IN TRYING TO UNDERSTAND the current crisis in the Catholic priesthood, I confronted dimensions of the problem I had never noticed before. The first realization came with my seeing how much this scandal had everything to do with me. I saw how suspect the silence of the sisterhood appears now, and how these scandal-ridden times beg us to say something about what we know. I saw the voice of all women in the church as mysteriously silent, most especially my own. The second realization came as I tried to clarify the problem. I saw how accepting we've always been of some sexual relationships in the priesthood, and at the same time how outraged and betrayed we feel over the criminal abuses and cover-ups. No wonder so many feel confused soulfully. At some level, we bought into the hypocrisy.
In taking a studied look at how priesthood emerged in the Catholic Church, my heart sank when I realized how old the problem of priestly privilege and abuse is, and I still shudder every time we receive more evidence of how criminally corrupt the priesthood is. The fact that the Catholic Church survives is a daily miracle. Everything I see when I look at the Catholic priesthood led me to return to its beginning in order to understand why we are where we are today. Because the seeds of self-destruction appear to be that deeply grounded, I looked at priesthood in the early church, priesthood in the Middle Ages, and priesthood now.
In forty years as a sister, I was never asked about the priesthood. Now I am asked about it almost daily. Friend and stranger, Catholic and non, look at me as though stunned, and over and over pose the same question, "What in God's name is going on in the Catholic Church?" Most wonder what I think of the "big priest scandal" and what nuns "know about it." Both subjects top nearly every conversation I have, and both subjects called me to explain what I see happening in the Catholic Church. All of a sudden I find myself pressed to answer questions I've never been asked before and never needed to think about. All of a sudden, a scandal that had nothing to do with me became a scandal that had everything to do with me. Persistent questions called on me for answers that I didn't have, many of which still leave me speechless. The answers I did find are what make up this book.
In looking at priesthood today, it's no surprise that some attention would shift to the sisterhood and what we know. Sisters worldwide were always perceived as priests' helpers (and cheap labor). In every parish, priests were responsible for everything that happened in church, and sisters were responsible for everything that happened in school. Together they took care of what we knew as "parish life." When we looked at those who built the community life of the church, we saw priests and sisters sharing the workload, though never equally as partners. Nuns were submissive to priests, servants extraordinaire to these privileged "men of God," and major contributors to the priesthood's culture of privilege; some still are.
As young sisters, it was customary for us to deliver and serve meals at the Priests' House. It was also customary for the convent kitchen to prepare special meals for the fathers. While the sisters ate turkey croquettes and Spam, for example, the priests dined frequently on steaks and roast beef. In every convent I lived in, when Father came to dinner, a special meal was prepared (with no expense spared) and all conversation centered on him. No one questioned Father's authority or disagreed with what he said. The author Lorenzo Carcaterra told the story of how growing up in Italy his father frequently brought the sisters hams, which they in turn always gave to the priests. All gifts given to the Italian nuns were routinely turned over to the priests. No one worshipped the ground priests walked on more faithfully than nuns. And given that general perception, one can't help but wonder what part, if any, sisters have played in the scandal and its cover-up. What part of the truth do we know? I wonder the same thing.
Sisters are seen by many as the mysteriously silent and submissive women in the church, and it's entirely likely that we know something that we're not telling. If anything sinister was going on in the priesthood, the nuns would have known. And since it looks as if the men in the priesthood have no intention of admitting the truth, maybe the women in the church, the "good sisters," will. We do know now that one reason many nuns keep silent is that they, too, have been victims of sexual abuse, exploitation, or harassment at the hands of priests or other nuns in the church. On January 4, 2003, Bill Smith of the Saint Louis Post Dispatch reported on a national survey completed by Saint Louis University in 1996, in which "'a minimum' of 34,000 Catholic nuns, or about 40% of all nuns in the United States, have suffered some form of sexual trauma," victimized by priests as well as nuns.1 The survey represents the voices of 1,164 nuns from 123 religious orders in the United States. While the findings were published by religious journals in 1998, the story was never picked up by the mainstream press.
While I am totally shocked that nearly half of the sisters in this country have been sexually abused by priests and nuns, many aren't. On January 18, 2003, Mary Nevans Pederson of the Telegraph Herald (Dubuque, Iowa) reported in her article "Nun Sex-Abuse Does Not Surprise Sisters" that the sisterhood has been aware of the problem and has been dealing with it for years.2 "This is not news to us. It's been part of our community history and we have dealt with it for a long time," said Sr. Dorothy Heiderscheit, president of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Family in Dubuque. Other community leaders echoed the same message. And while some have interpreted the lack of publicity as a cover-up by the sisterhood, not so says Sr. Mary Ann Zollman, BVM, of Dubuque, and president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. "We weren't trying to keep it secret-it was published-but we were already aware of the situations in our communities and were responding wholeheartedly." As a group, the sisters did not see a need to publicize widely the information on the sexual victimization of nuns. Thank God the sisters are well cared for. The unanswered question is what happened to those who abused them.
Even though we continue to be stunned by silences we never knew existed, in 1996 those abused sisters began to speak. And while it took years for us to hear their voices, that's exactly what's happening. Maybe the silence that binds women deeply in the church will be broken by those in the sisterhood. Maybe the sisters, like more and more of the faithful laity, have also had enough. In 1986, Elie Wiesel accepted the Nobel peace prize and pleaded with us to speak up at times like this. "Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented," he said. When silence suppresses truth, only evil grows. We all need to look at the silence we keep. We have far more soul to lose in keeping silent than we ever do in speaking the truth.
When I looked back on everything I know about the priesthood, I feel as if I saw far more than I realized, and knew far more than I understood. As scandalous events continue to unfold, it's becoming clear that the crisis in the Catholic priesthood that is as old as the church itself, and a moral theology that seems far more twisted than the most cynical could imagine—a spirituality so hypocritical in its obsession with and condemnation of the sexual sins of others, sins that now appear permissible only in the priesthood. Priests who engage in sexual relationships forbidden to the rest of humankind still stand before us as privileged "men of God," laws unto themselves, even holier than Thou.
As the crisis unfolds, we see far more than we ever care to and know more than we ever want to. The painful truth is just beginning to dawn. One by one we're beginning to realize how betrayed we've been by these "men of God." We've been duped into believing blindly in rules the priests themselves had little intention of following. And so many "insiders" describe the horror of what we see as merely "the tip of the iceberg." In the matter of knowing the whole truth, we've just begun. This is wake-up time in the Catholic Church at every level, inside and out. What the priesthood buried for centuries is being forced out into the light of day, as though the church itself has finally had enough. The sins of the fathers are being paraded before us today like those emperors with no clothes we read about as children. Only this time we see. And we see no longer with the eyes of children, but with the wide-open eyes of adults. We see with greater insight, knowledge, and understanding, and I dare say we are even finding divine strength hidden in what we see. We are not as shattered as we may feel. We are simply in the painful phase of becoming one, true church again, as we were in the beginning.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Silence We Keep by Karol Jackowski. Copyright © 2004 by Karol Jackowski. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.