Not Just Boys: Catholic Church Abuse of Women + Girls

It was indeed outrageous that the Reverend Raniero Cantalamessa, with the Pope in eyeshot, compared the public outcry over the Catholic Church priest abuse scandal to homicidal anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany.

But there was another reason to be troubled by Cantalamessa’s homily. Though he admirably addressed the crucial need to end violence against women, he did so without any acknowledgment of the church’s own culpability in the abuse, endangerment and intimidation of women.

“Much of this violence [against women],” he declared soberly, “has a sexual background.”

Yes, let’s start there. In 2001, a year before the pedophilia crisis hit the news, the National Catholic Reporter analyzed internal church reports written by two Catholic nuns—a physician who was a Medical Missionary of Mary and the AIDS coordinator for the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development—documenting the sexual exploitation of nuns by priests in 23 countries on five continents.

One of the most stunning allegations concerned a nun impregnated by a priest who forced her to have an abortion; she died from complications, and he officiated at her funeral.  Priests were also alleged to have raped young nuns who approached them for the required certificates to enter religious orders; to have told nuns that oral contraceptives would protect them from AIDS; and to have used nuns as “safe” alternatives to prostitutes in countries plagued by AIDS—with some priests going so far as to demand that heads of convents make the nuns sexually available to them.

And it is not just nuns, of course. As in the recently reported case of a priest who allegedly molested a 14-year-old Minnesota girl and was not de-frocked but simply transferred to a parish in India (after the Vatican supposedly toughened up its policies), thousands of girls, from infants to adolescents, have been molested by priests. Adult Catholic women have been subject to clerical transgressions that range from sexual exploitation to harassment to rape to beatings to potentially negligent homicide.  Many sexually active priests have left a trail of wounded women and fatherless progeny in their wake—testament to the hypocrisy of a “celibate” priesthood.

Cantalamessa expressed great concern about violence “in the relationship between husband and wife,” praising the “many associations and institutions” that provide women with support. Yet the founders of those associations and institutions were not Catholic clergy but secular feminists, whom the church hierarchy regularly and ruthlessly condemn. And if domestic violence is such a priority for the church, why did Pope John Paul II beatify Elizabeth Canori Mora–a woman subjected to both physical and psychological violence at the hands of her errant husband–for her “absolute fidelity” to the sacrament of marriage?

And what of the church’s well-known policies that endanger women worldwide?

It condemns birth control, despite the fact that voluntary family planning prevents maternal deaths, which take half a million women’s lives each year, by helping women delay risky early pregnancies, space births and reduce HIV transmission. Adequate birth spacing also increases the survival of babies in the developing world.

It refuses to approve condoms to prevent AIDS, a position that 60 nuns calling themselves “Sisters for Justice of Johannesburg” publicly decried several years ago because of its effect of women and girls. They urged the Church fathers to change their life-threatening theology and recognize that 14- to 19-year-old girls face the greatest incidence of new HIV infections because of the “high incidence of forced or reluctant sexual intercourse,” and that  women are at great risk of infection due to “abusive, oppressive or desperate relationships or circumstances.”

The Church absolutely condemns pregnancy termination, leaving 60,000 women to die each year from botched procedures. Their position is so extreme that when a 9-year-old girl who had been raped by her stepfather obtained an abortion, they excommunicated her mother and the doctor who ended the pregnancy.

Cantalamessa pointed out that intimidation is violence too, empathizing with the “wife and children [who] live under constant threat of ‘Daddy’s anger.’”  Yet, this church hierarchy continues to threaten any woman in the church who dares challenge authority and call for radical change.  And make no mistake; it is women in the church who are the ones clamoring for change.

It is Catholic women who have written about gender-inclusive prayer language and been fired for it; defended the rights of gays and lesbians and are being silenced for it; fought for women’s ordination and have been excommunicated for it; blown the whistle on priest sexual shenanigans and have been relieved of their duties for it.

Many of these change-makers are nuns. Witness the 60 leaders of religious orders, representing 90 percent of the 59,000 Catholic women religious in the United States, who defied the American bishops and supported health care reform, insisting that legislation that helped pregnant women was “a REAL pro-life stance.”

Representative Bart Stupak—who at that point, like the bishops, opposed health-care reform for being insufficiently anti-abortion—tried to minimize nuns’ power, but it is real. It is why the Vatican has launched two confidential investigations into the lives of American nuns, not American bishops. One is examining the “quality” of their religious lives; the other is focused on their alleged “doctrinal” failures—like questioning an all-male priesthood.

In relationship to that angry dad, Cantalamessa suggested reminding him that “The word addressed to Eve after the fall:  ‘He (the man) shall rule over you’…was a bitter forecast, not an authorization.”

Someone ought to tell the church fathers that.

(A version of this piece was written for Women’s Media Center online; it also appears at the Huffington Post.)

Image courtesy of / CC BY 2.0


  1. Julianne says:

    This illustrated the many problems women in the catholic church face beautifully. These are the reasons why I will not be a practicing catholic when I have the choice!

  2. I can’t help but feel that the sexual assault of women has been overlooked for so long and at such amazing lengths simply because there is some idea that women are expected to be sexually exploited. It’s not alarming, it happens all the time, and is seen as merely a consequence of men and women interacting together. More often than not, women are blamed for the violence committed against them. It’s only when you enter into the forbidden realm of men acting in ways which go against ideas of masculinity (engage in homosexual behavior, for example), where there is a serious outcry. There is a need to protect men from being considered “un-masculine,” while women can expect assault to be seen as an experience of womanhood which she must passively accept.

  3. Great article. And I agree with the above commenter — while the molestation of young boys is no more or less reprehensible than the sexual abuse of girls, the former seems to garner more universal attention because it seems like an aberration from the norm. As you say, it seems that with girls there is always a risk of rape…

    • arlene kelly says:

      I agree completely with both Catherine and The Hating Expert…I would add one additional explanation for the stronger focus on boys/men than girls and women…Anything males do — or have done to them — is more important than anything women do or have done to them.

    • johnforsman says:

      Yes the assaults on girls is reprehensible, but over 80% of the victims of priestly abuse are young vulnerable males.

  4. Michelle says:

    I agree with you, but look beyond your walls of the catholic chuch, abuse happens in all religions. The issue is abuse not just the religion. The Catholic Church has taken it’s hits, rightfully so, but I feel that to truly stand up for sexual abuse to women lets not pigeon hole it and eliminate all the other women who suffer then same abuse in their religions.

  5. I cannot grasp why women become complicit in our own abusive treatment! Why do we do that?

  6. Thanks for the timely reminder that the clergy who exploit the young aren’t limited to one sexual orientation. As if the sexual assaults and cover-ups weren’t quite depraved enough, a campaign to use the scandal as an excuse to justify and intensify homophobia is now starting to take form. Central to the campaign’s success is promoting the false impression that the problem is exclusively one of gay priests molesting boys, and therefore the solution would be to go on a witch hunt to purge the church of any priest who has – or might have – a homosexual orientation, thus “solving” the problem without any need to examine its real causes or make any meaningful reforms. Bringing to light stories of girls who have suffered priestly abuse undermines the campaign’s basic premise, and will hopefully derail it. Of course, if the doctrine of “collective guilt” were valid, and punishing entire groups for the actions of some were ever an acceptable solution, this campaign is targeting the wrong group anyway. The only characteristic shared by virtually 100% of abusers and precisely 100% of their high-ranking co-conspirators is gender, not sexual orientation. So, this wouldn’t be a problem of “homosexuality” as one self-appointed church spokesperson often states, but one of “male sexuality” with the obvious solution being a systematic purge of males, resulting in a strictly matriarchal church …..

  7. I agree with all the comments: homophobia. gender, blame the victim, it’s not just Catholicism, it’s a religious issue, celibacy, etc. But I think the root cause is one of openness and reporting regardless of the discrimination or the issue.

  8. Kathy Goodwind says:

    I feel that sexual abuse, whether male or female, is abhorrant. It does occur to me that maybe the deviants used males because in their minds raping a young boy would have less relevance to god. Afterall there is no chance of pregnancy this way and maybe just maybe god meant sex between and man and a boy is not the same sin as sex between man and a woman. While sex between a priest and children is disgusting, it surprises me that noone speaks to disgusting behavior of nuns. The church should be held responsible for the behavior of the beasts who were allowed to mistreat children beating them with rulers and bats causing irreparable mental damage to those children who are now adults. I would love to sue the church for allowing the incredible cruelty meted out by the so-called “wives of Jesus.”

  9. I simply cannot understand how this one organization can continue to operate such a crime ring, and those in leadership are not held accountable. If this were any other cult, it would have been closed down long ago, and the perpetrators would be in prison. Why is the Catholic church above the law???

  10. Great question: Why is the Catholic church (or any church) above the law?

    Answer: Money, power and of course, culturally ingrained compliance…. and above all, fear. They have raised us that WE are going to hell if we question them. Most people just haven't thought that through… just because a person or any organization SAYS they are God's voice doesn't mean it is so.

    I think for myself… I listen, then I evalutate for myself… decisions like this make me ashamed of these fellow Christians.

  11. Look at any Vatican liturgical ceremony, or the Vigil For Life from the Washington Bascilica of the Immaculate Conception, (besides the inherent fact that THAT name demeans "what women do" as impure somehow),
    but the long long liturgical procession involves only men, saying to everyone, "only men are really important here", and all the power rest with the guys in dresses. Any cultural anthropologist could have a field day looking at this spectacle. Jesus taught his followers to love and value the "other". In our day that seems to have been powerless women, and gay people. Unfortunately the Roman Church is found totally on the wrong side of those two social justice movements, because to champion their causes would threaten their mideval world view on those subjects, thus imprisoning them into their narrow minded, outmoded views, just as the revolutionary concepts of Copernicus caused the Romans to condemn new views for 400 years.

  12. In it something is. Many thanks for the information, now I will know.
    The Church's teaching on sexual morality is rooted in the dignity of the human person and the goodness of human sexuality. This teaching condemns the sexual abuse of children in all its forms, just as it condemns other reprehensible sexual crimes such as rape, incest, child pornography, and child prostitution. In other words, if this teaching were lived out, there'd be no pedophilia problem at all.

  13. This is very true. I remember reading an article not long ago about a Catholic church that gave scholarships to a Black family for all four of their children, apparently for the primary purpose of access to the children (3 boys and 1 girl). As adults they sued and won a judgment against the Catholic church for an undisclosed amount. I am wondering if there have been any studies done with regards to the economic status of the families of the children these religious leaders choose as victims.

    In light of these relevations, the Eddie Long abuses, and those at Penn State and Syracuse University, a team of researchers have embarked on a project to examine sexual abuse of Black children and abuses in the Black community. If anyone can help get the word out about this very important research project, it would be great. Find out more information at

  14. The women who are dying at basically the hands of priests who refuse to allow abortion to save the mother’s life will continue until these priests are brought up on murder charges. It will take public outcry as was the case in bringing to light the abuse of children by priests.


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