VATICAN CITY — The Vatican has launched an investigation into a small Chilean religious order of nuns after some sisters denounced sexual abuse at the hands of priests and mistreatment by their superiors, a turning point that shows the Holy See is now willing to investigate allegations of sexual violence against nuns.
The scandal at the Institute of the Good Samaritan was revealed publicly in an investigative report by Chilean national television earlier this year at the height of outrage over how Chilean Catholic hierarchy covered up decades of sexual abuse of children by priests.
In the report, a half-dozen current and former nuns said sisters were thrown out of the order after they denounced the abuse to their superiors. The report followed the sisters as they testified before two Vatican investigators sent to Chile by Pope Francis to get to the bottom of the church-wide scandal there.
In a statement, the Vatican embassy to Chile announced that an “apostolic visitation,” or investigation, had begun Wednesday in the institute. It said over the coming months the probe would take testimony from current and former sisters and those affiliated with the institute so the Vatican can understand the situation and make whatever changes are necessary.
The institute is located in the diocese of Talca, which since 1996 had been headed by Bishop Horacio del Carmen Valenzuela Abarca. Pope Francis removed Valenzuela as bishop in June as part of his cleanup of the Chilean hierarchy. Valenzuela had been one of the bishops trained by Chile’s most infamous predator priests, the Rev. Fernando Karadima.
As a diocesan institute of consecrated life, the Good Samaritan order was wholly dependent on the bishop and under his authority.
The Vatican investigation into the abuse there marks a turning point of sorts as the Holy See in recent years has focused its attention on responding to the abuse of minors by priests. But recently, adult nuns have begun denouncing sexual violence at the hands of priests and bishops, an abuse of power that has become more recognized in the #MeToo era.
The Vatican did send in an investigator in 2014 when seminarians and priests reported sexual misconduct claims against their superior, the late Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien. Francis eventually removed O’Brien’s rights and privileges as a cardinal.
A similar case erupted this year in the U.S. involving disgraced ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. The scandal was sparked by an allegation that McCarrick abused a teenage altar boy, but exploded further when adult ex-seminarians reported that he routinely pressured them to sleep with him.
An Associated Press expose this summer, which cited the Chilean case and others in Europe, Africa and India, found that the Vatican had long known about the problem of the sexual violence committed against religious sisters but done next to nothing to stop it.
Church authorities have long downplayed the prevalence of the problem, often blaming the nun for seducing a priest when a scandal became known.
The issue though has gained such prominence that the international association of the world’s religious sisters recently issued an unprecedented statement urging that nuns report any abuse they had suffered to police and their superiors.
The statement from the Union of International Superiors General, which represents 500,000 of the world’s 660,000 nuns, was even more significant since it was issued to mark the U.N.’s day for the elimination of violence against women, a strong show of solidarity with all women who are victims of sexual violence.