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How a culture of secrecy covered up the abuse of nuns in the Catholic Church

Pope Francis is publicly acknowledging for the first time that clergymen have sexually abused nuns. Private reports that were sent to top Vatican officials, but not publicly reported on until much later, indicate the abuse goes as far back as the 1990s. John Yang speaks to Associated Press reporter Nicole Winfield about why it took so long for the accusations to come to light.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Pope Francis broke his silence on Wednesday, acknowledging for the first time that clergymen have sexually abused nuns.

    John Yang has more on the story

  • John Yang:

    Amna, for decades, the persistent allegations of sexual abuse of nuns and religious women by Roman Catholic priests and bishops have been overshadowed by other scandals in the church.

    Now decades of silence are ending. Last year, a bishop in India was arrested after a nun told police he had repeatedly raped her between 2014 and 2016. Many priests celebrated when the bishop was released on bail. He faces trail later this year.

    This week, for the first time, Pope Francis addressed the issue as he returned to Rome from the United Arab Emirates.

  • Pope Francis:

    It's not something that everyone does, but there have been priests and even bishops who have done this. And I think it is still taking place because it is not as though the moment you become aware of something, it goes away.

    The thing continues, and we have been working on this for some time. We have suspended a few clerics and sent some away over this.

  • John Yang:

    The pope was responding to a question from Associated Press Vatican correspondent Nicole Winfield, who joins us now from Rome.

    Nicole, thanks so much for being with us.

    You published an investigation last summer that documented abuse going back decades and spreading across at least four continents. Why has it taken so long for this silence to break and for this to surface?

  • Nicole Winfield:

    The first public reports were in 2001. The National Catholic Reporter did a groundbreaking report and provided documentation that had been given to the Vatican a decade before about the situation in Africa.

    So, I took that as a starting point and decided that, with the reckoning that was going on in the United States, that it was a time to really look at what was going on around the world as far as the religious sisters were concerned.

    And, indeed, we found that really nothing had changed.

  • John Yang:

    And you also wrote about the forces that kept these religious women, these nuns, from speaking out, from reporting the abuse.

  • Nicole Winfield:

    In all situations of abuse, there is a general tendency not to report, right? There's a sense of shame, a sense of guilt.

    So there are all those normal forces that we have heard over and over again in talking about abuse in general. The religious sisters, though, it seems like there's compounding interests that might have conspired to keep this quiet.

    Some of that is that the sisters have a fear, a real fear of repercussion within their own congregations if they speak out, especially if they belong to some of these smaller diocesan-level congregations. That order is wholly dependent on their local bishop.

    So if the bishop himself is doing the abuse or if one of his priests is committing the abuse, there are real vested interests in not having this come out.

  • John Yang:

    And, as I said earlier, your reporting found this over at least four continents.

    Give us some idea of the scope of this, and I don't know if severity is the right word, but there are nuns who have been forced to have abortions or forced to have the children of these priests and bishops.

  • Nicole Winfield:

    Sisters were reporting that they were getting pregnant and, in some cases, they were — even the priests themselves were paying for the abortions.

    So kind of a compounded — as far as the church was concerned, a kind of compounded sin. And then there would be the cases where the sisters would also give birth, and then very obviously then be thrown out of the congregations.

    And, indeed, it seems like the developing world has been some of the places where it has been reported at least more frequently than elsewhere.

  • John Yang:

    What's the significance or the importance of the fact that the pope, in answering your question, acknowledged this for the first time?

  • Nicole Winfield:

    Well, I think it was quite courageous of him to even take the question. I admit it was a bit out of left field, so — but there was — it seems like there was momentum building for it.

    The Vatican's own women's magazine just last week had written an article about it, so it seemed like it was fair game. Nevertheless, the fact that the pope said it, he admitted it, he said it was a problem, he said we're working on it, and he committed himself to do even more, because he said more was needed, I think, is enormously significant.

    If you think of this as a problem of secrecy and a culture of secrecy, having the pope come out and say, I get this, I know it's a problem, I think, is enormously significant maybe for the sisters themselves. Maybe they might feel emboldened now to break that silence.

  • John Yang:

    Briefly, this issue comes up just before a summit of bishops to talk about the abuse of children, sexual abuse of children in the church.

    Is there any sense that the abuse of religious sisters is going to come up at that meeting as well?

  • Nicole Winfield:

    I would be surprised if it did, only because already this meeting has enormous expectations, perhaps unreasonable expectations, placed on it.

    It was called to address a very specific issue, the prevention of abuse of minors. I think if they were to add in the issue of abuse of religious sisters, that would detract attention from the core issue.

    So I think it would open a bit of a can of worms if they were to redirect this meeting to address that issue. And I think so they will probably just keep it focused on its original intent, which was on preventing abuse of minors.

  • John Yang:

    Nicole Winfield, Vatican correspondent for the Associated Press, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Nicole Winfield:

    Thank you.

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