Why is no one speaking up? Women’s voices in the abuse crisis

By Professor Hildegund Keul

Should we stop ordaining heterosexual men as priests in view of the fact that many of them have raped girls and women? That is the question posed by Hildegund Keul in her comment on a conference in Rome organised to discuss the issue of sexualised violence against girls and women.

In the current debates on sexual abuse in the church, women’s voices are seldom heard. Sexual violence, however, is not only a male issue – all the more important, therefore, that women have an open platform. The conference ‘Overcoming Silence – Women’s Voices in the Abuse Crisis’ which took place in Rome on 27th November 2018 offered women such a forum. Conference participants discussed sexualised violence against girls and women and the church’s cover-up of this abuse. The conference brought together women and experts from around the globe, dedicated change agents from the USA to New Zealand, from Peru to Germany, from Africa to Asia.

It was a well-chosen location. Amid the impressive setting of the Biblioteca Angelica library on Rome’s Piazza Sant’Agostino square, the question was addressed of how sexual abuse and the covering-up thereof are connected with the theological traditions of the church. The event succeeded in bringing together various perspectives from around the world in one room, a feat made possible by ‘Voices of Faith’, a Catholic initiative based in Rome with an outstanding network of global connections. The aim of ‘Overcoming Silence’ is to bring about change in the church and to push it forward in line with the Second Vatican Council.    

One side benefit of the conference is that it disproves attempts to place the entire burden of responsibility for sexualised violence onto the shoulders of ‘the homosexuals’. Although much may be controversial in this field, one thing is beyond dispute: In the Catholic church there are no lesbian priests to hold liable for the many cases of covered-up sexual abuse of girls. Or should we stop ordaining heterosexual priests now because numerous paedo-criminal priests have raped young girls and heterosexual men have raped women? The moment women raise their voices and are heard, the strategy of shifting responsibility no longer works.  And that is precisely what happenedd in Rome on 27th November 2018. 

Barbara Dorris represents ‘Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests’ (SNAP), the largest support group for people who have suffered sexual abuse in church institutions. What began life as just a small group grew rapidly in 2002 when the Boston Globe reported on the abuse in one diocese. Barbara Dorris had already joined the movement beforehand when she became aware of a priest sexually molesting a school girl. She, herself, had stifled the memories of the violence she had suffered as a six-year-old Catholic girl at the hands of a local priest. Why is no one speaking up? What do people think when they see a priest repeatedly taking a young girl into his bedroom? Her experience: God is drawn into the abuse. Spirals of violence are spirals of silence. Internal church proceedings have no effect whatsoever. 

Dr Rocìo Figueroa Alvear is a Peruvian theologian and currently works as a lecturer at Good Shepherd College in Auckland, New Zealand. She carries out research into theological and pastoral responses for survivors of church sexual abuse. Theology and spirituality are enmeshed in the abuse and the covering-up thereof. As a teenager, Figueroa Alvear joined the highly influential movement ‘Sodalicio’ (Sodalitium of Christian Life) which, in 1997, received pontifical recognition from Pope John Paul II as a society of apostolic life. As an adolescent, Rocìo Figueroa Alvear suffered sexualised violence masked as ‘spiritual exercises’.  The perpetrator used faith as a weapon against his victims, along with the society’s conviction that women are inferior, stupid, second-class beings. When the perpetrator passed away and plans were made for him to be beatified, Rocìo Figueroa Alvear decided to prevent the beatification and stop the abuse going on in Sodalicio. She came across an ever-increasing number of victims and perpetrators, including the founder of the society. The cardinal in Rome to whom she reported the cases recommended that she immediately become a ‘silent soldier’ and that she should disclose nothing whatsoever about the offenses. 

Doris Wagner reported on the power strategies in ‘Das Werk’ (The Work) that enabled sexualised violence against young women to take place. Founded in 1938, the Catholic community received recognition from the Vatican in 2001 as a ‘Family of Consecrated Life’. Doris Wagner sums up thus: “I trusted them. And they destroyed me.” In 2010 she found the courage to go public with her story. “Unless victims speak out the abuse just goes on forever.” Wagner points out that the problem of sexualised violence against nuns had long since been a well-known fact in the Vatican. Back in 1994 Sister Maura O’Donohue, a member of the Medical Missionaries of Mary, sent a report on this issue to Cardinal Eduardo Martínez Somalo, former Prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. She cited cases in 23 countries including India, Ireland, the Philippines, the United States and several African countries. Doris Wagner, quite rightly, states that if those responsible had pursued these cases correctly as criminal offenses, it is possible that she may not have suffered the massive violence she endured in 2008. 

Mary Hallay-Witte, who has been Prevention Officer in the Archdiocese of Hamburg since 2011, introduced the MHG Study into the panel discussion. In her statement she emphasised that when it comes to sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults, it’s not about the individual perpetrators, but rather it’s about structural violence and clerical abuse of power. A genuine shift when it comes to investigating and reappraising abuse cases would require a radical and global change in how those who report abuse and sexualised violence are treated. At the moment women who report sexual abuse or women who are actively involved in exposing sexualised violence, put themselves in an extremely vulnerable position, regardless of whether they are personally affected by the violence or whether they seek to offer support to survivors. 

Virginia Saldanha brought India and Asia into the panel discussion. A former coordinator for the Office for Laity of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conference (FABC) and an international board member of Pax Christi International, she has a sound knowledge of global justice issues. She belongs to the Archdiocese of Bombay and is actively involved in the ‘Indian Women Theologians’ Forum’ (IWTF) and the ‘Asia-Pacific Theologians’. During her 20 years of work within the structures of her diocese she was repeatedly confronted with cases of sexualised violence against nuns. When she finished working for the FABC she made the decision to remain actively involved in this area on a voluntary basis. Her determined persistency in attempting to call the perpetrators to account resulted in a refusal from the bishop to talk to her and also massive threats on his part. 

Sexual abuse of children and sexualised violence against women are violations of human rights. No matter who perpetrates them. No matter where they take place. The ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ adopted by the United Nations in 1948 is applicable: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person (Article 3); No one shall be held in slavery or servitude (Article 4); No one shall be subjected to torture, or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment (Article 5); Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law (Article 6). ‘Overcoming Silence’ documented violations of all these human rights. During the conference we learned that some violators of human rights with whom the women had had contact were, in fact, people who led a ‘life in prayer’ and were held in high esteem by all. Rome no exception. 

Wounds, vulnerability, resilience and resistance were examined from various perspectives and it became clear that there is a great need for research: 

  • The fact that survivors today are becoming involved as change agents demonstrates that, although exceedingly difficult, it is possible to overcome the victim status. In their traumatised state, how can victims gain resilience and what needs to be done to help them achieve this? Intensified and interdisciplinary research efforts into the links between vulnerability, traumatisation and resilience are required. Theology is also called upon. Before the cases of abuse became known to the public, the perpetrator’s faith remained intact while the victim’s faith was destroyed. How can the survivors convert their belief in resurrection into a resource that gives them strength in their pursuit of resistance and resilience? 

  • A specific perception of women that helps contribute to abuse is a topic that came up several times during the conference. Researchers use the term ‘vulnerabilisation’: A group of people are designated as being particularly weak, blameworthy and seducible in order to make it easier to have them at one’s command. ‘Once a victim, always a victim’ is the hope held by the perpetrator. The perception of men is that they do not become victims or, if they do, their masculinity is damaged. This too contributes to abuse. Examining gender-specific perspectives is essential – and this includes the issue of women who commit sexualised violence and become perpetrators themselves. How do perceptions of women and men need to change in order to stop the gender-specific spiral of entrapment?

  • Clerical abuse, sexualised violence and the shameless exploitation of positions of power has resulted in violence on a massive scale becoming entrenched globally and within the church. Because of the conflation of religion and eroticism that exists here, preventative measures alone are not enough. The writings of Georges Bataille offer a closer look into this theme. All of the cases that were reported in Rome could have been incorporated into his analyses of violence. As a result of the disclosure of sexualised violence, the field of research that centres around ‘religion, eroticism and violence’ is taking on new dimensions. 

The fact that women are now willing to speak out in public about abuse and its cover-up is most certainly not something that can be taken for granted. Breaking the silence renders them vulnerable all over again. Therefore, we need spaces for discourse in which people can talk openly and freely. The conference ‘Overcoming Silence’ opened such a place for this much needed discourse. 

Text: Prof Hildegund Keul PhD has, since August 2018, been working at the University of Würzburg in the field of vulnerability research (funded by the German Research Foundation, DFG). There she is head of the interdisciplinary research group ‘Vulnerability, Security and Resilience’.



  1. See the book title of Mary Hallay-Witte; Bettina Janssen (ed.): Schweigebruch. From sexual abuse to institutional prevention. Freiburg: Herder 2016. 

  2. Wagner, Doris: Not me anymore: The true story of a young nun. Knaur 2016. 

  3. This report is part of my research project on vulnerability, funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) - project number 389249041, www.vulnerabilitätsdiskurs.de. 

  4. See also Keul, Hildegund: Resurrection as to Art of Living. Restoring Faith after Abuse. In: Karlijn Demasure et al. (ed.): Safegarding. Reflecting on Child Abuse, Theology and Care. Leuven: Peeters 2018, 205-226. 

  5. Bataille, Georges: The erotic. Munich: Matthes & Seitz 1994.