Sex Abuse by Nuns Alleged at Md. Protest
Silver Spring Gathering Calls Attention to Problem
By Caryle Murphy
The Washington Post
July 14, 2004
Four women and a man who say they are victims of child sexual abuse by Roman
Catholic nuns held a news conference yesterday outside the Silver Spring
headquarters of an organization of nuns to spotlight what they contend is an
"I'm here today because I'm concerned that in the midst of the sex abuse scandal
about priests . . . people are not paying attention to the fact that people were
sexually abused by nuns and sisters," said Mary Guentner, 46, a social worker from
near Milwaukee who said she was sexually abused by a nun for four years, beginning
in her senior year of high school.
The five, along with a dozen supporters, delivered a letter to the Leadership Conference
of Women Religious requesting that some victims be allowed to speak at the conference's
annual meeting next month in Texas.
"We think it's imperative for them to hear our stories," said Landa Mauriello-Vernon,
30, of Hamden, Conn., whose alleged abuse at 17 would be the most recent case involving
one of the five.
The request "is being communicated to the executive committee of our national board,
who will take their request under consideration," said Sister Annmarie Sanders,
spokeswoman for the conference, an association of about 1,000 leaders of women's
religious orders with a membership of about 75,000 sisters.
Members of the protest group, sponsored by the victim advocacy organization Survivors
Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said they want to work with the conference
to draw up policies aimed at helping victims heal and preventing future abuse.
The protesters acknowledged there is little research about the extent of child abuse
David Clohessy, SNAP's national director, said that "it's safe to say several dozen"
nuns accused of abusing minors have been identified publicly. Most cases came to light
through litigation. "I can't think of a case where they announced they removed a nun
voluntarily," he said.
"We don't know how extensive the problem is, but individual [religious orders] have been
addressing this for years," Sanders said.
She said she did not know how many nuns had been accused publicly or dismissed because of
child abuse. "We know there have been allegations. That's all we know," she said.
A study of clerical sex abuse of children in the Catholic Church found that 10,667 children
allegedly were victimized by 4,392 priests from 1950 to 2002. That study, by the John Jay
College of Criminal Justice, did not include sexual abuse by nuns.
St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, a church-sponsored facility for troubled clergy and
religious, has treated "a few" sisters for inappropriate relationships with women in their
twenties, but never for sexually abusing a minor, according to its president, the Rev. Stephen
Most research indicates that "women are much less likely to be perpetrators of child sexual
abuse than men . . . but it does happen," he said.
After the news conference, about eight protesters went to the offices of the Conference of
U.S. Catholic Bishops in Northeast Washington to ask the bishops to encourage the nuns group
to work with victims. The bishops, however, have limited authority over nuns. Most religious
orders in this country report not to bishops but to a Vatican entity, the Congregation for
Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.
Leaders of men's religious orders in the United States have agreed to follow the U.S. bishops'
rules and guidelines for dealing with child sexual abuse by clergy. Those guidelines, adopted
by the bishops in 2002 in Dallas, do not apply to women's orders, Sanders said. But she added,
"Probably at this time, most [orders] would have a policy in place" for handling such allegations.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. bishops, said they "are very confident that
the organizations for men and women religious take the problem of sexual abuse very seriously
and would address the matter compassionately and justly."
The people who told their stories yesterday said they hoped that their examples would
encourage other victims to report their experiences.
"I think there are a lot more victims of nuns out there who have not come forward," said
Mauriello-Vernon. In a telephone interview, she said that she was abused while attending
Sacred Heart Academy in Hamden, Conn., and has sued the school and the nun.
Stephen P. Fogertyan attorney for school, said he could not discuss the allegations
because of the pending litigation. Guentner, the social worker, said the nun who sexually
abused her was 12 years older than she was at the time. The nun died in a car accident,
"The church needs to deal with the issue of female perpetrators and help their victims
to heal," Guentner said.
A major obstacle, she said, is "that people don't believe that women are sexually
abusive. . . . I really can't think of any group of perpetrators that people are less
willing to recognize."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company