Complaints of Sex Abuse by Nuns Begin to Emerge

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Complaints of sex abuse by nuns begin to emerge

The pain is strong for accusers just coming to terms with what they say happened to them.

@Even now, decades later, the victims' voices falter as they describe the encounters that damaged them in ways they cannot fully cast off.

Mary Dunford tells of a molester visiting her dormitory bed when she was 15. Susan Pavlak speaks of the teacher who talked to her of love, then seduced her at 16. Siblings Christine Bertrand and Karen Britten and their childhood friend Patricia Schwartz describe how their piano teacher touched them in ways no adult should touch a child.

In each case, the perpetrator was, or recently had been, a Roman Catholic nun.

The five women, who said they were abused in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, are among about a dozen Minnesotans and an estimated 400 women and men nationwide who have recently come forward to talk about being sexually abused by nuns.

Last month, Britten, 48, of Highland Park, Ill., and Schwartz, 51, of Eden Prairie, sued the Sisters of St. Francis in Rochester over alleged abuse by a nun in the 1960s. Bertrand, 51, of Sierra Madre, Calif., filed suit against the same nun last year.

Most reports of sexual abuse by nuns have emerged well after the surge of news about abuse by Catholic priests and brothers, and there is little evidence that abuse by nuns has continued. But survivors are increasingly coming forward to seek apologies and reparations.

St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, who specializes in clergy sex-abuse cases, said he has received about a dozen plausible reports of abuse by nuns with Minnesota ties.

The issue, Anderson said, "has only been on my radar for a few years. We're likely to see more cases in the years to come."

Accusers interviewed for this story say they've come forward only recently because it took them years to fully remember or process the abuse and decide how to deal with it.

Sexual abuse by nuns has gone largely unaddressed and unreported until now in part because of cultural biases about gender roles and sex, say those knowledgeable about the cases. Women often abuse in seductive ways that silence and confuse victims, Anderson said.

And when abuse is alleged, it can be difficult for victims to assign accountability in the maze of 450 women's religious orders. The Catholic Church says it has no jurisdiction over the orders.

But slowly, more victims are telling their stories. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) says it has received as many as 400 reports nationwide of sex abuse by nuns, "which probably just scratches the surface," said executive director David Clohessy.

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