Burnout, stress, exploitation, prostitution… A Vatican magazine has lifted the lid on the abuse of nuns all over the world.

Driving the news

Donne Chiesa Mondo – the women’s supplement to official Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romanohas dedicated its February issue to denouncing the deplorable working conditions and sexual and power abuses they suffer at the hands of male and female superiors.

The stories in the magazine are extraordinary, according to excerpts published ahead of the January 26 official release date.

Nuns sexually abused by other nuns, including in one congregation which just in itself recorded nine cases of this type of crime.

Serious abuses of power, in which female leaders of convents refuse to step aside at the end of their mandate and continue to expect blind obedience and non-stop work from their charges.

And perhaps most serious of all: nuns kicked out of their houses in such numbers that Pope Francis has been forced to authorise the opening of a special home in Rome for female religious left out on the street.

Go deeper

On this last problem – of nuns left homeless – “there are some really tough cases, in which the superiors withheld the identity documents of the sisters who wanted to leave the convent, or who were kicked out”, the head of the Vatican’s religious orders department, Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, told Donne Chiesa Mondo.

“There were also cases of prostitution to be able to provide for themselves. These are ex-nuns!”, the prelate deplored.

“It’s a phenomenon that’s been hidden up until now, but that will have to come out into the open”, Braz de Aviz said.

“We are dealing with people who are wounded, and for whom we have to rebuild trust. We have to change this attitude of rejection, the temptation to ignore these people and say ‘you’re not our problem anymore’.

“All of this must absolutely change”, the cardinal insisted.

On the abuses of power nuns suffer, “we’ve had cases, not many thank goodness, of superiors who once they were elected refused to step down. They went around all the rules”, the cardinal continued.

“And in the communities there are sisters who tend to blindly obey, without saying what they think”, he said, when “in true obedience, on the contrary, it is necessary to say what the Lord suggests within, with courage and truth” and “then obey, as Jesus did”.

“When authority is interpreted as power and not as service, it can lead to painful situations. I believe that people who perform leadership roles should also learn to share life and all needs with the community such as cooking or cleaning”, Braz de Aviz explained.

Why it matters

But if the sexual abuse and abuses of power nuns suffer weren’t enough, Donne Chiesa Mondo also denounces the burnout more and more female religious are braving which in some cases, the magazine said, has led to the extreme of post-traumatic stress disorder.

To counter that nervous exhaustion of an increasing number of sisters, the umbrella group of women religious – the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) – has decided to create a special Personal Care Commission which over the next three years will study the abusive working conditions which lead to the emotional collapse of too many nuns, Donne Chiesa Mondo announced.

Those working conditions religious are under will be studied not just in the one-off cases but “within the ecosystem” of “nun, congregation, community and society”, said Maryanne Loughry, of the UISG.

The goal is to create a kind of employment contract for nuns, the Australian sister explained.

“Each religious must have a kind of code of conduct, a letter of agreement with the bishop or pastor to say: ‘You know, I worked 38 hours this week or I can’t work on Sunday and I’ll be back on Monday, I need a day off’. A work contract makes you stronger”, Loughry said.

“If I don’t know the limits of my commitment, I can’t control my stress”, the nun, who is also a psychologist, said.

“Not having control of one’s life, not being able to plan, undermines mental health. Working in ambiguity, without certain rules, can make me feel intimidated, abused, harassed”.

“We have to invest in the welfare of sisters by setting standards: two weeks of vacation, a salary, decent housing, internet access!, Loughry insisted, suggesting too that sisters deserve a sabbatical or long-service leave for every five years of service.

“With clear rules, abuse is avoided and there are clear ways to deal with it”, Loughry concluded.

Next on Novena:

Vatican paper implores Pope “to break wall of inequality between women and men in Church”

Former Vatican journalist says unpaid women’s work keeping Church alive

Former Vatican journalist doubles down on claims nuns enslaved, abused by priests “all over the world”

Nun Vatican Synod consultant certain “change will come” on more women in Church leadership


Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.