The stories spill out in the sitting rooms of Catholic convents, where portraits of Jesus keep watch and fans spin quietly overhead. They spill out in church meeting halls bathed in fluorescent lights, and over cups of cheap instant coffee in convent kitchens. Always, the stories come haltingly, quietly. Sometimes, the nuns speak at little more than a whisper.
Across India, the nuns talk of priests who pushed into their bedrooms and of priests who pressured them to turn close friendships into sex. They talk about being groped and kissed, of hands pressed against them by men they were raised to believe were representatives of Jesus Christ.
“He was drunk,” said one nun, beginning her story. “You don’t know how to say no,” said another.
At its most grim, the nuns speak of repeated rapes, and of a Catholic hierarchy that did little to protect them.
The Vatican has long been aware of nuns sexually abused by priests and bishops in Asia, Europe, South America and Africa, but it has done very little to stop it, The Associated Press reported last year.
Now, the AP has investigated the situation in a single country — India — and uncovered a decades-long history of nuns enduring sexual abuse from within the church. Nuns described in detail the sexual pressure they endured from priests, and nearly two dozen other people — nuns, former nuns and priests, and others — said they had direct knowledge of such incidents.
Still, the scale of the problem in India remains unclear, cloaked by a powerful culture of silence. Many nuns believe abuse is commonplace, insisting most sisters can at least tell of fending off a priest’s sexual advances. Some believe it is rare. Almost none, though, talk about it readily, and most speak only on the condition they not be identified.
But this summer, one Indian nun forced the issue into the open.
When repeated complaints to church officials brought no response, the 44-year-old nun filed a police complaint against the bishop who oversees her religious order, accusing him of raping her 13 times over two years. Soon after, a group of her fellow nuns launched a two-week public protest in India’s Catholic heartland, demanding the bishop’s arrest.
It was an unprecedented action, dividing India’s Catholic community. Inside the accuser’s convent in rural Kerala state, she and the nuns who support her are now pariahs, isolated from the other sisters, many of whom insist the bishop is innocent. The protesting nuns get hate mail and avoid going out.
“Some people are accusing us of working against the church, of being against the church. They say, ‘You are worshipping Satan,'” said one supporter, Sister Josephine Villoonnickal. “But we need to stand up for the truth.”
Villoonnickal has been a nun for 23 years, joining when she was a teenager. She scoffs at the idea that she wants to harm the church.
“We want to die as sisters,” she said.
Some nuns’ accounts date back decades — like that of the sister, barely out of her teens, who was teaching in a Catholic school in the early 1990s.
It was exhausting work, and she was looking forward to the chance to reflect on what had led her — happily — to convent life.
“We have kind of a retreat before we renew our vows,” she said, sitting in the painfully neat sitting room of her big-city convent, where doilies cover most every surface, chairs are lined up in rows and the blare of horns drifts in through open windows. “We take one week off and we go for prayers and silence.”
She had traveled to a New Delhi retreat center, a collection of concrete buildings where she gathered with other young nuns. A priest was there to lead the sisters in reflection.
The nun, who like others interviewed for this story spoke on condition she not be identified, is a strong and forceful woman who has spent years working with India’s poor and dispossessed, from battered wives to evicted families.
But when she talks about the retreat her voice grows quiet, as if she’s afraid to be overheard in the empty room: “I felt this person, maybe he had some thoughts, some attraction.”
He was in his 60s. She was four decades younger.
One night, the priest went to a neighborhood party. He came back late, after 9:30 p.m., and knocked at her room.
“‘I need to meet you,'” he said when she cracked open the door, insisting he wanted to discuss her spiritual life. She could smell the alcohol.
“You’re not stable. I’m not ready to meet you,” she told him.
But the priest forced open the door. He tried to kiss her. He grabbed at her body, groping wherever he could.
Weeping, she pushed him back enough to slam the door and lock it.
It wasn’t rape. She knows it could have been so much worse. But decades later she still reels at the memory, and this tough woman, for a few moments, looks like a scared young girl: “It was such a terrifying experience.”