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Spotlight Report

Nuns' group to seek greater voice in Rome

By Mary Leonard , Globe Staff, 4/26/2002

WASHINGTON - A US delegation of Roman Catholic nuns travels to Rome today prepared to deliver Vatican officials a frank letter denouncing the church's handling of sexual abuse cases and calling for power-sharing with religious women and an open dialogue on human sexuality.

''The reality is, this scandal taints us all,'' said Sister Kathleen Pruitt, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace in Bellevue, Wash. ''I would be less than honest if I didn't say there is anger among religious women at the coverup and misuse of authority in the church.''

Pruitt, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a Vatican-sanctioned group that represents a majority of US Catholic sisters, is leading the four-woman delegation to Rome. The nuns have a long-scheduled meeting next week with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the conservative head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and they intend to put the sex abuse scandal at the top of their agenda.

Many nuns say they are deeply hurt by the scandal; in Boston, some worked in parishes with priests who have been accused of abuse or were the teachers of boys who were victims. They say they are speaking out now with compassion, after much prayer, and because they feel compelled in their traditional roles as helpers and healers to restore trust and bring reconciliation to the church.

''We are called to it,'' said Sister Joan Duffy, president of the 600-member Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston, the largest congregation of religious women in the city. ''We belong to this broken church, and we are committed to renewing it and to making sure this situation doesn't happen again.''

To that end, in a letter and in person, the delegation to Rome will respectfully demand of Ratzinger, one of the pope's closest advisers, that women take a larger role in diocese policy-making and gain a voice in any future deliberations on the fate of priests accused of molesting children, Pruitt said.

''I would hope that the church would broaden its inclusion of women in those kinds of decisions,'' Pruitt said. ''We can't deal with men in this kind of [leadership] position of power and authority, and we can't deal with things done in secrecy to protect the institution.''

They also plan to tell Vatican officials that education in human sexuality, including open discussions of homosexuality and clergy attitudes toward women, must be integrated into a priest's seminary training.

The Leadership Conference, made up of 1,000 elected leaders from nearly 400 religious orders across the nation, has spoken out before, and with a liberal voice, on issues of social justice, war, and poverty. The planned challenge to the church hierarchy and call for giving women power in an institution that by doctrinal authority elevates only men is unusual, if not unprecedented.

The smaller and more conservative Council of Major Superiors of Women, which broke away from the Leadership Conference in 1993, has not made a public statement on the church crisis. A spokeswoman said the council's leaders were at a meeting in Canada and could not be reached for comment.

Many nuns feel betrayed by the church leadership and believe that the crisis has damaged their effectiveness as moral examples in the schools, charities, and hospitals they run, Pruitt said.

''Because we are part of the church, it undermines our credibility on other issues and lessens our moral voice,'' she said. ''We have no explicit proof of that, but there's an inner feeling telling us at this moment, we can do no more than hang our heads.''

There is also a fear, expressed privately by some nuns, that they may be implicated as conspirators who kept silent about known cases of abuse. Ironically, for the last decade in the Archdiocese of Boston, the Chancery's point person in dealing with victims of sexual abuse has been a nun: First, it was Sister Catherine E. Mulkerrin. And from the mid-1990s until she recently was replaced, it was Sister Rita McCarthy.

On April 5, members of the Leadership Conference's executive committee released a public statement, saying they were ''deeply troubled by the current escalating crisis of allegations of clerical abuse'' and urging church officials to address and correct its causes.

''This calls for openness, radical honesty, and transparency,'' the statement said. ''We believe that, in this crisis, there is an opportunity for us to be self-critical rather than defensive, thereby creating together a more whole and healthy church.''

A few days later, 50 leaders of women's congregations in New England met in Holyoke, affirmed the Leadership statement, and added their own tough words to address the crisis, Duffy said.

''We deplore the abuse of power of those who concealed crimes and avoided taking responsibility,'' their statement said. ''Both forms of abuse betray the commandments of love and the call to justice inherent in the life of Jesus Christ.''

In addition to its statement, the Leadership Conference drafted and sent letters to every American bishop, including Wilton Gregory, head of the US Conference of Bishops, with requests that women be more integrated into decision-making councils and that the church confront directly issues of sexuality.

Pruitt said she intends to deliver the letter to Ratzinger and to other officials in the Roman Curia when the delegation meets with them over the next week.

''I cannot say categorically that our views will be listened to,'' she said. ''But this is a chastening moment for the church, and I know our voices will be heard.''

She said the letter has generated some positive feedback from bishops and many expressions of thanks from nuns who are reluctant to speak out themselves.

Leadership Conference officials will have an observer status at the meeting in Dallas in June when US bishops draft policies implementing the agreement, reached by church leaders this week in Rome, to make it easier to remove priests who have abused minors.

The group plans to press its issues with the bishops in the corridors and at private meetings in Dallas. First, Pruitt said, the sisters will assert that if women had been involved in earlier diocesan decision-making, the rights and sensitivities of children and families might have been given more weight against the impulse of bishops to protect abusive priests. Second, they will remind officials that many priests enter the seminary as teenagers and often receive no sex education as a part of their training.

''Homosexuality is not the issue. Celibacy is not the issue,'' Pruitt said. ''The issue is whether we will address the need in the church for an integrated, holistic theology of human sexuality and start discussing how you foster healthy relationships.''

Mary Leonard can be reached at mleonard@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/26/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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