Presented in 2010 at a conference organised by.Streevani, India

15th August, 2010.



By Virginia Saldanha


I thank this group for coming together for this consultation to address our deep concerns for the wounds  that are festering among the people of God destroying their faith because they identify Church authority with God.  Our responsibility is to the Catholic Church which we claim as our own, to help in bringing healing and wholeness.

Let us therefore be faithful to Christ and ask ourselves, if Jesus were here with us, what would he be doing?  

I bring before this group the victims/survivors and their stories so that we can be sensitized and come to an agreement on a course of action in India.  

At the very outset I would like to say that I personally know many good priests and appreciate their commitment to live their vows despite the challenges.  We do not want to turn this into a man versus woman issue, but look at it as an issue that is the product of history steeped in the patriarchal power and domination that was absorbed from the monarchial system in which the institution took its root. Unfortunately the Church evolved deviating from the challenging but freeing relationships taught by Jesus.  Today we all suffer due to this deviation. ’Man’ has broken the right order that should reign within ‘himself’ as well as between himself and others and all creatures.”  (Gaudium et Spes Ch. 1 No.13)

No one can deny that the Church has played an important role in human history.  Through many of her faithful followers down the ages the Church has been a voice of the poor, marginalized, victims of conflicts, injustice and violence.  I believe that the deep seated values of altruism and respect for human rights seen in the West come from their Christian roots. In our own country Christians are appreciated for their outreach honesty and integrity. Our institutions of education and health are greatly appreciated by people of all faiths. We should not loose this influence that the Church has wielded and continues to wield in the world.  Therefore our concern is to restore, to help the Church to move back to the challenging mission of Jesus, as well as to find ways to address the roots of the problems we encounter as we read the signs of the times today.

The Basis for gender relations

The first account of creation is for me, the basis for the relationship of men and women in the Church. “But God did not create man as a solitary being.  From the beginning “male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27)  This partnership of man and woman constitutes the first form of communion between persons.  For by his innermost nature man is a social being; and if he does not enter into relations with others he can neither live nor develop his gifts.”  (Gaudium et Spes Ch. 1 No.12)

I like to use the Chinese symbol of “ying-yang” to express the truth of  Genesis 1:27. Man and woman are different, having characteristics of the other in various degrees (the little dots in the yin and yang), that facilitate the relationship between the two.  .Like “ying-yang” they sit together comfortably to form a circle, representing wholeness which is the image of God. This wholeness is needed in all areas of life to bring harmony and peace.  

Therefore one of our big concerns is to help women come forward to make their contributions to restore the balance of the image of God.  Perhaps we need to help men to look at the little dot of feminine within themselves and develop the qualities that will help them become more sensitive.

In hearing the stories of victims, I hope that we can recognize the patterns of patriarchal conditioning both for men and women that has destroyed the relationships that Christ intended for us.

Vision of Church in the Light of Vatican II and FABC documents:

Jesus established after his death and resurrection, a new ‘brotherly’(fraternal) communion among all who received him in faith and love; this is the communion of his own body, the Church, in which everyone as members  would render mutual service in the measure of the different gifts bestowed on each.” (Gaudium et Spes Ch 2 No.32)

Drawing from the documents of Vatican II the FABC articulated a vision for the Church in Asia at the 5th Plenary Assembly in Bandung, Indonesia which is -
“A Participatory and Co-responsible Church – living as a Communion of Communities. Where the gifts of the Holy Spirit given to all the faithful -- lay, Religious and cleric alike -- are recognized and activated, so that the Church may be built up and its mission realized.”

The Problems that keep us from actualizing the Vision:

1. Not Community but Hierarchy.

Sr. Theresa Kane, former President of the LCWR in the US wrote an article in the NCR recently titled “Woman why are  you crying” where she states “One of the severe tensions we have in the church today is between the vision we have of community and governance that is monarchical.” We know that monarchy which is synonymous with hierarchy in the Church, unfortunately does not respect cooperation, participation and inclusion of women.  This is one of the reasons the SCC movement where women participate actively in the Church is still struggling to take off.

2.  Impact of Image of God and Catholic Teachings on women

The research done by Annie Imbens and Ineke Jonker and documented in the book “Christianity and Incest”, explains how  the impact of Christian teaching and images of God/man/woman on woman has relegated her to the position of subservience and submission to the will of God and men in the Church.  The resultant socialization of women to submission, to see themselves as lesser persons through the formation they are put through as well as the structures that govern us in the Church, is what makes them vulnerable to various forms of exploitation, violence and sexual abuse..

They sum up the victims image of God as follows:

The God of our fathers is God who allocates power to men to rule over women.  The God of our mothers and their daughters who were rendered powerless had little opportunity to be heard and to be named.”  (Annie Imbens & Ineke Jonker - Christianity and incest – Burns :& Oates, Great Britan 1992)

In Pope Benedict’s Letter on the collaboration of men and women, the references used to depict the male are characterized as superior to the female.

God makes himself known as the Bridegroom who loves Israel his Bride.

If, in this relationship, God can be described as a “jealous God” (cf. Ex 20:5; Nah 1:2) and Israel denounced as an “adulterous” bride or “prostitute” (cf. Hos 2:4-15; Ez 16:15-34), …

3.  The Power of the Priest:

This inordinate superiority of men over women in the Church, where male priests are said to represent Jesus and act in the name of God, who are the ‘mediators’ of God’s grace (through the administration of sacraments), automatically put women in a position of subservience and inferiority.  

Compounding this situation is the fact that all decisions with regard to laws and rules in the Church are made by male priests, and women are compelled to abide by these laws or move out.  They do not even dare to raise questions on the issues that affect them. As a result women’s rights are short changed in the name of faith and obedience to the law of the Church. The message to women is that their intelligence is inadequate.  

The root of inequality of gender relations in the Church comes from the construct and exercise of this priestly power. The patriarchal and hierarchal setup in the Church, has successfully kept women in a state of unquestioning dependence and obedience.

4. Mandatory celibacy for priests who cannot live up to this vow is also a major problem.

The aura that is built around the priesthood as a man set apart, the vows of celibacy poverty, and obedience convince people that indeed these men are dedicated to the service of God.  Medieval historian Mayke de Jong writes, "It was from sexual purity that the priesthood was believed to derive its power."

The Church is seen to be lagging behind wider society in recognizing the changing role of women as one of the ‘signs of the times’ and affirming the equality of women.

Problems In Relationships Between Men And Women In The Family & Church:

1.  Man as Head of the Family

Scripture is used to establish man as the head of the family and woman his obedient subordinate.  Many conservative family movements which are very active in the Church promote this view of the man and woman partnership.  She is kept dependant and submissive to her husband. This relationship results in a lot of violence as dependency on a man means she has to keep asking him for permissions and allowing him to  make decisions for her. Violence is used for domination and control of the wife if she decides to move out of the line of control.

Incest and Wife beating.

A man used to be able to beat his wife with impunity and to terrorize and sexually abuse his children as well without any outside interference of any kind.  Brothers abused with impunity because they knew their parents would not believe the sister if she complained. This is changing now that civil society has made laws to protect women from violence.  

When victims dared to question their male relatives about abuse they were told that all fathers did that, that it was good for them, or that they themselves had given cause because they were evil and seductive like Eve.  They could not talk to Mother about it as she would not understand or she was too weak. (Annie Imbens & Ineke Jonker - Christianity and incest – Burns :& Oates, Great Britan 1992)

Although the Church has teachings against incest, it has never been talked about loudly in the Church in Asia/India.  It has never been condemned as a sin. Men continue to claim their right and privilege to sexually abuse girls/women in their family. In her foreword to the book “Brave Little Women – A study of incest”, Mary John Mananzan quotes a father who righteously explained his conduct “She is mine.  She is my product. I have the first right to her before others”. She goes on to analyse his statement as coming from the legacy of the absolute right of the father in the Hebrew and Roman society,  where the father owned not only the household but the slaves and women and children as well. The core idea in patriarchy.

Vulnerability of Women in an Unequal Power relationship: I personally feel that incest in the family is also related to the sex abuse issue by priests.  Both arise from the fact that the victims are in an unequal power relationship. In both instances, the abuser is someone who is looked up to and culturally respected.  He is seen as someone you can turn to, the person who is in charge and in control. The ordained male priest is in control. He is the mediator of God’s word and grace to women.  This ‘power’ is often used to dominate and control women. In cases where a priest makes unjust demands, he manipulates this ‘power’ to get his wishes/desires. We have enough of complaints from sisters where a priest uses his power to celebrate the Eucharist as a tool for controlling and dominating them.  

In the confessional women come as ‘vulnerable sinners’.  They trust the priest with their deepest secrets of weakness and human frailty. From stories of victims, it is evident that this has been used as another tool to manipulate women according to the desires of the priest.

Relationship between men and women in the Church

As in marriage, so also in the Church, women remain as decorative appendages to the male superior partner.  She hands over all power and control to the man and humbly submits herself to him because she believes that she is being faithful to her religious beliefs.

History reveals that the Church has not carried into practice the challenging but liberative message of the Gospel: that all human beings, as children of God, share in the same dignity and esteem and enjoy the same rights. The Church that led its believers to accept martyrdom as a witness to their faith has failed to apply the Gospel message to abolish all discrimination based on sex within its own structures as well in civil society where it exercises a decisive power.

Sisters are treated as infants in the Church and not respected as mature and independent adults.  The male Church leadership decides everything about the life of the sisters from their dress to their prayer/prayer times, and basically everything to do with their lives in the convent.  This reality is completely in violation of the women’s human rights as well as of the teachings of Jesus. As long as the sisters in the Church subject themselves to patriarchal authority and dominance they are upheld as paragons of virtue. The outspoken ones who question and oppose the domination of patriarchal authority are labeled as ‘rebels’.

Women as Victims  of Sexual Abuse:

Sexual abuse of women in the Church, especially of religious sisters is prevalent but well hidden.  The same culture and socialization that subjects women to male authority, maintains the silence behind such abuse. Calcutta Jesuit Provincial Fr. George Pattery speaking to Union of Catholic Asian News at the February 2006 General Body meeting of the Conference of Religious of India (CRI), said “The tendency is to silence the victims whenever complaints of sexual abuse are made.  From now on, we will work to formulate a policy that will ensure justice for all within the Church.” Montfort Brother Mani Mekkunnel, Executive Secretary of CRI spoke of the need to chart a policy on sexual abuse of religious within the Church.

The lack of any action on this issue within the Church shows that the Church has failed to take steps to eliminate violence to women.  The opposition of the Convention for Elimination of Discrimination and All form of Violence Against Women (CEDAW) expressed by the WUCWO (World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations) women’s leadership to the Secretary General of the UN, came as a shock to women leaders in the Church. After receiving inputs from Monsignor Carlos Antonio Simon Vazquez, under-secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Family, who addressed the board about the agendas in the United Nations that undermine God's laws, the group of women made a decision that implicates women in the Church across the world. It is an example of women abdicating their right to think for themselves. It is ironic that this was made public just a few days before the international day against violence to women on November 26th.  The women accepted the ideas and thinking of the male leadership, opposing the whole document of CEDAW, even in an area as serious as violence to women.

Findings from a research done in Australia.

“The failure to address sexual scandals, harassment and sexual injustice in the Church was experienced as a serious barrier along with the Church’s reluctance to reflect on the underlying causes of the problem  The gap between pastoral practice and official Church teaching, particularly in the area of sexual morality was noted. A submission from a married couple highlighted the issue of clergy sexual abuse involving exploitative relationships between priests and adult women.  It was noted that the sexualizing of the relationship was normally at the instigation of the priest at a time of personal crisis or difficulty in the life of the woman.”

Many cases of sexual abuse, I realize, take place during retreats, counseling and confession.

At least two victims who have spoken to me in the last three months, confirm that they went to the priest for counseling during a retreat.  One even related the stories of other victims who have been to the retreat because of personal problems and have been sexually abused. Since then, speaking to several people across the world, I have come across stories of a similar nature.  

When a priest who has power and authority with the trappings of divine authority abuses a person (child, youth or woman of any age), it is abuse of the rights and dignity of the human person.  It is a crime and a sin!!

Being treated as a sin, the victim is expected to forgive her abuser and forget about it.  She will suffer the scars for a long time or even for life, while he will go on to abuse other women.  Whereas when seen as a crime, he is responsible to answer for his action in a civil court which hands out punishment and perhaps compensation to the victim.

Women in the Church are socialized to see the priest as someone who is above human frailty since he operates in the name of God.  Being celibate, therefore is equated to an angel beyond a sexual being. They tend to trust them fully with their own stories of sexual problems, boyfriends and marriage.  The socialization of women renders them vulnerable to sexual abuse. Even religious formation of women prepares them to be victims, hence they are the most vulnerable to clerical abuse.

It is sad that up to date no religious congregation of women has had the courage to take up this issue officially.

One detects a great fear when it comes to women religious reporting abuse, as the survey done in the US university of St. Louis reports “they trade in their silence for what they have to loose”.  This is indicative of the oppressive power of the authority, which does not make for true mission of Christ.

The discrimination against women is evident even in the handling of women victims of abuse.  We hear of guidelines to deal with pedophilia and young people below the age of 18 years, and recently added has been mentally handicapped persons, but no mention of dealing with women victims.  

If religious congregations are dealing with women victims within the congregation, what happens to victims who are lay persons?  And the priests are left free to continue with his sexual exploits? This is no solution to the problem.

When relationships between priests and women in their pastoral care turn into a sexual relationship, the woman again pays the price as a victim not only loosing her standing and relationships in the faith community, but also her faith.  

“We would submit that such sexual relationships between priest and women in their pastoral care represents a serious impediment to these women’s participation in the Church.  Frequently these are women who before the sexual involvement have shown a high level of commitment to the Church and have demonstrated some degree of leadership potential. The effects of their relationships are such as to render them incapable of contributing to the life of the Church, significantly marginalizing them and often causing a loss of faith.”

Consensual Sex??!

I disagree that there can be consensual sex between women and priest for the following reasons:

1. The inequality of power relationship of women and men in the Church.

2. The women who approach the priest for confession or counseling or with a personal problem are doing so from a position of vulnerability

3.  Women respect priests and trust them because they see him as a man of God dedicated to serve people through the vows he has taken.

From my interaction with victims, I realize that much confusion arises in the minds of the victim when she is faced with the sexual advances from a priest, especially if she is approaching the priest from a position of vulnerability.  They are caught unawares and feel paralysed to make a suitable response. Therefore inaction on this account is misconstrued as consent! Consent has to be explicit, where the woman says a clear “yes” when asked if she wants to have sexual relations.  Most often there has been surprise and straight forward seduction of the victim. I would compare it to the stories related by the former child victims of abuse, who look back and analyse the situation now as adults.

The book written by a former victim relates this experience very explicitly.  Many would summarily dismiss her case as one of consensual sex. But her struggle to prove the contrary, if one is open to see it, is very clear.  When she generally questioned the provincial of the priest who abused her, without disclosing her case about his policy of sexual abuse he wrote back

“I would never take the view that the woman must have been the initiator.  I accept that a priest, in a time of weakness may sin, but I could never condone his conduct or seek to blame it on others.”

It has to be noted that in cases of sexual abuse of a subordinate by a person in power within a strongly hierarchical structure, victims have the same vulnerabilities whether they are 8 or 18 or 48.  So the question arises whether there can be consensual sex among persons who are unequal?

I am reminded of the cases of sexual abuse of domestic workers by the male in a household.  Can we call such sex relationship as consensual?

It is clear the abuse continues because the knowledge that nothing will be done about it guarantees protection.  This has to stop. Silence is what keeps this violence alive.

Victims Loosing faith in the system that does not give justice to them:

An Asian religious sister who experienced the sexual misbehaviour of an Indian priest in the UK, has been courageous enough to pursue this man to bring him to repentance and change by facing up to  his sexual misbehaviour with women. I have been accompanying her in this challenging journey. I am sad to say that at the beginning she received minimum empathy from the hierarchy in India, and very shabby responses to her complaints.  Later, after my article appeared she got letters of apology but the impression I got is that they were trying their best to tell her “we will take care of him, you just get on with your life.”

Her shock at her own congregation’s leadership response, “Forgive and forget”, was something she found very hard to take.  She made a long distance call to me to share her hurt and anger.

The victims are not given the satisfaction of knowing that their ‘abuser’ is brought to repentance and true contrition for his sins against women in the Church.  All victims say “we fear he is free to do the same to other women/children.”

The book written by the former sister in Canada documents in detail her pursuit for justice within the system and her extreme frustration with the same.  She finally left the congregation and the Church and wrote her book. She now works to help all victims of abuse.

Here is the testimony of a male:

I am a 45 year old man who was once a seminarian with a religious order.  I was sexually assaulted by one of the priests in the seminary.  I never spoke up at the time for many reasons that included my own shame; the fear of compromising the career I had chosen;  and my own immaturity at the time.  I left religious life after two years.  I eventually spoke up to a former provincial ten years afterwards.  I learned that the priest who abused me, abused others and was even arrested and has a criminal record.  Despite a 30 year career of abusing children, the Order shuffled him around from community to community and continent to continent where he continued to prey upon more victims.  This man belonged in jail, not religious life!

I spoke up two years ago to the highest levels of the Church in Rome about this case.  I was never responded to, despite confirmations from the Nuncio who assured me the many correspondences were delivered.  My objective was to have him laicized.  I achieved this through a constant presence in the media both in the United States and in Italy where he was lastly hiding out.  The public “scandal” that was raised was too much for the Order.  The priest was asked to voluntarily request his own dispensation.  How sad it is that this Church ignored the crimes of this man for over thirty years.  Complicity never protects children and other vulnerable people from sexual predators. 

I would strongly urge anyone who was abused by a religious figure to contact civil authorities to investigate and prosecute.  Sexual assault, rape, statutory rape are criminal acts, not just sins.  They need to be prosecuted, so that others and the larger society can be safe.  Anyone advocating for victims of crimes should be encouraging victims to contact the police, not their superiors.  Religious institutions who instruct its membership to handle this “in house,” and in a “family manner” are themselves acting criminally by not reporting crimes.  This behavior is wrong and is no longer acceptable in the 21st century. 

A Deepening Crisis

The Silence -

I reiterate, there are good priests.  But there will also be some who betray their vocation by acting contrary to what they profess to be.  This is not the crisis. “A crisis explodes when there is no longer a large enough reserve of psychologically well balanced and observant (saintly) and honest bishops and priests to counter the influence and power of corrupt and hypocritical men in power.”  (NCR article Beneath the Child abuse August, 2010)

There is a clerical culture of secrecy.  A culture that is aware of the existence of widespread sexual activity among clerics, but deny it, cover it up, silence victims, that willy nilly  keeps the culture alive. People are becoming aware of this culture.

This is the age of communication.  Educated young people do not take the Church seriously.  This crisis has led many of them to dismiss the Church as inconsequential.  This is not what we want to happen. If the Church has to regain any degree of its credibility it has to act in a way that proves that it is serious about doing justice.  People are willing to forgive and forget, but they need to see a repentant hierarchy which is making amends. We need a dialogue with the hierarchy to facilitate this.

Broken Vow of Celibacy

If celibacy is a requirement for priestly life, then celibacy should be upheld without making any excuses for those that break the vow.  If celibacy is broken more widely than kept, as is quite evident by the anecdotal evidence that is available, it is better to reconsider making it optional.  The credibility of the priesthood is severely eroded when priests preach about sexual purity to the youth and married people while their indulgence in sex shows the contrary.  “It is time to examine this clerical culture and steps taken to seriously bring it back to be authentic to what Jesus wanted his followers to be.” (Who is a Priest by Joe Mattam sj )

Women Religious demonstrate the Battered Wife Syndrome.

Women religious continue to pay obeisance to the male leadership in the Church that is bent on humiliating and demeaning them despite the fact that the same leadership cannot do without the contribution of religious women to Church mission..  I think it is high time women religious begin to think for themselves and get out of this “battered wife syndrome”. Stay and take the abuse instead of thinking of working out ways they can create a working partnership and collaboration with men in mission..

In Conclusion

Steps that can work towards change:

  1. Urgent need to conduct courses for women religious on sexuality.  How to understand their own, as well as male sexuality. These courses have to be integrated into formation programmes as well.

  2. Empowerment of women to stand as autonomous persons in their own right so that they can play their rightful role as equal partners with men in the mission of the Churh.

  3. Taking off from the gender policy, the CRI together with the Commission for women should sit with the Bishops and draw up guidelines to deal with the sex abuse and other burning issues of women in the Church.

  4. Set up structures to address this issue, which will also help lay people.  A desk to receive complaints, and a mechanism to help victims to heal.

  5. Use the guidelines set down by the Supreme Court of India for the workplace to make a policy for priests conduct in the Church.

  6. A credible team for investigation where even the victim has a voice.

  7. I would suggest an adaptation of a programme for priest abusers designed by a psychotherapist in the US:Penance, Productivity, and Provisioning Program

  8. A study and research on formation, psychology and sexuality that make women ready victims of abuse.

Only when the Church takes this issue seriously and begins to address it, will people be assured that the Church is serious about its mission.  It will restore its credibility and demonstrate that even though it suffers from the human frailty of its members, it also has the power of her founder for reconciliation and healing of all concerned.