By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
February 18, 2019
From Wednesday to Saturday this week Pope Francis will meet at the Vatican with Roman Catholic bishops from around the world to discuss the global sex abuse crisis that is threatening his “legacy and the moral capital that is the currency of his pontificate” (NYTimes, Feb 5, 2019.)
Maria Abi-Habib and Suhasini Raj recounted the story of Bishop Franco Mulakkal of India who agreed to personally celebrate the First Communion for Darly’s son, a rare honor in the Roman Catholic Church.
However, “during the ceremony, Darly looked over at her sister, a nun who worked with the bishop, to see her eyes spilling over with tears-tears of joy, she figured. But only later would she learn of her sister’s allegation that the night before, the bishop had summoned the nun to his quarters and raped her. The family says that was the first assault in a two-year ordeal in which the prelate raped her 13 times”(NYTimes, Feb. 9)
In the 1990s, when the AIDS virus was wrecking havoc on the people of Malawi, the priests turned to the nuns to satisfy their holy lust. They saw the nuns as “safe” sexual partners.
Five reports, written by senior members of women’s religious orders, documented what was taking place: “The priests, who often live with one or two nuns in isolated villages, are said to fear contracting HIV from prostitutes and other high-risk groups. They often turn…to nuns.” (Chicago Tribune, March 21, 2001).
Sister Maura O’Donohue, a physician and member of the Medical Missionaries of Mary, reported that in Malawi 29 sisters in a single congregation became pregnant by priests in the diocese. She describes instances “where priests were bringing sisters [and other young women] to Catholic health institutions for abortions…I gave one example of a priest who had brought a sister for an abortion. She died during the procedure, and the priest officiated at the requiem mass” (Chicago Tribune).
When this report first appeared in the National Catholic Reporter, a weekly newspaper in Kansas City, Missouri, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valis insisted that the problem was confined to “a limited geographic area.”
He can make no such claim today. Lucetta Scaraffia, a feminist intellectual and editor in chief of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Roman wrote: “The abuse of women results in procreation and so is at the origin of the scandal of imposed abortions and children not recognized by priests” (NYTimes, February 5, 2019)
Similar “scenes” were revealed in Anna Cruickshank’s Startling Facts Under the Convent Veil, an autobiography that was published in Port of Spain between 1909 and 1914. It tells the story of Anna, nee Olivier, a French nun, who was born in Lyons in 1874. In France, she read an article about the work that nuns were doing at the Cocorite Lyper Asylum, founded in 1845, and became interested Trinidad.
In 1902, she came to Trinidad to work in the Asylum where she met and fell in love with Albert Cruickshank, one of the patients and author of Poems in All Moods (1937) that was announced in Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life (January 1939). When her superiors tried to prevent her from marrying Albert, she left the convent and exposed the underside of convent life in her autobiography.
Anna documents “mendacity and falsehoods” practiced daily by some members of the holy orders in the island. She also described the “love intrigues” that took place between the nuns and the lepers, the nuns and the monks, and the nuns and officials who visited the church.
Anna tells of a Mother Prioress in France who fell in love with a doctor “and found herself in a delicate situation. With the help of her lover, and the devotion of a lay sister serving as a nurse, she hid the fact of her position from the community by feigning sickness and keeping within her cell, where the doctor visited her daily under the pretext of medical attention” (Startling Facts).
Imagine the scandal when the Prioress-General, visiting the convent, discovered the Mother Prioress’s condition as she was giving birth to a child. “After searching for it everywhere, to her horror, after having forced the nun out of the bed, she [the Prioress-General] discovered the little creature between two mattresses, dead-smothered by its own parent” (Startling Facts).
Sickened by the intrigue in the Church and having fallen in love with Albert, Anna decided to leave the convent in 1909. The Roman Catholic authorities tried to extract a promise from her that once she had left she wouldn’t write about her convent experiences.
When she went to Mother Thomas, head of the convent, for assistance to make her transition back to normal life, she was given a paltry sum of $15. When she threatened to write about her experiences, Mother Thomas replied confidently: “You can do whatever you like….Nobody in Trinidad will believe you.”
Today, the world believes much of what ex-nuns have said of the criminal behavior of priests and bishops within the holy walls. This week the pope will have to listen to the crimes that Jesus servants committed in his name.
Trinbagonians didn’t have to wait until 2019 to hear these stories. We heard them 110 years ago when a courageous nun from France spilled the beans of what took place within the convent walls.