ROME (CNS) — After the sex scandals in the church, consecrated men and women must honestly assess their attitudes toward abuse, as well as toward celibacy, said Sister Mary Lembo, a research assistant at the Center for Child Protection at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University.

Sister Lembo, a member of the Congregation of St. Catherine, was part of a panel on “Formation for Affectivity Following the Sexual Scandals” at an international congress in Rome for novice directors and others involved in formation. She spoke to Catholic News Service April 10, during the congress organized by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

Sister Lembo said it is important to begin by assessing attitudes toward celibacy and toward “the reality” of the sex abuse scandal lived in the church.

“Are we afraid of it or can we face it?” asked Sister Lembo, who also teaches in the Gregorian’s psychology department. “Do we really think it is possible to live (celibacy), especially in light of the scandals?”

Consecrated life is not an obligation; it is a decision, she said. And if people decide to enter consecrated life, then they “have to live it according to Jesus,” Sister Lembo told CNS.

Celibacy is linked to the affective dimension of a person, including one’s emotions, sexuality and ability to enter into healthy friendships, and is “very complex,” she said.

She offered several guidelines for affective formation, which she emphasized should not just be for the initial stages of consecrated life but should be lifelong.

The first step is to ensure novices are aware of the affective dimension of their personalities and their human desire to be loved and to be in relationship, said Sister Lembo. Some novices and religious believe they are not supposed to feel, that they have to behave in a “holy” way, and “cancel the affective aspect” of their lives, she said.

Many “don’t know how to build friendship with members of the opposite sex,” she added.

She also urged novice directors to practice selective screening.

“We need to see who is able to live this life,” she said, adding that not every candidate should be accepted.

“Preventive education,” including education about sexuality, she said, is also important. Ideally, it would be done in families, she said. However, it is necessary for communities to understand the types of families in which novices were raised — if they lived in an abusive home or where sexuality was not discussed — and then help them grow in understanding.

The fourth guideline, she said, is to build a faithful and trusting relationship with God.

In terms of ongoing affective formation, Sister Lembo said practical aspects of life must be reviewed when promoting the affective health of religious communities, including their daily rhythm of work, prayer and community life, the books and movies being consumed, and the places where members socialize.

Novice directors also must be able to help novices “filter bad advice” they may receive, including from parish priests, she said.

“In our place,” she said, referring to her home country of Togo, “sometimes some people say to girls who want to enter religious life, ‘You have to know a man before entering, if not you will be stupid.’… I mean, intimate relations. I don’t think it is advice that is helpful … and sometimes, unfortunately, it is coming from priests.”

The priests “can abuse them and after say, ‘OK, now you can enter,'” she said; some priests even continue taking advantage of the girls when they return home for holy days.

The exploitation of female novices is more common in Africa and Asia than in the West “where girls are more assertive,” she continued. “But in our places, the woman is not (so) much assertive to say, ‘No, what you are saying is not true.'”

“In our place, a man has more power,” Sister Lembo said, and a priest “is the most important person in the village. … People believe in him because he belongs to God … so when he says something, the girls, those who are not really prepared, they believe.”

“This can be very damaging,” she continued. “I call this abuse of power. It can be emotional abuse. It can be sexual abuse, because having him in intimate relationship, it’s like, ‘You are for me now.’ And there are many consequences. If the girl is pregnant or the sister is pregnant, what are we going to do about it?”

Addressing the Rome gathering of formation staffs, Sister Lembo also urged orders not to seek quantity, but quality, in selecting candidates.

Novice directors must be able to create a context of “confidentiality and respect” where a candidate can discuss their sexuality “easily and openly,” she added. They should help candidates to determine and understand their sexual orientation and tendencies, so that they can decide for themselves whether consecrated life is for them, she said.

If candidates “cannot stay for one month, two months, without entering into relationship,” then religious life is not their place, she said.

To offer such accompaniment, novice directors must be comfortable with their own sexuality and capable of such discussions, she said. If they are not, they should ask for experts who can help, she added.

Sister Lembo said novice directors also must try to avoid the mistake of resorting to the God-can-help logic when faced with situations of affective immaturity.

“No. We need to clarify and decide what to do,” she said. “Sometimes, certain behaviors can be changed, but we have to do something to change it.”

“We can talk about conversion, to change our life for God. But (the candidates) have to decide. Are they willing to change? Are they willing to love God and live this kind of life?” she asked.