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feminist wire | daily newsbriefs

March-21-01

Special Series: Priests, Rape, and AIDS – Part I

HIV Leads Priests Away from Prostitutes, Toward Nuns, Young Girls

According to several reports by senior nuns, and in one case by a priest, the sexual abuse of nuns by priests, including rape, is a serious problem in the Catholic Church, especially in Africa and the developing nations where the AIDS epidemic has hit hardest. In areas where there is a high rate of HIV and AIDS infection among prostitutes, nuns and young girls are seen as “safe targets” for sexual activity, according to a major article in the March 16 issue of the National Catholic Reporter. The Catholic church is denying these allegations.

Physician and former AIDS coordinator for the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development Sr. Maura O’Donohue presented a report in 1995 to a Cardinal in the Vatican detailing the sexual abuse of nuns by priests. She noted that men who in the past had frequented prostitutes – including priests and bishops – were now turning to young women and religious nuns as “safe targets for sexual activity.” She argued that the poor treatment of women in many cultures exacerbated the problem. Women are the largest growing population of newly infected AIDS and HIV patients worldwide, representing 2.3 of the 5 million adults newly infected in 1999.

Sr. Marie McDonald, of the Missionaries of Our Lady of Africa, reported similar incidents in a 1998 paper presented to the Council of 16, made up of delegates from three of the highest Catholic organizations on religious life. Psychological counselor Sr. Esther Fangman, the head of a Catholic federation of 22 U.S. and two Mexican monasteries, raised the issue at a Rome meeting of 250 Benedictine abbots.

All three senior nuns detailed reports given by sisters from 23 countries, including the United States but mostly concentrated in Africa, of rape at the hands of Catholic priests and other clergy. Rev. Robert Vitillo, a leader of Caritas Internationalis, a federation of 125 organizations that coordinates the social service and development work of the Catholic church worldwide and an AIDS educator, noted, “In many parts of the world, men have decreased their reliance on commercial sex workers because of their fear of contracting HIV. Religious women have … been targeted by such men, and especially by clergy who may have previously frequented prostitutes.” Despite these corroborating reports from sisters and priests with substantial influence in the Catholic hierarchy, Sisters O’Donohue and McDonald assert that the church has offered little official response.

Reports of such misconduct by priests and other clergymen came from 23 countries: Botswana, Burundi, Brazil, Columbia, Ghana, India, Ireland, Italy, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Tonga, Uganda, United States, Zambia, Zaire, and Zimbabwe.

Read source documents online

Sources: National Catholic Reporter March 16, 2001, Vol. 37 No. 20; Memo from Sr. Maura O’Donohue MMM, “Urgent Concerns for the Church in the Context of HIV/AIDS,” February 1994; “Theological Challenges Posed by the Global Pandemic of HIV/AIDS” A reflection by Rev. Robert J. Vitillo, Caritas Internationalis, with the Theological Study Group on HIV/AIDS, Boston College. March 23, 1994; “The Problem of the Sexual Abuse of African Religious in Africa and in Rome” Marie McDonald, MSOLA, Paper for the Council of ‘16’ November 20, 1998; World Health Organization Statistics on Women and HIV/AIDS; New York Times – March 21, 2001

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