ROME (CNS) — Three female survivors of sexual abuse by priests called on church leaders preparing for a February summit at the Vatican to listen to the voices of victims and to end a “culture of cover-up” that has dragged on for decades.
The women, from the United States, Peru and Germany, spoke of their experiences of sexual, psychological and spiritual abuse during a Rome seminar, “Overcoming Silence: Women’s Voices in the Abuse Crisis.” All three survivors urged victims of abuse to “go to the police,” adding that they believed internal investigations by the church have consistently failed to address the problem since the first cases were reported by journalists in the 1980s.
One of the speakers was Doris Wagner, a German former nun who joined The Spiritual Family The Work community when she was 19. She explained how she was taught to obey her superiors unquestioningly and to cut off contacts with family and friends outside the mixed-gender community. She said that when the superior of the house came into her room and raped her one night in 2008, she felt confused and powerless to resist him. She added that she did not tell anyone about the assault because she feared the community would “blame me.”
Wagner left the congregation in 2011 and published a book about her ordeal of being “controlled, manipulated (and) sexually abused.” She said she decided to speak out because, for many years, she believed she was “the only nun ever to have been raped in the church” and she wanted to prevent other women from suffering similar experiences. The Vatican conducted an apostolic visitation of the community from 2013 to 2014, which called for a revision of its constitutions and the implementation its recommendations.
Pope Francis has convened a summit on sex abuse in the Vatican Feb. 21-24. All 10 members of the Union of International Superiors General leadership — representing 500,000 women religious worldwide — will be attending the summit, which will bring together heads of bishops’ conferences from across the globe to discuss the church’s response to the abuse crisis. Survivors will not be at the meeting, but will be part of the preparatory work and be present at a penitential liturgy, said Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna of Malta, a member of the organizing committee for the meeting.
All three women who shared their stories at the Nov. 27 event said the February summit in the Vatican would be ineffective unless “victim-centered listening” was at the heart of the bishops’ discussions.
Another survivor who shared her story at the Voices of Faith event was Peruvian theologian Rocio Figueroa Alvear, who worked for the Pontifical Council for the Laity as head of the women’s section. She recounted her experience of joining the lay movement, Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, as a 15-year-old. The movement was founded in Peru in 1971 and was granted papal approval by St. John Paul II in 1997.
Figueroa described how the former vicar general of the movement, German Doig, began touching her during spiritual direction classes. She said she “felt guilty and knew it was wrong” but added she was very naive and “had no words to describe” the abuse.
In the late 1980s, Figueroa was among a group of women tasked with setting up a female branch of the movement, known as the Marian Community of Reconciliation. When she complained about the way women were treated, Figueroa was sent to Rome, a move she described as “the beginning of my liberation.” There she met a priest to whom she was able to speak, for the first time, about her ordeal and who helped her “to lift the veil of silence.”
While working in the Vatican, she was asked to help prepare the process of beatification for Doig, who had died in 2001. During investigations, she discovered other members of the movement who had also been abused by him. Realizing that he was “not a saint, but a serial perpetrator,” she confronted the founder of the movement, Luis Fernando Figari, who told her, “You are a liar, you seduced him,” adding, “We need a saint.”
Figueroa also said she spoke to the cardinal in charge of the Pontifical Council for the Laity and helped other victims write to various Vatican offices, but they “never received any replies.” She was obliged to give up her job and later left the movement, but in 2015, she published a book with other former member of Sodalitium, detailing allegations of abuse by Doig, Figari and other leaders of the organization.
In 2017, a Vatican-ordered investigation found that Figari “sexually assaulted at least one child, manipulated, sexually abused or harmed several other young people and physically or psychologically abused dozens of others.” He denied the charges but was ordered by the Vatican to avoid all contact with the movement and to “live a life of prayer” in Rome. U.S. Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, is the Vatican’s delegate overseeing the group’s reforms.
Barbara Dorris, former executive director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, held up the cream-colored dress she was wearing the first time she was raped by her parish priest as a 6-year-old. She described how she had “spent my childhood looking for a safe place” to hide from her abuser. He told her she was so evil that she could “make a priest sin.”
Dorris described herself as “lucky” because as a victim, she was young enough not to be labeled as “a sexual temptress” who had seduced her rapist. She called on Pope Francis to “start naming bishops who have helped cover up abuse” and to turn over to the police all relevant documentation currently held by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
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