SNAP Connecticut
Survivors' Voices

From the SNAP CT Press Conference, May 3, 2005

Ex Nun Who Was Molested Will Speak Publicly for First Time
Abuser Is Still School Principal in Norwich Diocese
Victim Upset at Catholic Order's Lack of Compassion

By Gabrielle Azzaro, SNAP San Diego Leader

Good afternoon. My name is Gabrielle Azzaro, and I am here to tell my story of sexual abuse by a religious sister. I also want to make public that the same congregation of sisters held on to information that may have been useful in the investigation of my perpetrator.

Many years ago, one year after I graduated from high school, I entered the convent. I went to high school at Sacred Heart Academy in Hamden, Connecticut. All of my life I had wanted to become a sister, and it seemed right for me to enter the convent there. I went through four years of intensive training to be a good religious. I learned that one of the greatest virtues a sister could practice was blind obedience, which meant obeying my superior in all things without question. During these years I was taught to treat the superior as though she was God. God spoke through her to us, the rest of the sisters. I was taught to make her bed, clean her room, make her plate at meals, wash and iron her clothes, in other words, treat her differently than the rest of the sisters.

After these four years, I was ready to go out to teach. I was transferred several times, and was instructed to obey this transfer, often with the directive: "no questions asked." I learned how to get along with many different types of superiors: those who yelled when things did not go their way; those who were sweet, but not really prepared for leadership; those who garnered the respect of their sisters and the people with whom they worked. I learned how to become docile, and to accept the superior's will.

Then I was transferred to a sleepy little coal town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The school was a unique one in that it served six individual parishes, each one made up of a different ethnicity. The superior was the principal; I was the 8th grade teacher. All was going well, until one night she began coming into my bedroom. I had no idea what was happening. Although I had entered at 18, I was very na´ve and innocent, having had only one boyfriend before I entered. She would get into my bed, and use herself to fulfill her sexual needs. When she was finished, she would turn over and go to sleep. We never spoke of this for the over two years we were stationed together. What happened at night was ignored during the day, almost as if it hadn't happened. When I tried to lock my door, she would come in through a walk-through closet between my room and the empty one next to mine. After a while I realized that I could not escape from her, that this would continue as long as we were in the same convent. I was terrified that another sister would hear or see her coming or going. My biggest fear was that I would be thrown out of the convent. Since she was the superior - God's representative - and 13 years older than I - she told me that repeatedly - I figured it would be my word against hers, and no one would believe me. All during this time I wanted to die. There were railroad tracks across the street from the convent, and I decided the only surefire way to kill myself was to lie down across the tracks. The only thing that kept me from doing this was the idea that the conductor would have to live with that for the rest of his life, and that just didn't seem fair. I became severely anorexic, depressed, and anxiety-ridden. I couldn't understand how this woman who was supposed to be God on earth for me could do this.

Finally, after two years of this nightly molestation, our sisters left the school, and we were transferred - 2000 miles apart. Unfortunately, the damage was done and that was not far enough. I continued to be anorexic, depressed, anxiety-ridden, and had panic attacks. I isolated myself from the community, hiding in the woods around the motherhouse and in closets. I went for therapy, but never told my horrible secret because I did not trust the confidentiality of the therapists, and still feared I would be thrown out. Finally, I heard about a treatment center that was only for priests and religious and asked to go there. It was there that I finally told my secret because I met several sisters to whom the same thing had happened - almost always by the superior, the one with the position of power. There I began to heal. Before I left, the provincial of the congregation had to come for a session. Although I reported what was done to me, nothing was done to or for that superior. She continued in ministry until she herself left the convent, but she is still the principal of an elementary school in the Norwich diocese.

Although I returned to the convent after treatment, after a short time I was told to stop therapy. I knew I needed to continue therapy in order to stay well, so I asked for a year's leave of absence. When I left, it was like being 19 years old in a 35-year-old body. I had never gone on a job interview, had not handled money, had no credit, had been away from people socially. Eventually I moved out to California to put 3000 miles between myself and the sisters. Those first years were spent trying to survive. I did not speak of the abuse that had occurred, because I needed to concentrate on making a life for myself. About two years ago I heard about SNAP, the Survivors' Network for those Abused by Priests, and discovered that this included those abused by anyone in the church. From this organization I have learned that once a person abused, he/she usually continues to do so.. I had believed that my perpetrator had done this only to me, but now I began to have doubts. I researched where she was and found out she was still a principal in an elementary school in Connecticut. I reported my abuse to the Norwich diocese, where she works, and they instigated an investigation. As part of the attempt to get at the truth, the diocese requested our records from the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, since we had both been members. The request was made at the beginning of the year, and a deadline was given again for March 25th. The lawyer for the sisters told the tribunal of the Norwich diocese that he had never received the information she mailed to him. He never even mentioned the unreturned phone calls she had made to him. The files were finally turned over to the review board the day of the investigation. The sisters and/or their lawyer interfered with an investigation. I do not understand why they would do so. I do not understand why they would not immediately turn over our files as asked. The investigation is not into the Apostles, but into my perpetrator. What could be their reason? I also received a copy of my file. In that copy was nothing that indicated that I had been at the treatment center. When I spoke with the hospital, they informed me that since the sisters were paying the bill, there would have been, at the very least, a discharge summary, or a follow-up treatment plan. There was absolutely nothing from the center at all.

I am coming forward to tell my story today because I would ask that anyone who has any information about the sexual abuse of a child or a vulnerable adult please come forward. I have no idea if any other sister in the convent knew what was happening, but if so, no one reported it. I hate to think that my perpetrator has abused others. I want her stopped. If the Apostles had handed over our complete files earlier there may have been information in them that would have helped the lay review board of the Norwich diocese make an informed decision. I would ask any sister who has been abused by another, or any high school girl who has been abused to come forward and get help. I began to heal only when I told my story and got help. I hope that by telling my story today, others may have the courage to do the same and will ask for help to begin healing. I would like to see my perpetrator removed from the school at which she is still a principal, and where she could be abusing children or other vulnerable adults. I would like to see the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the order to which we both belonged, take some responsibility for what happened, and implement education, prevention and treatment for those within the congregation who may be abusers or abused. I know of two sisters other than my perpetrator who sexually assaulted other women. Something needs to be done to stop this.

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Connecticut SNAP Chapter
Last Updated: May 10, 2005