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Nuns Who Commit Sexual Abuse and the Annexation of Mercy

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Crossposted on Tikkun Daily

By Timothy Villareal

Steve Theisen, 61, is the Iowa director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). Unlike the vast majority of men and women whose lives have been positively affected by the support SNAP provides to victims of clergy abuse, Theisen was not sexually abused by a Catholic priest: he was sexually abused by a Catholic nun.

The abuse began in the 4th grade, when Theisen was just nine-years-old. He stayed after class one day to wash the blackboards. Alone with the nun in the classroom, she showed him how the Eskimos kiss: by rubbing noses. Some weeks later, she then showed him how Americans kiss. Then a few more weeks passed. The nun then said to the boy, “This is how the French kiss.” And with that, the forty-something nun stuck her tongue in the boy’s mouth. It escalated from there. As Thiesen recalls, the nun never touched his genitals, and neither of them were ever disrobed. But from 4th through 6th grade, after school and sometimes on weekends, the nun would have him on the floor, French kissing and necking. Sometimes the nun would be on top of him, other times she put the boy on top of her.

Theisen also recalls sitting next to the nun in chapel. She would hold his hand under her religious habit so that no one would see.

It was not until well into adulthood that Theisen told someone what had happened to him: his therapist. It took 18 sessions with the therapist to finally open up about the experience that so affected his life. As Theisen explained to me, trust does not come easy to victims of child sex abuse.

Theisen’s testimony is gut-wrenching to hear, for those who are willing to listen. Not only did he live in daily fear as a child that someone would find out what was happening between him and the nun, he was also wracked by guilt. For when the school children would ask the nuns why they wore rings on their fingers, the nuns would tell the children that they were married to Christ. During the abuse, Theisen thought he was committing “the most grievous sin in the entire world because he was fooling around with Jesus’s wife.”

For the last nine years Theissen and other survivors of nun sexual abuse have been pressing the two main umbrella groups of American nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), to publicly address the issue of nun sexual abuse. Theissen and his fellow abuse survivors have requested speaking time at the LCWR annual conferences so that the nuns in attendance can fully understand that women can indeed be child sexual abusers, even if the percentages of women abusers are less than men, and secondly, to help these abuse survivors establish a meaningful plan of action to reach out to nun sex abuse victims who are still living in the shadows, under a cloud of shame. Unfortunately, no substantive change has come.

Last year, when Theisen hand-delivered a letter at the LCWR their conference in St. Louis, he was first met by the LCWR’s professional conference organizer. Theisen, having never met the conference organizer, introduced himself, whereupon the organizer said condescendingly, “I know who you are.”

The behavior of the LCWR – putting their reputations above the needs of child sex abuse victims – mirrors the same behavior of so many Catholic bishops in this country and elsewhere in response to the priest sex abuse scandal.