Authority and Abuse Issues among Women Religious

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Giovanni Cucci, SJ

 Giovanni Cucci, SJ / Church Life / Published Date:1 August 2020/Last Updated Date:10 November 2020


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A largely unexplored theme

The Church has often dealt with the issue of abuse, even in recent times, both at the level of reflection and in terms of operational measures and protocols.[1] However, the focus is mostly on the sexual and psychological abuse of children by ministers of the Church, especially priests. These are undoubtedly the predominant concerns, but they are certainly not the only ones.

One issue that has not received sufficient attention so far is abuse within women’s congregations. For the most part it does not take the form of sexual violence and does not involve minors; however, this does not make it any less important or without significant consequences. From pastoral experience and from conversations we have had on the subject, it is mostly an abuse of power and conscience.

La Civilta Cattolica

The allure of power in women’s congregations

The wind of renewal stirred up by the Second Vatican Council and the subsequent decrees of the Magisterium was not experienced in the same way by all religious congregations. Some have successfully risen to the difficult task of updating and reforming; others have not succeeded in doing so, either because of a lack of energy, or because they are convinced that the customs practiced previously can still constitute the ideal mode of government. History teaches us, unfortunately, that without the hard work of confrontation and search for new ways, there is a risk of losing the freshness of the charism, starting a slow but unstoppable decline.

It should also be added that the dynamics of women’s religious life are very different from those of men in many ways. The studies and the many pastoral possibilities for those who have received Orders allow male religious to live with greater openness and autonomy, including matters affecting life in common and their religious vows.

Moreover, the vocational response and enthusiasm that a young woman experiences at the beginning of her journey do not always allow for an accurate evaluation of the difference between the various religious institutes. The willingness and innocence typical of those who are at the beginning of the journey can sometimes cause them to encounter a superior with an ability to identify generous souls vulnerable to manipulation. Slowly, fidelity to the charism becomes fidelity to the tastes and preferences of a particular person who arbitrarily decides who can or cannot take advantage of the opportunities for formation or study, which is considered as a sort of prize to be awarded to the most faithful and docile, to the detriment of those who express a different attitude. This can lead to forms of blackmail and power without limits.

These situations are unfortunately well known and widespread, to the point that they have been considered by the Roman curia. In an interview given to the magazine Donne Chiesa Mondo, Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, Prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, expressed himself clearly: “We have had cases, not many fortunately, of superior generals who, once elected, have never given up their place. They have circumvented all the rules. One even wanted to change the constitutions so that she could remain superior general until her death. And in communities there are religious women who tend to obey blindly, without saying what they think. Many times fear comes into it, especially in the case of religious women. They can be afraid of the superior. Where true obedience is involved, on the contrary, it is necessary to say what the Lord suggests within, with courage and truth to offer the superior more light to decide.”[2]

The situation of some religious communities

It is curious that in today’s cultural context, where authority is unpopular and a source of stress (to the point that many superior generals of male congregations ask to be relieved of their position early), in some women’s institutes there is a tendency to the contrary, to prolong the mandate received at all costs.

In one congregation (currently subject to outside direction) the same sister was general councilor for 12 years, then superior general for 18 years, and managed to get herself elected vicar general again, “directing” the chapter, so that she could continue to govern de facto in the following years.

Such a situation raises the question as to whether the exercise of government is considered a form of insurance of privileges precluded from other members, such as, for example, in the case in question, bringing family members and relatives into the community, hosting them and caring for them without charge, “using” the religious nurses, who are certainly not in a position to act otherwise. In some cases the relatives have also been buried in the congregation’s graves. The young religious, mostly of a different nationality, thus get the message that power is a shortcut that facilitates favors for family members and that the imperative of “leaving father and mother” was only for them.

In another institute the superior, without consulting anyone, brought her mother into the sisters’ community until her death, allowing her to share the community spaces for about twenty years. Every summer she left the community to take her mother on vacation.

Being a superior seems to guarantee other exclusive privileges, such as enjoying the best medical care, while a simple nun cannot even go to an ophthalmologist or dentist, because “we must save money.” The examples unfortunately concern every aspect of ordinary life: from clothing to the possibility of taking a holiday, having a day off or, more simply, being able to go out for a walk; everything must be subject to the decision (or whim) of the same person. If you ask for a substantial garment, you have to wait for the council’s decision, or the request is refused “on the grounds of poverty.” In the end, some nuns turn to family members. It becomes even sadder for them to learn that the superior’s closet is full of clothes bought with community money without consulting anyone, while others barely have a change of clothes.[3]

These are examples that may seem disconcerting and difficult to believe for those who live in male congregations, and in the face of which one can limit oneself to smiling. Unfortunately for some sisters this is the daily reality, a reality that for the most part they cannot make known, because they do not know where to turn for fear of retaliation.

The patrimonial management of an institute as personal property is another painful subject for some women’s congregations, where the complicity between the superior general and the bursar (also for life, despite the limits of age) ends up allowing them complete control of the assets.

As in Giovanni Verga’s story La roba, everything ends up concentrated in the hands of one person (who makes the congregation a family concern, hiring people without the necessary skills, but with whom she has family ties), despite the prescriptions of canon law and the rules of the institute itself. Being the superior general can be the supreme instance; no one can verify the seriousness of the situation. This is to the detriment of those who will come next, especially the younger nuns.

An eloquent message

What idea of religious life is portrayed by these cases? Evidently, governing is synonymous with privilege, to the detriment of the weakest. Some of these institutes have not had novices in Italy for over 50 years. Could it be by chance? Certainly, vocations are in decline, but why at the same time in other countries are there communities that are not declining?

In any case, the lack of vocations does not seem to have raised any questions in this regard, nor has it given rise to the need to update the pastoral ministry for in the quest for vocations, valuing the charisms of the more capable sisters. Contrary to the orientations expressed by the Church for many years now, the custom of importing novices from other countries continues to be practiced, using young women as “stopgaps,” not necessarily guaranteeing them a better formation.[4] The new arrivals, for the most part, are unable to defend themselves, both because of language difficulties and because of an absolute inability to orient themselves outside the religious house where they remain enclosed and in which they live as a prison, more than as in a community.

Cardinal João Braz de Aviz also recalls cases of sexual abuse suffered by the novices at the hands of the formators, a rarer situation than in the male congregations, but perhaps, for this very reason, even more serious and painful. He hopes also in this field for the courage to clarify and protect the weakest as a mission proper to the Church.[5]

The drama of those who leave a congregation

The above, even if reported anonymously, is unfortunately for some nuns the painful daily reality, a situation that has also been clearly recognized by the Magisterium. The document New Wine in New Wineskins, drawing up a balance sheet of religious life after the Council, does not fail to note problematic situations due to lack of trust and total dependence: “Those who exercise power should not encourage infantile attitudes that can lead to non-responsible behaviors […]. Unfortunately, these kinds of situations are more common than many of us are willing to accept and denounce, and are more evident in women’s institutions. This is one of the reasons that seems to motivate many departures. For some, it is the only response to situations that have become unbearable.”[6]

But even the time of leaving religious life, already difficult and painful in itself, brings with it further suffering, mostly unknown to those who belong to male congregations. Cardinal de Aviz mentioned the tragic condition in which these religious find themselves: in many cases they have not received any help; on the contrary, every effort has been made to prevent them from finding accommodation.[7]

The problem has become so serious that Pope Francis has decided to build a house for those who, especially non-Italians, have no place to go. “I have been,” said the cardinal, “to visit these former nuns. I found there a world of wounds, but also of hope. There are very hard cases, in which the superiors kept the documents of nuns who wanted to leave the convent, or who were sent away. These people entered the convent as nuns and find themselves in these conditions. There have also been a few cases of prostitution to support themselves. These are ex-nuns! The Scalabrinian nuns have taken care of this small group. But some cases are really difficult, because we are dealing with wounded people with whom we have to rebuild trust. We must change the attitude of rejection, the temptation to ignore these people, to say ‘it is no longer our problem.’ Often these ex-sisters are not accompanied in any way, not a word is said to help them… all this must absolutely change.”[8]

Some sisters remain in their Institute only because they cannot see any other way of living. They do not know the city, the language; they have not been able to obtain academic qualifications. It is a situation of psychological blackmail that causes great sadness. There are others, on the other hand, who have left the congregation but have not put aside the desire to consecrate themselves to the Lord, and seek a way that can respect their dignity.

It is striking how some forms of consecration that allow greater freedom for those who belong to it, such as the Ordo Virginum, register a growing number of entrants. In several cases these are former religious who have left their congregation often for the reasons mentioned above. They seek an autonomy and a coherence of life that is not incompatible with consecration (to go out, to engage in a pastoral activity, to study, to teach), an autonomy that has been denied them. This constitutes a message that cannot be ignored concerning the future of women’s religious life.

Giving voice to the voiceless

The theme of abuse includes multiple cases of different severity, but which all need addressing if the voice of the Church is to be credible. Dealing with such cases certainly does not mean reducing the reality of women’s religious life to this. No one denies the role and importance of the work carried out by so many women religious in the service of the least – such as, if only to remain on the theme, the ministry of the Scalabrinian nuns mentioned above – nor does one want to put under the same heading all the leadership and styles of authority in women’s congregations . On the contrary, the very existence of such different styles can be helpful in promoting forms of consecration more and more imbued with the new wine of the evangelical spirit. At the same time it addresses the great suffering, on an affective, psychological and spiritual level, which the betrayal of such a spirit entails for many. Young women who had left everything with enthusiasm to follow the Lord now find themselves alone, abandoned and in many cases desperate, in a situation of emotional, relational and professional emptiness. Which fold do these trapped souls belong to? Who will answer their cry for help?

For a priest, ordination and studies remain a guarantee that he will find support and a possibility of incardination which are precluded from a religious woman. How far removed is all this from the way Pope Francis addressed us in convoking the Synod on Young People! In the final passage he recalled Saint Benedict’s recommendation to his abbots “to also consult the young people before any important choice, because ‘it is often to the youngest that the Lord reveals the best solution.’”[9]

And how far it is from the characteristic of old age, that of being preparation for the meeting with the Beloved! Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini noted in this regard: “There are at least two types of adults: those who let themselves be carried away by the vortex of commitments, and those who know how to take time to mature their principles. Only the latter fully deserve the title of adult. The more one grows in responsibility, the more necessary are moments of retreat and silence […]. Then there is the stage of dependence on others, that which we would never want, but which comes, for which we must prepare ourselves.”[10]

When, on the other hand, one holds on to one’s position for too long, the suspicion arises that one expects nothing more from life: it is a message of practical nihilism. Pope Francis notes with sadness the closure to the future by priests and religious attached to their role, unable to delegate, to give space, to prepare someone after them: “They are content to have some power and prefer to be generals of defeated armies rather than mere soldiers of a squadron that continues to fight. How often do we dream of expansionist, meticulous and well-designed apostolic plans, typical of defeated generals!”[11]

It is also for these reasons that the document New Wine in New Wineskins calls for the development of rules at a general level to “diminish the medium-term and long-term effects of this widespread practice of co-optation of positions of responsibility for members of previous general administrations. In other words, this refers to regulations that prevent people from holding government positions past their canonical limits, and not allowing the use of methods that actually circumvent what the norms are trying to prevent” (N. 22).

Therefore, it is not only a question of dealing with such painful cases – although this remains a priority and indispensable task – but also of preparing effective interventions to verify and supervise the manner in which government is exercised, so that such abuses will not be repeated and so that those who wish to consecrate themselves to the Lord may be offered a more evangelical style of living authority and communal life.

The great attention rightly paid to the abuse of children should not prevent a proper response to these situations, even if they will not receive the same media clamor.  Here too, it is a matter of giving a voice to those who have no voice.


DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 08 art. 7, 0620: 10.32009/22072446.0820.7

[1].    See the recent contributions published on this subject in this magazine: F. Lombardi, “Preparing the Meeting of Bishops on the Protection of Minors”, in Civ. Catt. En. Dec. 2018,  https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/preparing-the-meeting-of-bishops-on-the-protection-of-minors/ ; ibid., “After the meeting on Child Protection in the Church”, April, 2019, in https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/after-the-meeting-on-child-protection-in-the-church/ ; ibid., “Protection of Minors and the Pope’s steps forward after the February 2019 Meeting”, in https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/protection-of-minors-and-the-popes-steps-forward-after-the-february-2019-meeting/ ; and, finally, the monograph Safeguarding, in the Perspectives series from La Civiltà Cattolica English edition, February 2018. For a general classification, see G. Cucci – H. Zollner, Chiesa e pedofilia.Una ferita aperta. Un approccio psicologico-pastorale, Milan, Àncora, 2010.

[2].    R. Ferrauto, “Bisogna cambiare. Vocazioni e abbandoni, autorità, beni, rapporto uomo-donna, abusi… Intervista a tutto campo con il prefetto João Braz de Aviz”, in Donne Chiesa Mondo, No. 85, February 2020, 17. This situation is also eloquently described in the document New Wine in New Wineskins: “We must realize, with evangelical parrhesìa, that, in some female congregations, there is a perpetuation of jobs. Some people remain in government, even  in  several  roles,  for  too many years” (Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, New Wine in New Wineskins. The Consecrated Life and its ongoing challenges since Vatican II. Guidelines, January 6, 2017, N. 22).

[3].    These situations are also mentioned in the document New Wine in New Wineskins: “There is still a lot of work to do to encourage community models that are suited to the feminine identity of consecrated women […]. No sister should be relegated to a state of subjection; something that unfortunately happens frequently […]. Be vigilant so that the gap between consecrated women who serve in authority (at all levels) or who are tasked with the administration of goods (at all levels) and the sisters who depend on them does not become a source of suffering from disparity and authoritarianism” (No. 40).

[4].    “If at a time not so long ago certain people deluded themselves by seeking to resolve the vocations crisis by debatable methods, for example by ‘importing vocations’ from other places (often uprooting them from their environment), today no-one should delude himself about resolving the vocations crisis by going around it, because the Lord continues to call in every Church in every place” (Pontifical Work for Ecclesiastical Vocations, New Vocations for a New Europe, Final Document of the Congress on Vocations to the Priesthood and to Consecrated Life in Europe, 1997, No. 13 c). This is a      warning that, unfortunately, in these cases is completely disregarded.

[5].    “Nine cases were reported in one congregation. This phenomenon affecting women has remained more hidden. But it comes out. It will have to come out. Many times the maturity in the emotional and sexual field is weak, it is      relative. If accusations come up, we welcome them and begin to discern them. Many reports      are true, many are not, but we do not hide any problems. The pope asks us for total transparency” (R. Ferrauto, “Bisogna cambiare…”, op. cit., 18). In the same interview the cardinal mentions the serious problem of sexual abuse of religious by priests, a subject also largely unexplored. For an in-depth examination, cf. A. Deodato, Vorrei risorgere dalle mie ferite. Donne consacrate e abusi sessuali, Bologna, EDB, 2016.

[6].    Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, New Wine in New Wineskins…, op. cit., N. 21; cf. N. 39.

[7].    Canon 702 of the Code of Canon Law specifies: “Those who legitimately leave the religious institute or have been legitimately discharged from it cannot demand anything from the institute itself for any activity carried out there” (No. 1). But it adds immediately afterwards: “The institute must nevertheless observe fairness and evangelical charity toward the religious who leaves it” (No. 2).

[8].    R. Ferrauto, “Bisogna cambiare…”, op. cit., 17.

[9].    Rule of St. Benedict III, 3; Francis, Letter to young people on the occasion of the presentation of the Preparatory Document of the XV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, January 13, 2017.

[10].   C. M. Martini, Le età della vita, Milan, Mondadori, 2010, 191; 193.

[11].   Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, November 24, 2013, No. 96.