Abuse is not just sexual, and these women point out the different ways in which dignity can be betrayed.
Spiritual abuse, sexual abuse, abuse of power or conscience: these are grim realities in communities of consecrated women that the Italian journalist Salvatore Cernuzio has sought to reveal. In The veil of silence. Abuse, violence and frustrations in the religious life of women (The bike of silence. Abusi, violenze, frustrazioni nella vita religiosa femminile, published in November 2021), this Vatican reporter gives the floor to 11 women.
These 11 nuns, from all over the world and from different communities, have been mistreated in the course of their religious life. As a result, many of them have chosen to give up community life. The journalist, who works for Vatican News, the official media channel of the Holy See, recounts I. Media what he learned by lifting the “veil of silence” of abuse which sometimes covers the world of consecrated life of women today. (Interview modified for the duration)
Why did you decide to write this book? What was your source of inspiration?
Cernuzio: My inspiration was a meeting with a friend who entered a cloistered monastery and then left. I found her after many years in a very different, almost dramatic state. Then there were articles. The first to sound the alarm were Donne, Chiesa, Mondo, [“Woman, Church, World,” the women’s monthly of the Osservatore Romano, Ed.] They published an interview with Cardinal João Braz de Aviz [Prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Religious Life, Ed.] in which he referred to the residence that Pope Francis wanted to establish to help former nuns. Later in La Civiltà Cattolica, Fr. Giovanni Cucci’s investigation into the abuse of conscience and power in women’s communities has been published. There, I wondered how many nuns were now in the street and perhaps needed to express themselves.
How is the book presented?
Cernuzio: The structure, which is almost a diary of each of these women, came naturally. I tried to be as objective as possible and didn’t want to focus all on sexual abuse. The message this book wants to bring, what these women are saying, is that there are abuses, in addition to sexual abuse, which are also harmful to human dignity, such as psychological abuse, abuse of power or abuse of conscience.
Each story in the book represents one of the macro-issues plaguing consecrated life: bullying, racism, sexual abuse, or ignored and untreated illnesses.
How would you characterize spiritual abuse?
Cernuzio: Spiritual abuse is a symptom of a sick system. The root, in my opinion, is this syllogism that I have heard many times in these experiences: “You don’t want to obey, therefore you are not holy, therefore you have no vocation. It blocks the spiritual and psychological maturation of a person. These women were treated as minors, as if they had limited abilities, or perhaps as rebels, simply because they opposed or challenged an order; sometimes only because they had suggested the idea of studying or consulting the constitution of their religious order. The idea that one is always obliged to blindly obey can be a first step towards the abuse of power.
Hearing these stories, I was also struck by how this psychological and spiritual abuse or abuse of power has played out in normal life situations. One woman shared that she had an objective health problem: depression. But the attitude of her sisters was that maybe it was her fault, maybe she hadn’t prayed enough, maybe she needed to step up her spiritual life or her work.
It is a subtle form of abuse designed to make the person feel even more guilty and victimized. Who do you turn to for help in this situation? A woman said to me: “There was no heaven for me”; I imagine they have all been in this situation.
In your opinion, do some of the situations described in your book reflect a more general problem concerning the attitude of the Church towards women?
Cernuzio: In my opinion, no, it’s quite the opposite. Some orders have remained as worlds apart. It is true that the Church has a lot of work to do on the role of women – the Pope himself has said this and tried to act – but many religious orders or institutions have not budged on this. point. They continue to cling to anachronistic rules and traditions. I would not say that it is a problem of the Church, but of certain circles.
In fact, these women do not denounce the Church as an institution. They denounce this situation, this wound, which they have experienced within the Church. These abuses are like little cancers that have crept into the body of the Church.
They felt isolated because they experienced an intrusion in their relationship with God, in their vocation.
Sr Nathalie Becquart, in the preface to the book, speaks of an antidote to this evil: the synodal style. This trip, initiated by the Pope, can be a great opportunity, like a blank slate which we hope will be put to good use. Everyone can take advantage of this opportunity to make their voice heard and possibly bring about change.
The Church, as Pope Francis says, must listen. The tragedy of sexual abuse has made us realize that we have often failed to listen to the victims and those who have suffered. The first step is to give credibility to what is being said, on all sides, without taking anything for granted.
What instruments do the Church and / or the Vatican offer to support religious women who find themselves in these abusive situations?
Cernuzio: Those who had the courage to go to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life received support and, in some cases, commissioners were also sent. The dicastery carries out its own inquiries and apostolic visits. But in my opinion, the problem lies a little earlier. The cases listed in the book are human issues that must first be resolved internally, within the orders and institutions themselves, before turning to the Vatican.
When a sister finally leaves her community, what support does she receive?
Cernuzio: The “ex-sister” is, let’s say, a phenomenon that is still relatively unknown, unlike perhaps “the ex-priest”. So apart from individual cases of people or communities who have cared for certain women, or organizations like the Scalabrinian Missionaries project, I haven’t heard of any other support, at least in Rome.
There is a lot of care and accompaniment in discernment when it comes to bringing people in, but there is not the same care when the sisters leave.
Support also varies depending on the situation. For a young Italian girl who leaves a monastery or a convent, it is easier to return home to her family. She does not experience the same tragedy as a foreigner who is in Italy with a religious visa, not a residence visa, and does not know how to change it.
Second, many women entered these institutes at a very young age; they have no professional skills and do not know how to work.
What can you tell us about the two houses run by the Scalabrinian Missionaries in Rome?
Cernuzio: The work that these missionaries do is precious because they help women not only to heal their wounds but also to reintegrate into society. However, this project is vast, involving all women, lay people and nuns.
Perhaps we need a more specific service for these ex-nuns. But what is important is that these structures should not be seen as an easy way out. [for the leadership of communities, Ed]. They must guarantee global support and accompaniment, on the spiritual, economic, psychological and professional level.