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Nuns on the run

Sister Dorothy Stang was murdered in Brazil while helping the poor who lived deep in the Amazon. In her final moments with a gun pointed to her head, she read from the Bible.

Sister Helen Prejean has spent most of her life in prisons, counseling convicted murderers up until their last moments before execution. Her life’s work served as the basis of the Hollywood blockbuster “Dead Man Walking” starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.

There are also thousands of other likeminded women in Catholic religious orders who work in soup kitchens, build schools in inner cities or nurse the dying in hospitals.

Supporters protest the Vatican crackdown on American nuns and sisters with colorful posters and chants in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC. Produced by Hannah Yi.

“They’re saints. They’re my heroes, but I feel so sorry for them,” said Father James Martin of the American Catholic nuns and sisters who are currently under investigation by the Vatican. At the brunt end of the criticism is the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which represents more than 80 percent of the 57,000 women religious in the United States.

“We’re talking about mainly women in their late seventies,” said Father Martin, an editor at the national Catholic magazine America. He says many of the sisters he’s spoken to feel a wide range of emotions about the Vatican crackdown, from frustration to stoic acceptance.

The critique from Rome was spelled out in an eight-page Doctrinal Assessment that stated the American sisters had made “serious theological, even doctrinal errors” while promoting “radical feminism” through their work. The sisters were also reprimanded for focusing too much on social justice issues and not enough on wedge issues like gay marriage and abortion. In addition, an Archbishop was appointed to oversee that changes would be made at LCWR.

On Friday morning, LCWR released its first statement since the Vatican’s rebuke in early March. After a three-day conference to review, pray and plan a response, the women concluded that, “[T]he assessment was based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency…the sanctions imposed were disproportionate to the concerns raised.”

Nuns vs. bishops

Against the backdrop of the Church’s far reaching child abuse cases and steadily dwindling membership in the U.S., many are shocked that the Vatican would attack the gentler faces of the Catholic Church. Some even compare it to the FBI interrogating grandmothers. Others see it as the Vatican’s efforts to reel in American nuns, who are perceived as straying too far from the control of the church.

“If bishops were knights in shining armor, you could chalk it up as the nuns and bishops having ideological differences,” said Mary Hunt, a Catholic feminist theologian. “But when you have so many religious women working in soup kitchens, food pantries, programs for pregnant teens, and then you have the Vatican attack that, it’s more than anyone can bear. What right do the bishops have to investigate the nuns?”

And this investigation comes on the heels of another three-year long investigation known as the Apostolic Visitation, which “looked into the quality of the life” of nuns at nearly 400 religious institutions, to assess whether they had kept their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Sandra Schneiders, a professor of New Testament Studies at Santa Clara University in San Jose, Calif., wrote a report about the visitation, comparing it to “a grand jury indictment, set in motion when there is reasonable suspicion, probable cause…of serious abuse or wrong-doing of some kind…[like] widespread child sexual abuse by clerics, Episcopal cover-ups of such abuse, long term sexual liaisons by people vowed to celibacy, embezzlement of church funds…but women religious are not significantly implicated in any of these.”

Some say the Vatican’s one-two punch of intense scrutiny focuses on the wrong people and the wrong issues – a way of diverting attention from the more egregious scandals.

“They’re like helicopter hierarchy hovering over the sisters instead of cleaning up their own mess,” said Eileen Sammon, a former nun who belongs to St. Ann’s Parish in Ossining. Sammon says recent events have only reinforced her suspicions about the men who lead the church.

“We women in the Catholic Church have been deprived of many things. We’re like second-class citizens,” said Sammon about the gender discrimination from high above, especially the recent appointment of an Archbishop to monitor the LCWR.