June 14 2002

From the Convent – No-Nonsense Nuns Speak Out On Scandal

By Sister Teresa Ann Coronas

SAN FRANCISCO—In all the hubbub over the Roman Catholic bishops’ sex abuse scandal meeting in Dallas, voices of us Catholic nuns — traditionally seen, not heard — are absent. But the religious sisterhoodwas instrumental in opening the floodgates of the scandal, because we also traditionally speak for children. And outside the Dallas meeting, nuns are talking to each other and sometimes in public — not always in ways you might expect.

Biblical references, the old stand-by for ready answers to tough situations, do not even come up. I have not heard a word among religious sisters about divine punishment that should be meted out to perpetrators, such as in the New Testament warnings, “If you scandalize the little ones, better a millstone be tied around your neck and you be thrown into the ocean,” or “If your hand sin, cut it off.” Even among my friends who entered the convent in the 1950s or ’60s, practical observations coupled with hope for a rejuvenated church seem to be a common thread. And so does participation in meeting the scandal head-on.

After years of effort, it was Sister Jane Kelly of Santa Rosa, Calif., who triggered the investigation of Bishop Patrick Ziemann and ordained priest Jorge Hume Salas, a process that led to the bishop’s resignation and the priest’s dismissal. The Oakland Diocese has enlisted its chancellor, Sister Barbara Flannery, to speak at parish meetings and work with sex abuse survivors. And Hawaii Sister Anne Faber Chang insists throwing light on the terrible events is deeply salutary.

“The scandals mean we will have good men who really want to be priests and who are willing to live good lives — they will be the only ones to remain,” says Sister Chang, who conducts an after-school program for children in Honolulu.

Unlike the Church’s male hierarchy, which for years shuttled abusive priests around the country in a sick shell game of denial and deception, Sister Merlynn Jane Martin of Sacramento says “exposure” is the solution for the problem. “It all should be brought out in the open and taken care of, like a cancerous growth.” True to her Nebraska farmgirl upbringing, Sister Martin says identifying and digging up sad events “can only bring new growth and life to the Church.”

Some Catholics claim their faith is being severely tested and even leave the Church as details of crimes and omissions emerge. Toward them, Sister Ellen Marie Ryan has a no-nonsense attitude. “The Church has never taught that abuse was acceptable,” said the grant writer for San Diego’s St. Vincent de Paul Village. “For those abandoning their Catholic faith because of a few wrongdoers, let them. Even Jesus had his Judas, but the Church still exists.”

The sisters I talk to are adamant that victims deserve utmost attention to their deep hurt and remuneration. Many are also concerned, however, that caution is required against untrue charges against honest priests, “to filter false memories or money-inspired allegations,” as Sister Ryan has said. Indeed, as a 70-year-old nun who is still working in the business world, I see many priests who appear to be withdrawn, purposely muting their usually outgoing, people-friendly demeanor.

But those priests are right. Allegations now automatically brand a cleric guilty until proven innocent. Witness the TV orgy when Chicago’s Archbishop Joseph Bernardin meekly fought off sexual abuse allegations while he was dealing with terminal cancer. Luckily, his accuser recanted and the archbishop died in peace with his reputation intact. Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony was in the dark limelight, too, until he successfully fended off accusations by a Fresno woman.

Today, I’d like a forceful leader like the TV darling of the 1950s, evangelist Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, to urge good priests to hold their heads high and rally on. He would focus his piercing eyes and soul-wrenching voice in a way to chastise wrongdoers.

Most nuns continue to respect — and some revere — the male priesthood. Church attendance has not fallen measurably. Parishes still hum with activities spearheaded by priests who remain loved and trusted by parishioners. But priests and bishops seriously need the heart and presence of women to help in today’s mess. Sister Barbara Flannery’s TV news appearances, for instance, add a soft and caring dimension that priests or bishops cannot even touch.

And let’s get real. Women will not be ordained priests in the Catholic Church until the next millennium. But perhaps in the present crisis, nuns may be raised from the second-class status they hold and help bring peace and stability to St. Peter’s storm-wracked boat, the institutional Catholic Church manned by an all-male crew.

Sister Coronas (sisterta@pacificnews.org) has been a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet for 51 years and was a writer for the Hawaii Catholic Herald.

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