How Prevalent is Sexual Abuse By Nuns [Part 1 of a 3-part series]

shutterstock_198651209By Attorney Patrick Noaker

Most of the attention regarding sexually abusive clergy members has focused on sexual abuse by priests. Most media reports and most research involve abusive priests. The 2004 John Jay College study was limited to diocesan and religious order priests. Consequently, information about sexual abuse by nuns is not widely discussed or understood. This article discusses what is known about the prevalence of nun sexual abuse of children.

Initially, it must be noted that 4.6% of all sex offenders are female.[1]  However, some believe that this statistic is artificially low because women are more likely to be diverted from the justice system[2] and because societal and cultural stereotypes about female sexual behavior, including professional biases by police and prosecutors, discourage reporting of sex crimes by females.[3]

When it comes to female religious, there has been very little research conducted into the prevalence of sexual abuse. One of the only studies available is a 2002 study conducted by the former director of the Southdown Institute, a well-known treatment facility for thousands of religious men and women. According to this study, 0.7% of religious sisters who were admitted as patients confessed to sexual contact with minors.[4] But, there has been much criticism of this research and its accuracy on the basis that the information upon which the study is based is based upon the non-anonymous admissions by the perpetrator. Both research and common sense supports the conclusion that sex offenders are not always complete and honest about their criminal activities.[5]

Further, this Southdown Institute rate of 0.7% appears to be inconsistent with civil lawsuits that have been filed and expert opinions in the field. For example, in February, the Ursuline Sisters settled claims with 232 plaintiffs for physical and sexual abuse by nuns and priests at the Ursuline Academy in St. Ignatious, Montana. These cases, involved physical and sexual abuse by both priests and nuns and the sexual abuse by the priests was strikingly similar to the sexual abuse by the nuns. This antidotal evidence raises the question whether there really is any difference in the prevalence of priests sexually abusing children versus nuns.

Similarly, experts in the field agree that sexual abuse by nuns is much more prevalent than most are aware. In an August 7, 2002 article by Louis Rom in the
Times of Acadiana
, researcher and author Ashley Hill revealed that during her research for her book Habits of Sin (Xlibris Corp. 2000) she communicated with more than 40 victims of sexually abusive nuns in 23 states, as well as in Ireland and Canada.  According to Hill, society is inclined to dismiss allegations against nuns because “it’s so hard to believe that women do this.”

In that same article, A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former priest with more than 35 years of experience working with clergy sex abuse, says he’s handled dozens of sexual abuse cases in which nuns were the abusers. He says society’s comfort level with intimate touching between women and children enables female abusers to initiate contact far more easily without suspicion. Sipe was among those who interviewed scores of victims at the now-closed St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington, Vermont that ultimately resulted in over 100 civil suits.

Given the roles that nuns play and played in Catholic schools, it is reasonable to conclude that there are a significant number of nuns who sexually abused children. In the 1960’s, 1970’s and into the 1980’s, it was not uncommon to have 10 – 20 nuns assigned to a parish school, with direct and unsupervised contact with children.

Once we come to the conclusion that nuns can be and are sexual predators, we must also conclude that the sheer number of nuns with direct, unsupervised contact with children probably means that there have been a large number of children victimized by those nuns who did abuse.

It appears that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg of the number of boys and girls who were victimized by nuns. States like Minnesota, who pass laws that allow victims to file civil lawsuits involving childhood sexual abuse, no matter when the abuse occurred, are likely to be leaders in revealing the extent and prevalence of nun abuse of children.  Through the courage of the survivors of nun abuse filing civil cases, we will all be better informed about just how many children have been affected and what it will take to help them.

Patrick Noaker is an attorney with the Noaker Law Firm LLC who aggressively represents clients in the courtroom, mediation and arbitration and has presented cases to judges, juries, arbitrators and mediators across the U.S. for the past 24 years. Patrick has handled hundreds of clergy sexual abuse cases in Minnesota and across the United States. Patrick can be reached at his office: 333 Washington Avenue N. # 329, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401, (612) 839-1080,, @Noakerlaw.

[1] Cortini, Hanson & Coache, (2010) “The Recidivism Rates of Female Sexual Offenders are Low: A Meta-Analysis,” Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 22: 387.

[2] Vandiver, D. M., & Walker, J. T. (2002). Female sex offenders: An overview and analysis of 40 cases. Criminal Justice Review, 27, 284-300.

[3] Denov, M. S. (2003). The myth of innocence: sexual scripts and the recognition of child sexual abuse by female perpetrators. Journal of Sex Research, 40, 303-314; Denov, M. S. (2004); Perspectives on female sex offending. Hampshire, England: Ashgate; Giguere, R., & Bumby, K. (2007)

[4] Markham, D.J. (2002) Some Facts about Women Religious and Child Abuse, Covenant, September 3.

[5] Hidalgo, M. 2007), Sexual Abuse and the Culture of Catholicism, p. 27, The Haworth Press Inc. New York.


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