A media report has lifted the lid on “abuses of power and conscience” and “psychological blackmail” in some women’s orders.

– “Blackmail” employed by some superiors to achieve “power without limits”

“One issue that has not received sufficient attention so far is abuse within women’s congregations”, denounced semi-official Vatican journal La Civiltà Cattolica in an article published July 30, “Abuses of authority in the Church: problems and challenges of female religious life”.

In the piece, Jesuit Father Giovanni Cucci, a professor of psychology and philosophy at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University, warned that although the “abuses of power and conscience” suffered by many nuns “do[] not take the form of sexual violence and do[] not involve minors… [they are] no less important and have significant consequences”.

Cucci identified a whole host of abuses women religious can find themselves subjected to, starting with the explosive mix of the unthinking enthusiasm of many young nuns at the beginning of their journey of consecrated life combined “with the ability of some superiors…. to identify souls that are generous but also vulnerable to manipulation”.

“Slowly, fidelity to the charism becomes fidelity to the tastes and preferences of a particular person, who arbitrarily decides who can or cannot take advantage of the possibilities of formation or study, considered a kind of prize given to the most loyal and compliant, excluding those who think differently”, Cucci decried.

Such favouritism is one of the “forms of blackmail” female superiors employ to achieve “power without limits” in their orders, the Jesuit deplored.

– Convent can feel “more like a prison than a community”

The “power without limits” some leaders of women’s orders in the Church set their sights on leads to all kinds of Church law abuses and of nepotism, the Civiltà Cattolica article went on to denounce, as well as to the reservation of “exclusive privileges” to the leader herself or to her inner circle.

While superiors and even their family members often enjoy the best medical care, “those who are simple nuns cannot even go to the ophthalmologist or dentist, because ‘we have to save money'”, Cucci lamented.

Not only in going to the doctor, but in “every aspect of ordinary life” there have been and are cases of women superiors playing favours with members of the community, the article said.

From being able to buy warm clothes “to the possibility of taking a holiday, having a day off or, more simply, being able to go out for a walk, everything depends on the decision (or whim)” of the superior, Cucci deplored.

The take-away for many suffering nuns is that “governing is synonymous with privilege, to the detriment of the weakest”, while their convent “is more like a prison than a community”, he added.

And if some nuns’ suffering at being excluded and having barely a change of clothes is only compounded by the knowledge “that the superior’s closet is full of clothes bought with community money without consulting anyone”, the Jesuit continued, the pain is made unbearable in certain cases for some women religious who are afraid to speak out “because they do not know where to turn or for fear of retaliation”.

– Exposing abuses “a matter of giving voice to those who have no voice”

The Civiltà Cattolica litany of abuses some unfortunate nuns are subjected to went on: young religious “imported” from overseas being used as “stopgaps” for dying orders, “instead of guaranteeing them a better formation”; cases of sexual abuse suffered by novices at the hands of their formators; nuns who wish to leave their convents but who have their identification papers retained by superiors and who end up with no place to go upon exiting their communities or worse, turn to prostitution to be able to survive.

Cucci noted that the Vatican has long been aware of the problems that can arise in female religious orders, and has even written a document – the 2017 text of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, “New wine in new wineskins: Consecrated life and its ongoing challenges” – with which guidelines it hopes to “supervise the manner in which government is exercised” in women’s religious orders, “so that such abuses may not be repeated and so that those who wish to consecrate themselves to the Lord may be offered a more evangelical way of living authority and fraternal life”.

But for now, Cucci urged that “the great attention rightly given to abuses of minors should not prevent adequate care from being given to these situations” in which unfortunate nuns suffer all kinds of manipulation and intimidation in their communities.

As with victims of clerical pedophilia, “in this case too, it is a matter of giving voice to those who have no voice”, the Jesuit concluded.

More stories on Novena on abuses in Catholic women’s orders:

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

German nuns denounce “dependence” on priests “takes away our dignity”

German nuns describe search for sacrament during COVID-19 beyond “dependence” on ordained men

“Total exploitation”: Former Vatican journalist hits out at priests’ treatment of members of women’s orders

Experts warn stress, abuse, “unattainable ideal” of spirituality causing drop in number in women’s orders, decline in new vocations

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

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


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