Advocacy group says dozens allege sex abuse by nuns
SNAP calls on victims to tell stories, appeals to female clergy conference
By Frank Langfitt
The Baltimore Sun
July 14, 2004
SILVER SPRING - Spotlighting the role of female clergy in sexual abuse for the
first time, a victims advocacy group said yesterday that it had identified about
100 people in the United States who said they had been assaulted by Catholic nuns,
sisters and other female religious workers.
At a news conference, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP)
called for other victims to come forward so they could share their stories and
receive help. The group also asked the Leadership Conference of Women Religious,
a national female clerical organization based here, to allow victims to speak at
their annual meeting next month in Fort Worth, Texas.
'Hear our stories'
"We would like them to hear our stories from our mouths," said Landa Murriello-Vernon,
30, a SNAP official, who said a nun sexually assaulted her during her senior year
at an all-girls Catholic high school in suburban Connecticut. "I know that with our
help, they can do a better job than the bishops."
SNAP officials acknowledged that the alleged abuse cited yesterday covered many
decades, with at least one case stretching back to 1928. They also said that they
had no sense of how big the problem might be.
"We have no idea of the numbers," said David Clohessy, SNAP's executive director.
"We'd love to be proven wrong, but if history is any guide, we have to be prudent and
assume that there are many others."
Clohessy said his support group learned of the cases through phone calls, and has
encouraged alleged victims to file criminal complaints, but does not have the resources
to investigate the allegations itself. Clohessy added that SNAP was raising this issue
now and doing so in front of the offices of the Leadership Conference in Silver Spring
in hopes of getting a chance to address the group's August meeting.
Priest sex abuse
The Catholic Church has spent the past 2 1/2 years wrestling with a priest sex abuse
scandal that has involved more than 4,000 male clerics and more than 10,000 victims
over a half-century. Statistical studies show that in the general population, males
account for the overwhelming majority of sexual abuse cases.
Annmarie Sanders, director of communications for the Leadership Conference, said her
organization had no immediate comment on whether it would permit victims to address its
annual meeting, a request SNAP made in a letter delivered by hand yesterday. As to the
scope of nun sexual abuse, Sanders said it was "not extensive, as far as we know, but we
don't have statistics."
The conference, based in Silver Spring, serves as a sort of professional association
for female Catholic clergy, but has no punitive powers, Sanders said. The group has 450
member organizations, including the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of St. Joseph and the
Sisters of St. Francis. It represents 75,000 nuns and sisters around the nation.
Speaking to the public
At yesterday's news conference, several people shared wrenching stories of sexual abuse
at the hands of nuns. Speaking for the first time publicly, Patricia Anne Cahill, a
52-year-old therapist from Lancaster, Pa., described how a nun seduced her at 15 and
carried on a liaison that continued for a dozen years.
"She took me under her wing and into her bed," said Cahill, who said one of the
instances of sexual abuse occurred in a hotel in Emmitsburg when the pair traveled to
visit the shrine of Mother Seton, the first American-born saint.
"I didn't know sex between women was an option; she taught me," said Cahill, who added
that she has struggled with alcohol and post traumatic stress related to the abuse. "I
paid such a tremendous price for this."
Cahill said she hoped her story would encourage others to come forward. She said she
also hoped it would force leaders in the nun's order to take stronger measures to prevent
her from abusing others.
Cahill, who declined to name the woman, said officials had removed the nun from her job
as principal of an elementary school in New Jersey but have permitted her to continue
working at a nursing home where girls serve as volunteers.
Late yesterday afternoon, Murriello-Vernon said the group's media work yesterday
appeared to be paying off. Two people who saw SNAP on national television had called
to talk about alleged incidences of abuse.
"I think that anytime a victim comes forward, it's a huge success for us," she said.