A journalist has denounced a lack of Vatican will and “human resources” to stamp out the sexual and spiritual abuse of nuns by bishops and priests.

– “Asymmetrical relationships” such as in spiritual direction a risk factor for aggressions

French journalist Constance Vilanova has just published a book – Religieuses abusées, Le Grand silence (“Abused Women Religious: The Great Silence”) – in the course of preparations for which she travelled to various countries to hear from nuns who have fallen prey to abusive ordained men, and also went to the Vatican to get Rome’s side of the story.

Vilanova shared with Swiss Catholic news agency Cath.ch in an October 20 interview some of the results of her investigations, which began out of a drive to understand the impact of the #MeToo movement in the Church and later extended to comprehensive surveys and interviews.

In the case of women religious, “it is very rare for sexual abuse to occur out of the blue. Usually the nun knows her aggressor and has been conditioned not to say anything and not to understand that something is wrong”, the journalist explained.

She added that an especially vexed question in the investigation of alleged aggressions against female religious – at least for Church authorities – is that of consent.

“To define spiritual abuse, for example, or a case of aggression, you have to understand how the relationship is constructed”, Vilanova explained.

She observed that “what encourages abuse is asymmetrical relationships, as in spiritual accompaniment”, especially when nuns are guided and even sometimes “brainwashed” by a “charismatic” priest.

“Then there are factors of vulnerability, such as youth. Finally, there is the notion of ‘grip’, which is very recent and which the Church has only recently grasped. All these elements make it possible to detect whether or not there is abuse” rather than a consenting relationship between female religious and cleric, Vilanova explained.

– “Doublespeak” and “cant” still coming from Vatican despite Pope’s best efforts

In the course of research for her book, Vilanova travelled to the Vatican, where she met with Adjunct Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and Archbishop of Malta Charles Scicluna, who is widely regarded as Pope Francis’ ‘right-hand man’ in his “zero tolerance” approach to abuse in the Church.

Vilanova said that Scicluna told her that while the CDF handles cases of clergy sex abuse against minors, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, on the one hand, and the Congregation for the Clergy, on the other, handle cases of the abuse of nuns where the perpetrators are religious and diocesan priests, respectively.

But whereas Vilanova said that she had an open discussion with Scicluna on such topics as the mechanisms of silence in the Church and the desire to protect the institution at all costs, she denounced that at the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life all she met with was “a lot of doublespeak” and “cant” in an under-resourced office.

At that Congregation Vilanova also said she had the feeling that she was evoking a “non-problem”. “They told me of cases where the victim consented when this was not the case”, she denounced.

“As a result of the abuse crisis, the Church is obliged to be transparent. But I find that that is a bit of a transparent varnish and that there is a control of speech”, the journalist deplored, adding that the few officials who staff the Vatican department for religious “are not capable of dealing with” all the cases of abuse against nuns that have surfaced and are surfacing.

Referring to Francis’ 2019 motu proprio Vox estis lux mundi – which in theory made it easier for the Church to act against priests and bishops who abuse nuns – Vilanova lamented that although “the Pope continues his fight for zero tolerance… the application seems not to be effective”.

– “Clericalism” which treats priests like “princes” at root of problem

As for the reasons behind the plague of the abuse of nuns by ordained men, Vilanova pointed to “clericalism” and to the fact that priests are “badly trained”.

“In the seminaries, we find ourselves faced with people who are often not very autonomous and who, when they leave, are treated like princes”, the journalist lamented.

Pinning down the problem of clericalism even further, Vilanova pointed to the widespread belief in the Church “that the priest acts permanently in persona Christi, whereas this is not the case outside the sacraments”.

“There is no questioning” of what priests say and do, the journalist deplored.

That clericalism leads not only to sexual and spiritual abuse but also labour abuse and abuses of power too, Vilanova denounceed, such as when nuns “who have written theses… find themselves doing housework for bishops”.

“Wherever you look – in Europe, in India or in the Democratic Republic of Congo – the stratagems put in place by the ‘predators’ are the same… This is probably what struck me most”, the journalist continued.

Vilanoca concluded with a powerful lament of the situation of “tension” that exists in the Church between those who are fighting for transparency and those who still want to keep all the problems in house.

“What the Pope says is not necessarily applied at the bottom of the ladder”, the journalist deplored, ruing the fact that she couldn’t count the number of refusals for interviews that she received in the course of her investigations.

“There is a divide between the Vatican texts and the Pope’s speeches and their application”. she said, but she added that “the good thing is that with social networks, the law of silence is no longer possible and the situation is changing”.

More on Novena on the abuse of nuns by clerics:

“Women are a revolution”: Vatican journalist-turned-critic warns #NunsToo “revolt” brewing among female religious

Report lifts lid on “abuses of power and conscience”, “psychological blackmail” in women’s orders

Vatican cardinal denounces “sick system of submission and domination” women religious suffer at hands of men

“Total exploitation”: Former Vatican journalist hits out at priests’ treatment of nuns

Burnout, stress, exploitation, prostitution… Vatican magazine lifts lid on abuse of nuns


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