A priest’s violence and a superior’s indifference
“Evidently it was you who provoked the priests”, was the answer the superior gave to Aleksandra, who was first consecrated thirty-one years ago, but has now asked for dispensation from her vows. The girl had just spoken about the abuse she had suffered at the hands of a priest who had been supporting her with a project within the institute. That project, a spirituality center to help young women who wanted to approach religious life to undertake a path of discernment, was Aleksandra’s creation. She had worked day and night to set it up, and had even used her previous studies in psychology, which she had abandoned in order to follow the fire of her vocation. The Superior, of her own nationality, a little older and always reluctant to accept anything new, agreed to start the initiative. However, after a few weeks she decided that to work with Aleksandra, the founder and guide of the center, there should be a priest from the diocese, Father Dariusz, who had always been very close to the institute. “Initially he was a big help, then he started to behave strangely, until he began to seek my physical closeness. Those first appreciations became harassment and then they escalated into outright abuse. I reacted immediately, but he didn’t stop. I don’t remember the time, I don’t remember the place, I don’t remember the details. I don’t want to because I wanted to remove everything from my mind. I only know that on that day something broke inside my soul”. Aleksandra immediately informed the superior of the situation. “She remained impassive, but maybe that might have been my impression. What destroyed me was her answer, when she told me that others had also complained about similar issues and that evidently, if it happened, it was because we nuns provoked the priests”.
Aleksandra remained inert for weeks, overloaded with thoughts, crushed by the trauma, feeling dirty and afraid. She thus offered, in spite of herself, the excuse for the superior to remove her from her position as leader of the spirituality center. “‘You’re clearly not well”, she said. ‘You're not able to manage the project’”. Despite this, Father Dariusz then replaced Aleksandra no less. “What had been my idea, passed instead into the hands of an unrelated and harassing priest. I continue to suffer so much”. The abuse and the treatment she received immediately afterwards were a clear sign for this woman: the path she had commenced when she was very young had to be interrupted. It was the epilogue to a series of “violent acts” she says she had suffered. She and other sisters.
“There was one thing that has always shocked me about my institute, and that is the kind of omnipotence of the superiors over the health of the sisters. They decide for us, how we are, how we should be, whether we need care or not, what kind of therapy is available for us. One year, for example, I began to experience severe twinges in my knee. I complained about the pain, but it was the superior who diagnosed me, not a doctor. She told me it was due to my back and because I was working incorrectly. I insisted until I convinced her to send me to a specialist who, through an ultrasound scan, found an effusion on the limb. Another time it was myself, along with another sister, who argued with her to send a girl who had strange blisters on her skin to the emergency room. The mother said an ointment would do. We took her there ourselves and it turned out to be an allergic reaction”. These are just two cases out of hundreds. “I could tell you many examples of how there is no care at all for the sisters’ physical health, not to mention their mental health. There were those who had to undergo blood tests and had to pay out of their own pocket because the institute was receiving a ridiculous amount of money that we had to account for. There were those who needed to go to the ophthalmologist or dentist and were not allowed to do so because they had to ‘save money’. The Superior, among other things, had served in the hospital and knew many doctors, but she was always reluctant to do anything. For her, these were only our whims”. It was not like this with everyone, “Only with those she didn’t like. If necessary, she would go to the best specialists and even ask us to accompany her. Of course, all at the expense of the community. Some nuns, among her confidants, took her to private doctors. I, on the other hand, had to do everything with the public health system”.
This reasoning applied not only to health but also to every aspect of ordinary life, “From clothing to the possibility of taking a vacation, from rest to permission to go out for a walk, everything depended on the decision of the same person. If you asked for a heavy garment you had to wait for the council’s deliberation, or the request was refused “for reasons of poverty”. Many asked for help from family members. Therefore, it was even sadder when we discovered that the superior’s closet was full of wool and cashmere garments, purchased without consulting anyone with money from the community, while others barely had a change of clothes. Even bras and panties”. Aleksandra tried to change things, to highlight distortions and inequalities, but, as in thousands of other cases, she was not listened to, but punished instead. “Before physical abuse I had to suffer the abuse of power and conscience. They would tell me I was whiny, they started to exclude me. They would go grocery shopping and leave me at home, like a Cinderella. If they chatted and joked at recess, when I used to approach them they would stop talking”. All of this was bearable for Aleksandra in the name of the genuine vocation she felt she had, transmitted to her by a very believing family. “I entrusted every suffering to Jesus. I was constantly thinking that He suffered much more on the Cross”. The physical abuse, however, gave the woman the impetus to decide to give it all up. Now she just wants to go away and as far away as possible. “I don’t know where, I just want to follow Jesus and this is not possible for me. In this situation, I can’t live anymore and I’m afraid of destroying my physical, psychic and spiritual health. I hope to find help, maybe from some lay people because I know that my Congregation will not be interested in me. As I have heard so many times: the fault always lies with the one who goes out”.
By Salvatore Cernuzio
Taken from, Il velo del silenzio. Abusi, violenze, frustrazioni nella vita religiosa femminile, [The Veil of Silence. Abuses, Violence, Frustrations in Women’s Religious Life], San Paolo.