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.”
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.