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Nuns Hope Abuse Scandal Brings Extensive Reform

April 30, 2002|ELIZABETH MEHREN and MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

NEWTON, Mass. — The pictures from Rome filled Sister Marie LaBollita with fury. All those white-haired men in red vestments, but not one victim of clerical sexual abuse. Not a single family member to attest to the toll of sexual violation. Not one expert on pedophilia.

Not one woman.

"It's a disgrace," said LaBollita, who watched the Vatican gathering of America's cardinals last week from her office at Our Lady Help of Christians Catholic church in Newton. "I'm outraged."

Far from a feminist firebrand, this 41-year veteran of the Sisters of Charity reflects the sense of indignation rising among many of this country's 76,000 Roman Catholic nuns. For centuries, they stood by in silent servitude while the men ran the shop. Now, with their church roiled by a massive sex abuse scandal, many nuns are voicing anger and a deep sense of betrayal.

Along with thousands of lay Catholics and some in the clergy itself, nuns are calling for a greater and more egalitarian role for women in the church. Nuns have seized on the scandal as an opportunity to question mandatory celibacy for the priesthood--and to urge the church to adopt a more enlightened attitude toward sexuality.

Ranging from teenagers to elderly women and working in diverse capacities, America's nuns are not a monolithic group. No poll has been taken to generalize their response to the clerical abuse scandal. But the nation's largest organization of nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, plans to address the crisis at meetings this week at the Vatican.

For nuns, the moment is pivotal, said Eugene Kennedy, author of "The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality."

"The American church owes its success to women, the nuns who have sacrificed so heroically," said Kennedy, a professor emeritus at Loyola University in Chicago. "These women have a clear consciousness that they, as much as the buildings or the bishops, are the church--and they are going to speak out. When that voice speaks, it will speak clearly and loudly."

For centuries, nuns have served as caregivers: teachers, nurses, midwives and ministers "to those wounded by violence and stripped of hope." Those very words appeared in the vow LaBollita, 61, took when she joined her order. Since then, Vatican decrees have changed the way nuns live. LaBollita has traded her habit for a red blazer and trim black skirt. She drives her Honda so fast that friends call her "the flying nun."

Still, the sisters are beholden to an ancient institution dominated by a male hierarchy.

But they see the prospect of revolution. Tragic and troubling as it is, these nuns say, the controversy over sexual misconduct by priests may just open the Vatican gates to long-needed reform.

"I think this constitutes a turning point," said Chris Schenk, a sister of St. Joseph in Cleveland. "It has energized the nuns. You're looking at the consequences of a clerical culture that has cultivated secrecy and excluded women. That's not going to work anymore."

The church, agreed Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun who lives in Erie, Pa., cannot continue to stand on its "tripod culture" of "silence, exclusivity and demonization."

"What has happened in many cases is a crime, a sin. But it is also a symptom of an institutional organization that needs change," said Chittister, who was rebuked last year by Rome for writing and lecturing on women's rights in the church.

"What we are seeing is the beginning of reform in the church, not the end by a long shot."

The biggest changes would be the inclusion of women in church policymaking and the expansion of the Catholic hierarchy to include women.

"It's got to happen," Chittister said. "You've got to engage the whole church in determining what the church needs."

When that will happen is another question. At present, Chittister pointed out, "we have no official status whatsoever in the church hierarchy. We will not be called on for this crisis, any more than the laity will be called on."

(The nuns answer to the heads of their orders, who report to the Vatican. In some cases, nuns also are subject to the authority of local dioceses.)

Many nuns also want an end to secretive practices in the church.

"The structure of the church does not allow for open conversation," said Sister Nancy Sylvester, a member of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and former director of a social justice lobbying group in Washington, D.C. "Secrecy is a tool the leadership uses to maintain power and control over issues of controversy."

In addition, these nuns are calling for more open discussions about sexual ethics in the church.

"The theology of human sexuality is woefully underdeveloped in the Roman Catholic Church," said Sister Kathleen Pruitt of Seattle, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. While forbidden to marry, nuns tend to be better educated than priests in the field of human sexuality because their professional training requires it, said Pruitt, a sister of St. Joseph of Peace.

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