Ex-nun tells of rape by African priest.
She was 17 when she entered, 27 when she was raped by a priest.
Laura, now in her 30s, is studying at a Catholic college in the United States. NCR met her at the college for an extended interview with her and for a brief interview with a second African nun who is a victim of sexual abuse.
The interview was in response to an e-mail Laura sent to NCR after reading an article in the March 16 issue that directly affected her. The story focused on priests in 23 countries, but primarily in Africa, targeting nuns for sex.
Laura wrote that she was "overjoyed" that public attention had been paid to the problem of priests sexually abusing nuns, especially in Africa. "I was in a diocesan congregation in Africa and I am a victim of this abuse," she wrote. "I saw many young nuns who are victims. I have left my community now, because I became very sick as a result of my inability to get help to handle the issues. I had nobody to talk to because, as mentioned in the article, you are made to believe that you have to obey the authority figure. Everything that was said in that article is very true.
"You can contact me for further questioning if you want, but I would like to remain anonymous. Thank you so much.... Hope to hear from you soon."
The interview with Laura began at a Chinese restaurant near the campus for dinner and continued at a convent affiliated with the college. "We like this restaurant," she said, "because the food is the closest we can find to the food at home."
Laura is among Africans studying at the U.S. college as part of an international program. The program is strictly academic she said, and is not an effort to shelter African nuns from the sexual harassment the article describes. Only a couple of the U.S. nuns at her college are aware that she had been a victim, she said. Those nuns, including one whom Laura introduced to NCR, had encouraged her in her decision to be interviewed, she said.
Laura wanted her identity concealed because her mother and other family members in Africa do not know she was raped. Laura, not her real name, is a fairly common name in English-speaking West Africa, she said.
After the rape, she was unable to talk about what had happened to her until a U.S. physician, finding no physical basis for her increasingly serious physical problems, suggested they might be related to extreme stress. Initially neither she nor her doctors had connected her illness to her emotional state, she said. She began speaking with. a nun who works as a counselor at her college, and then with others, and gradually, her physical symptoms have subsided.
Generally, African nuns would be extremely reticent to talk to outsiders about sexual harassment, because they are afraid of disobeying the priests, Laura said. "Everybody looks up to them. They think they are gods," she said. "You are made to feel that if you talk [about their misdeeds] you are being disloyal. Here if you come out and talk about the problems, you get a lot of support. There you are made miserable."
In contrast to some Africans who wrote NCR to say that the reports on which the March 16 article was based had been too general in its criticisms of the African church, Laura said the reports very closely reflected her own experience. She found the problem of sexual abuse of nuns to be very common in her area and believes it occurs throughout Africa, she said.
NCR's article, circulated by news outlets worldwide, was based on four reports by senior members of religious orders with close ties to Africa and a fifth by a U.S. priest who has worked in Africa giving workshops on AIDS. The Vatican acknowledged in a March 20 statement that church officials were aware of the problems detailed in the reports and were working on them.
Laura said she first learned about what she describes as rampant immorality among priests in her region from the nun in charge of novices for her diocesan religious order. The novice mistress was a member of an international religious order.
"Our novice mistress was very good to us," Laura said. We were protected as novices, but "she warned us that after we took our vows the priests would be all over us. She told us, `you are young, you are very beautiful, and the men are going to be all over you, especially the priests.' She said it would be our choice to keep our vows.
"I was so shocked, but some in my group seemed to know about it. I think some were already involved with priests before they came in."
Despite the warnings of the novice mistress, Laura was unprepared for what happened after she took her final vows. "I didn't realize how bad it was going to be," she said. "As soon as I got out of the novitiate, it was like a nightmare. The priests were always asking us for sex, not only the diocesan priests, but the native [African] priests who were members of the international orders. I would tell them, `I am a nun, I took vows,' and they would say, `It's all right to do that as long as we don't have children.'"
She said she had heard stories about nuns who became pregnant and left the order before she joined and knew of two who became pregnant during the nearly two decades that she was a member of her order.
"A lot of young nuns told me they had been raped by priests, and I became more and more angry." Some of the young nuns who had been violated would speak to her, she said, because they knew that she was unhappy with the way the priests behaved.
Laura was attacked when she accompanied a priest she knew well on a pastoral assignment to a poor, remote village, expecting to return the same day. "The nuns are dependent on the priests for everything," she said. "For money, for transportation." The priest had driven her to the assignment. It rained hard that day, washing out the roads by the time they were to return, so the priest decided they would spend the night. They were assigned to the only sleeping quarters available two rooms in an empty building set apart from the rest of the village. A long hallway separated their rooms.
Laura said the priest had never mentioned sex to her. But that night, after she was asleep, he came to her room and forced her to have sex with him.
"I fought him throughout, but I was alone. I was scared." Afterwards, "the hardest thing for me to accept was that it was in the religious life that I broke my virginity," she said.
Had Laura not entered religious life, she would have gone through a rite of passage in her late teens that would have prepared her in the African way for marriage and sex. Over a period of about two weeks, the family celebrates; gives parties, and the young woman is mentored by married women. The women "tell you about what happens in marriage, about what is expected," she said. The young woman is "dressed up very nicely" and taken five times to market. "You are more or less put on exhibition. All the women congratulate you."
Almost always, soon afterward, a man will come forward to marry the woman, she said. "If a woman gets pregnant before that rite, it brings deep shame upon the family."
Laura said she was deeply relieved when she determined she hadn't become pregnant by the priest, and deeply angry that, although she saw him many times afterward, he never said he was sorry. "I confronted him, I yelled at him. He kept telling me it was OK, it was normal. I kept insisting it was not OK. You could see from his attitude that he didn't see anything wrong with it."
Until the rape, she had retained her virginity by "being very aggressive" with harassing priests. "I kept threatening them. I told them `I will expose you,'" she said.
Some nuns tolerate the harassment and even comply with demands for sex "because they don't know any better," Laura said. "A lot of them are ignorant. They enter the convent at a young age. Many come from very poor backgrounds. Their parents are illiterate and may not even have enough to eat." When a daughter from such a family enters religious life, "it raises your status. Families are very proud of it." Women stay despite problems, she believes, "because many have a better life in the convent than they would have at home."
"The nuns don't study theology," she said. "A lot of the priests have been to Rome to study, and when they come back, the women think they know everything, so whatever the priests tell them they believe. They believe them when they say it's OK to have sex. They think it's normal, and they become very defensive" if someone tells them it isn't right.
"Maybe these women will eventually realize they were used," she said. "But I am sure that for many it will take a long time."
Laura's refusal to go along with the priests' demands made her unpopular not only with priests but also with many nuns in her order, she said. The nuns were frightened by her active resistance because they were dependent on the priests, she said.
When Laura decided to leave her religious community, some of the nuns told her friends they weren't surprised because "she was very proud," meaning that she wasn't a good nun. Compliance, not resistance, was valued in a convent that was totally dependent on the clergy for everything: money, transportation and pastoral assignments.
"At one point I was very strong in insisting on better education for the nuns, and I was accused of being too ambitious," she said.
"A lot of religious women are destroyed," she told NCR. "They have no way to protect themselves. They go into religious life thinking they will be well protected, but it is not the case there at all. In fact, it is safer for an African woman to be out in the world."
Unlike most of the nuns in her order, Laura was from a well-educated family in which both parents were professionals. They were devoted to the church and sent her to Catholic schools through high school. Her high school was operated by a European religious order, which had high standards and maintained little contact with priests. The priests came to say Mass and they left, she said. "We hardly ever saw them.
"When I went into religious life, I was very innocent," she said. "I felt very safe, maybe because my parents had protected me very well.
"My father did not want me to go to join the diocesan community, but I wanted to because I had a lot of friends who were joining," she said. "I insisted and insisted, until finally my mother told him to not continue arguing with me." Her friends, most of them from strong Catholic homes, were attracted to a life of serving others in religious life, she said.
In retrospect, Laura thinks her father may have had suspicions about corruption infecting diocesan religious life in her country. He is no longer living, so she can't ask him what he knew. Many lay Catholics in Africa are angry at the priests "because they use other girls, too," she said. "Sometimes they lure them with money because the women are very poor." Laura said she knows of several priests who have fathered children but take no responsibility for them.
Laura said she was devastated after the rape. "I was confused and embarrassed," she said. "I was afraid. I couldn't handle it at all." Because so many of the nuns take sex with priests "as normal," she knew of no understanding person she could talk to about the attack. "We don't have counseling," she said. "Those you hope to look up to, the older nuns, you realize they are involved, too. You realize, `OK, it's accepted,' and that's very hard."
Laura believes her former novice mistress would have offered support had she still been around. But she had moved on to a new assignment and was no longer in the country.
Laura gradually made the decision to leave her African community after she began studying in the United States. In retrospect, she said, she realized it was never a good fit. She began what she describes as an "obsessive search" for the truth about the vow of celibacy.
"I spent hours analyzing the situation," she said. "I was desperate to find out the truth about what the priests had been telling me, that it's OK" to have sex as a priest or nun. "I read everything I could find" -- books about religious life, works of moral theology -- "and nowhere did I find anything that said it was OK."
For a time, Laura stopped going to church but then realized that she didn't want a corrupt clergy to destroy her faith. She left religious life and hopes to live out her ideal of service as a lay Catholic.
"I still love the Catholic church," she said. "I know a few priests who are very good, and that gives me consolation." But in general, Laura said she has little confidence in priests. "I don't think all the African priests are like that," she said, referring to the abusers, "but the majority are." She believes it would be impossible to be a priest in Africa and be unaware of the problem, even if a priest were not a part of it.
"We have a lot of vocations to the priesthood," she said. When men become priests, "it raises their status. It gives men money and position," and celibacy is no obstacle "because it doesn't mean anything."
The second African woman who spoke with NCR concurred with Laura about the situation in their country, but was unwilling to talk about her own experience. She is still a member of the religious order that Laura has left.
"When I get back to my country, I will speak with you," she said. "I have your name right here." She pulled a piece of notebook paper from the pocket of her jumper. "I can handle only so many things, and right now I have a lot to handle," she said.
Laura believes the solution to the problem of vulnerable nuns is to make the women's religious orders in Africa self-supporting like those in most of Europe and in the United States. "Bishops are often part of the problem. They are just like the other priests," she said.
"The Vatican should not allow local bishops to start their own congregations," Laura said. "The diocesan congregations are the bishops' property. When the bishops control the finances, they decide everything: who should be educated, what they should be educated in. The one who controls your finances can control you in every way. The priests see sexual favors as quid pro quo. The nuns are very vulnerable."
In other countries, too, even here, in the United States, Laura said she and other African nuns have been propositioned by African priests. "Some have approached us and kept inviting us. We could have just given in to them to get support," because, she said, the community gives nuns studying outside Africa no financial support.
Laura doesn't see AIDS as a big part of the problem. "The problem is not new," she said. "It is perpetually there. It is part of the culture. A man in Africa is allowed to have three, four wives and some girlfriends," while the woman is expected to be faithful to one man. "If you are a woman, you have to be very well educated and have a lot of money in order to have a voice in African culture. Many of the women are illiterate.
"I think a lot of people are happy that somebody came out with it," she said, referring to NCR's article about the reports. But "a majority" of the priests will deny that the reports are true. "They don't want to take responsibility," she said. "It's a threat to their power."
Pamela Schaeffer's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org