Bill Smith’s article entitled “Nuns as Sexual Victims Get Little Notice,” published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of Sunday, January 5, 2003, and carried in other newspapers throughout the country, was based on a study done by three St. Louis University researchers, and published in 1998. The article implied that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious deliberately hid the study results by asking the researchers not to publish their findings in the popular press but rather in two professional journals and the periodical Review for Religious. One of the researchers is quoted as saying that, “[Women religious] don’t wash [their] dirty laundry in the public; [they say] ‘We’ll take care of it.’” A former priest is quoted as saying, “[Female church leaders can be] as much a part of this toxic environment of cover-up and denial [as male Church leaders.]”
Some facts might be helpful. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious did not initiate, call for, or design the study. LCWR responded to the request of the researchers to provide a database from which to draw a random sample for the study. And in 1998 when the results were shared, there were few surprises to LCWR, primarily because long before then, congregations of women religious were already aware of the sexual abuse histories of their members and were doing something about it.
In the mid-80’s I was a therapist working for the Archdiocese of St. Louis exclusively with women religious. At that time, another sister and I organized a conference featuring a noted speaker on the topic of sexual abuse. We expected about 50 participants to attend. In fact, over 300 sisters came – members and leaders - from all the local religious congregations. Before leaving my ministry in St. Louis in 1989, I had worked with numerous individuals and groups of religious women survivors of abuse – all supported and funded by their religious congregations.
Increased consciousness was hardly limited to my practice, or to the St. Louis area. Sisters in all parts of the country were aware of the issues, and were proactive in making services and educational opportunities available to their members. So, it is a serious misrepresentation to say that religious “have made no changes as a result of the report.” Perhaps a more accurate statement would be to say that, long before the results of the study appeared, congregations of women religious were attuned to the issue, and had invested large amounts of time, energy and resources in the healing of their members.