatives of the Sisters of St. Ursula and Notre Dame School, including members of the Notre Dame School Board of Trustees. Cecilia Springer told a credible story of having been sexually abused by Notre Dame School Principal Sr. Mary Andrew. Instead of reaching out to Cecilia Springer and agreeing to help her recover from the sexual abuse, they told her to take a hike. So she did – to Stuyvesant today to inform residents that their nun neighbors refuse to help a retired nun in need.
    Stuyvesant Town residents: please join Cecilia Springer and her supporters in calling on Sr. Mary Dolan and Sr. Virginia O’Brien to do the right thing by helping Cecilia Springer.
    Robert M. Hoatson, Ph.D., Road to Recovery, Inc. – 862-368-2800
    Attorney Mitchell Garabedian, Boston, MA – 617-523-6250

    • there were other nuns in my school-mt carmel school in abbeville louisiana by the sister of mount carmel .org— one particular one –sister hillary hernandez taught 1st grade when my brother was in her class– in 1956– he asked 3 times to go to bathroom she refused him–then –he actually had bowel movements in his pants- this is so degrading for a 6 year old– she is still in convent– another– one pinched a boy in1967 on his cheek so hard–he fell to his knees– he was 16– nuns are not accoutable to anyone –they should be accountable to their doicese and bishop but not– this should change- can anyone tell me is sr mary grace was ever in abbeville La–this name was the princiapal at mt carmel in 1949–

  6. I was abused in the 60s. I hid it from everyone till i was 50. i was suffering and refused to accept it. it wasnt untill i was in therapy for 911 [Capt. FDNY]. i finally told someone. What a relief. I still continue in exposure therapy, it is working. The nun [Sister Mary phillipa] abused me in 3rd and 4th grade. At lunch behind the stage when everyone was out to lunch. The abuse was sexual and violent. The purpose was to inflict pain both to the genitals, and rectum. My mother new something was going on but looked the other way. A good Catholic!!!!!
    People need to hear our stories, most catholics dont believe it is happening.
    Jim Rogers New York Long Osland

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