What the Nuns Didn't Know

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Where were the nuns? This is what I keep wondering as priest after priest is accused of sexual misconduct. After all, the nuns were everywhere in our parish school, acting as mother hens, camp counselors, choirmasters and coaches, mysteriously able to see all, despite those white coifs blocking their peripheral vision. Without families and with no teachers' union, the sisters spent every waking moment with us, running an after-school program of word games, field hockey and making statues of the saints out of plaster of Paris.

If they were omnipresent, shouldn't they have been able to shield the boys from abusive priests? As I got older, I heard whisperings: Father Jim hanging out too long in the locker room; altar boys joking about changing quickly to avoid being cornered by the pastor for a heart-to-heart talk. Didn't the sisters hear the same thing?

As far as I know, Father Jim never did more than snap towels with the guys. But if he had, there were lots of reasons why the nuns would have been clueless or in denial. Says Sister Joan Chittister, 50 years a Benedictine nun and the author of more than a dozen books: "Since all these charges have come out, we look at one another and ask, 'Did you know? How could we have missed this?'" Sister Joan remembers scolding more than one youngster for being late to class, never thinking it could be anything more than dawdling: "I remember saying, 'Mass has been over a half-hour. Where have you been?' If Johnny said he was helping Father, I might be irritated, but I wouldn't question Father." And a child was hardly likely to go to a virginal nun to report sexual activity. Can you imagine one of the boys from The Bells of St. Mary's going to Sister Ingrid Bergman and confiding that he'd been fondled by Father Bing Crosby?

What Sister Joan and other nuns recall is being lesser members of the church in the most male-dominated institution in the Western world, a lack of standing that would eventually drive thousands of nuns away and keep new ones from joining. Priests were kings. While nuns lived communally, the priests lived privately in a large house with no one to answer to, unless you count the usually elderly housekeeper. Nuns rarely saw the priests other than at Mass or on a ceremonial visit to the classroom to hand out report cards. The priests always had a roll of bills in their pocket and a big black car to take the kids out for a spin. Sister Joan remembered how the nuns envied the priests their freedom, only in retrospect seeing how they might have misused it. "We didn't have a penny in the pocket of our medieval uniforms, while the priests could throw off their collars and take the kids out for a hamburger and a baseball game."

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What a shame. If nuns had had higher status, they might have prevented the cover-up. According to Syracuse history professor Margaret Susan Thompson, who researched the archives of 75 religious orders, "nuns had no standing; even Mother Superior wouldn't call a bishop." Monsignor Thomas Duffy of Blessed Sacrament Church in Washington says the nuns simply wouldn't have known what the priests were up to at the parishes he served in. But he also contends they would have spoken out come what may. "Sister Gonzaga — God rest her soul, I just buried her this week — was very strong. If she'd thought anyone was taking advantage of one of her students, she would have been charging in here to report it."

None of this is to say the nuns weren't capable of abuse in their own way. They could be cruelly punishing in the classroom, wielding a mean ruler, taping a mouth shut — although they were generally punished harshly for such aberrations. Priests, guilty of far worse transgressions, were handled with kid gloves. The all-male power structure of the church employed the worst tactics of its secular counterparts: silencing victims, covering up crimes, shifting bad priests around like fungible account executives. Think if Father John Geoghan had been Sister Johanna Geoghan. Would she have been recycled from parish to parish, even given a sabbatical to Rome? Not according to Sister Joan. A nun who physically harmed a child would be sent "back to the motherhouse to boil potatoes or sew coifs. She wouldn't see the inside of a school again."

If only the Pope were infallible enough to see that a thin blue line could have helped avoid the current catastrophe. I can imagine most nuns I know finding a way to forgive Father Geoghan and getting him help. But I can't imagine any of them protecting him at the cost of a child. Perhaps this will inspire Pope John Paul, or his successor, to see the wisdom of admitting women to the priesthood. I know a few good nuns.