From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Leadership Conference of Women Religious responds to news reports on abuse survey

the Inland Register

(From the Jan. 16, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

(Editor’s note: Several newspapers carried a story recently from the St. Louis Dispatch regarding the sexual abuse of women Religious in the United States. Among the papers picking up the story was the Spokesman-Review, Spokane’s daily newspaper, which ran it on the front page of its edition for Sunday, Jan. 5.

The article detailed a national survey of women Religious conducted by researchers at St. Louis University, completed in 1996.

Sister Carole Shinnick of the School Sisters of Notre Dame is Executive Director of the LCWR. She responded to the story. Her edited comments follow.)

On Sunday, Jan. 5, 2003, an article appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch concerning a study done in 1995 by St. Louis University researchers. The study focused on the experience of sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and sexual exploitation for women Religious. The study used mailing lists voluntarily provided by some LCWR congregations. Other congregations donated funding for the study.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious and its members are saddened by reports of abuse - by anyone, to anyone. We are concerned for all impacted by abuse, particularly the victim/survivors, their families and their communities.

Abuse of any kind goes against the very core of who we are as women of the Gospel, committed through decades to nurturing and developing the best in children and young people.

We recognize that sexual abuse is a terrible violation of human dignity and a betrayal of trust as well as a serious crime. Abuse has been perpetrated against the most vulnerable – children and women, as well as vulnerable men.

Allegations of abuse testify to the deep suffering present among God’s people today. We are all affected as members of the Body of Christ. We are all part of a broken world. We all need healing.

We are aware that among our own members are persons who have been abused, as children by family members, neighbors, and sometimes by trusted others including clergy, Religious men and women, as well as persons in professional roles of responsibility.

Religious congregations of women and the member congregations of LCWR have long been committed to providing members with the resources needed for mental, physical and spiritual health within the context of our lifestyle and within the parameters of our own resources. The study done by St. Louis University was intended – by the researchers as well as by those congregations who helped fund it, and LCWR – which helped identify a pool of respondents – to provide a means to better support members who had been abused. For this reason we are grateful to those who helped implement its execution.

We recognize that we live in a highly sexualized culture in the United States, a culture that treats sexual behavior in a casual way, a culture that has quietly endorsed the abuse of women and the perception of them as “property” by those in power. Therefore, it is not surprising that there is a close parallel between the statistics of those women in Religious life who have known sexual abuse as children, or who have been sexually exploited as adults, and the general population of women.

Perhaps a neglected dimension of the current crisis of sexual abuse in the Church is how our culture which treats sex and violence as commodities and enhancers for consumer goods, has contributed to the sexual abuse of women Religious.

The statistics in the study attest to the fact that the sexual abuse experienced by Religious women, whether as children or as adults, whether at the hands of family, friends, strangers, clergy, Religious, or health care professionals mirrors that experienced by women in the general population and women in other Religious traditions. In other words, members of Religious congregations have experienced exploitation and abuse similar to all women within the mainstream of society.

In an effort to prevent further exploitation and the potential for prurient distortion of the lives of women Religious, LCWR requested that the research data be published in those journals frequently utilized by Religious and not become another instance in which women were exploited and objectified. The information was, in no way, “covered up.” It was a matter for publication in appropriate journals. The article in the Post suggests that by not publishing the results of the study in the mainstream press, the researchers, the Religious congregations, and LCWR contributed to the “toxic environment of cover-up and denial.” That is a serious misreading and distortion of our intent.

Since it is our view that sexual abuse has more to do with the exploitation of power than with sexuality, we are convinced that the current crisis calls for systemic change, particularly in the exercise of ecclesial power. We call for the inclusion of laity, Catholic clergy, Brothers and Sisters in the formation of policies and in decision-making, which will allow for collaborative renewal of our church.

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