Since the 1980s, the Catholic Church has been at the center of many sexual abuse scandals. Most allegations name priests or high-ranking male clergy members. But, priests aren’t the only abusive clergy members hiding in the Catholic Church.
Recently, people are paying more attention to sexual abuse allegations against Catholic nuns. This is welcome news for survivors and victim advocacy groups who want to highlight the problem. In contrast to their male counterparts, abusive nuns have often escaped media attention and the legal consequences of abuse.
General Information About Nuns In The Catholic Church
According to recent data from the Pew Research Center, there is a historical disparity between the number of nuns and priests. There are more nuns than priests. However, it’s suspected a larger proportion of priests sexually abused children.
Much of the reported abuse in the Catholic Church took place in the 1970s and the 1980s. In 1985 in the United States, there were 115,386 nuns, but only 57,317 priests. This gap has narrowed, but nuns continue to outnumber priests in the American Catholic Church.
Historically, Catholic nuns have been assigned to positions working with children. Nuns often work in schools, orphanages and parish youth groups. Abusive nuns have used these assignments to prey on child victims.
Why Sex Abuse By Nuns Is Less Visible
Catholic church sex scandals are often associated with abusive priests and church cover-ups. However, survivors have shared stories of physical and sexual abuse by nuns as well.
These experiences have been underreported or received less attention for several reasons:
- Nuns are often members of religious orders instead of Catholic dioceses. Religious orders handle abuse allegations differently.
- Nuns are rarely suspected of abuse because they are female. Female abusers are often underestimated because of gender stereotypes.
- Victims abused by nuns may face greater shame. Victims may feel greater embarrassment admitting abuse by a female predator.
Religious Orders Shield Abusive Nuns
From the Boston Globe exposé to the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, the majority of priest abuse investigations focus on Catholic dioceses. These investigations analyzed thousands of allegations against priests and male clergy members.
Few of these investigations have named nuns.
This is because nuns are usually members of Catholic religious orders, not dioceses. Accusations against order members are treated differently than cases involving diocesan officials.
Because of this distinction, victims of nuns may have fewer options for compensation and justice. Victims abused by nuns often cannot file a claim with diocesan compensation funds. As a result, they may be left with fewer legal avenues than those abused by male clergy members. However, victims still have legal options.
Gender Stereotypes Protect Abusive Nuns From Suspicion
People often assume the perpetrator in a child sexual abuse case is male. In the majority of reported cases, this assumption is correct.
However, women commit sexual abuse more often than people realize. According to a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) report, women were perpetrators in 3-12% of child sexual abuse cases, depending on the age range of the victims.
The misconception that women are not perpetrators stems from an outdated belief. Simply put, many people believe that women are incapable of nonconsensual and violent sexual acts.
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) data collected between 2007 and 2017 found women made up 2% of adult arrests for rape and 8% of arrests for other sex offenses. However, these statistics are general figures. They do not break out crimes against adult victims versus child victims.
The gender stereotypes that protect female abusers enabled many nuns to take advantage of children in their care. Abusive nuns were trusted as followers of God and as females.
Social Stigmas Dissuade Victims From Exposing Abuse
Child sexual abuse is significantly underreported. But, those abused by females may experience even greater misrepresentation.
There are several reasons victims keep these experiences to themselves. Sometimes, shame and confusion overwhelm the victim. Child victims assume no one will believe their word over an adult’s.
In the case of female perpetrators, victims may experience more shame or confusion due to gender stereotypes.
- Victims may not recognize the incident as abuse when a female commits the crime.
- Male victims may feel more shame and embarrassment when pressured or forced into abuse by a female predator.
Benshoff, L. (2019, May 30). Survivors Of Sexual Abuse By Nuns Want Greater Visibility For Their Accusations. NPR.
Kuruvilla, C., Blank, J. (2019, April 12). Women Sexually Abused By Catholic Nuns Speak Up: She Told Me It Was ‘God’s Love.’ Huffpost.
Lipka, M. (2014, August 8). U.S. nuns face shrinking numbers and tensions with the Vatican. Fact Tank. Pew Research Center.
Nadi, A., Siegel, E.R., Thompson, A., et al. (2019, August 13). Nun sexually abused me at Catholic orphanage, woman says. NBC News.
Snyder, H.N. (2000, July). Sexual assault of young children as reported to law enforcement: Victim, incident, and offender characteristics. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Stemple, L., Meyer, I.H. (2017, October 10). Sexual Victimization by Women Is More Common Than Previously Known. Scientific American.