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Nuns At Crossroads

Nuns At Crossroads

With the recent storm in the Church in India, frequently, the Church is being projected as an institution which does not stand by its women even in cases where serious allegations of sexual exploitation is reported to the police and Church authorities.  The allegations also include sexual misconduct,  accusations of misuse of authority, inappropriate lifestyle and a host of other things. The people are appalled at the situation in the Church and the ensuing diffidence by the hierarchy to take stern action.

The Church is harmed and wounded when its clergy are abusive in their behaviour and the recent cases assert that the clergy exercised the patriarchal values of domination and control, as well as their financial and spiritual authority to exploit and gain sexual favours from women.   

As quoted in National Catholic Reporter, for the Vatican, “Forms of feminism hostile to the Church are among matters of deep concern” but there is no mention of male chauvinism, misogyny or the very structures of patriarchy itself as any kind of concern at all. Feminism, after all, is an ideology which stands for equality of all in the society. How then can it be condemned!  

What is alarming is how deeply this religiously-endorsed patriarchy has seeped into the common psyche and behaviour of men in the Church.  One of the theology professors, a priest from a famous institute commented about his female students that “these sisters have nothing in their head”. The irony is that such institutions are committed to empower women religious as well as to form future priests. One can imagine what sort of an empowerment is imparted to their students.  Many of those who are hailed as progressive icons, on the subject of women in the Church, remain loyal to a long-held and antiquated stance that women do not deserve anything further.

Women religious form the largest work force within the Church and many are actively engaged in various ministries. Yet discrimination against them takes varied forms. Lack of respect, sexual abuse, low wages, stereotyping of roles, degrading conversations are some of the more obvious.  Religious women don’t brag about all of the good that they do, they are not on social media with hashtags; hence many people have no idea about the work that they accomplish.

In the social media we come across a few of the misogynists and chauvinistic priests, who protect themselves behind religion when sliding into utter hate speeches against women in the name of retreats and other spiritual exercises, putting the burden of morality on women alone. Even to the extent of a priest accusing women of tempting their brothers and fathers, and absolved rapists of “such” girls saying they were provoked. Sadly, we do have many men and women who are complicit in such hypocrisy and that is deplorable!

The sexual harassment and humiliation which religious sisters who serve in Church institutions are subjected to, has long been spoken about in hushed tones.  Most often the survivors concerned are reluctant to report the abuse because of well-founded fears that they won’t be believed and will be ostracised since the institution of priesthood is extremely powerful.  We have many instances where the responses of Superiors to the abused were either inadequate or vicious and lacking in any empathy and at times even colluding with the perpetrators.

There are ample instances where the congregations are blackmailed by the powerful in the Church, so that they do not support the survivor.   When serious allegations surface against the clergy, the excuse given by the Church hierarchy is that they have no authority to ask a Bishop/Priest to step down, since it has to be decided by the Vatican and the road to the Vatican is lengthy and complicated. The official Church has focused much of its attention recently on protecting children, but they do not recognize that the vulnerable adults ‘deserve the same protection’. Because of the unequal power equation that prevails in the Church, women are incapable of voluntary consent due to a particular vulnerability or due to the power relationship between the parties.

With respect to, the recent controversies and cases that are in the public domain, the inaction by Church authorities has resulted in the problems getting murkier on the ground, particularly in Kerala where the criminal investigations have already commenced.  On July 15, around 179 reputed persons signed a letter of concern which was sent to the authorities. However, thus far, no response has been received.  This lack of action is a reflection of how this whole crisis in the Church has been handled: with fine words in public and contrary actions behind closed doors.  Many, especially those in the higher ranks of the Church, though good persons, dedicated to their calling, are complicit in covering up case after case and failing to condemn it in absolute terms and take actions against the guilty. 

Religious women do not have the power to manage Church affairs or Church institutions and these continue to be male citadels.   In the Indian Church, what we call the CBCI Council for Women was born twenty six years ago in 1992 in the form of the CBCI Women’s Desk. It was a response to growing violence and discrimination against women and girl children.  The Desk was meant to serve as a catalyst to promote and support all initiatives that aim at the empowerment of women.  In 1996 the Desk was upgraded to a Commission.  Thereafter, in September 2010 it was renamed as CBCI Commission for Women; in 2011 the name was again changed to CBCI Office for women, and in April 2014, as CBCI Council for Women.   At the national level the CBCI Council for Women consists of a Chairperson who is a Bishop, two member Bishops and the Secretary who is a woman (either a lay person or a religious).  Why cannot the commission for women be entrusted to women?  It is really sad that the Church is not yet coherent with women’s competences and capacities. Women religious in India notably pursue ongoing theological and professional formation seeking to further their ability to serve the Church's mission and to prepare others to collaborate in it as well. Many women are much more educated than the priests. So it is not that women are not trained, but the reality is that we have not yet grown up to be a Church based on Gospel values.   

Change is extremely slow within the Church and women continue to be treated as subordinates and handmaidens at the service of the male hierarchy. Within such uneven power structures, it is not surprising that women are abused.   There is a huge gap between Christian teaching and practice on equality. Secular institutions are more likely to recognize the fullness of a woman's humanity than the Church does! 

The presence of women anywhere within the Church’s power structure is virtually zero. W ithout the contribution from women, the Church functions with only one half of the human mind. Majority of the women religious are fiercely dedicated to the concept of social justice and serving those on the margins. Yet, they face a crisis in getting vocations.  Why would a generation of young women raised to believe that they can achieve greater heights join an institution that tells them that there is a certain level that they will never reach?

The chasm between the Church's stated principles and its functional reality is very wide. The authority in the Church is considered as the domain of a select few males and as a result, the religion has become a tool in the hands of those men who stifle women.  The Church should condemn actions such as sexual abuse and the mismanagement of power and wealth and should take seriously the no-tolerance stance on sexual abuse involving Church personnel. Such actions will undoubtedly raise the Church’s credibility among people.  The Church has already lost umpteen opportunities by projecting an empathetic public face and doing the opposite. In the interest of protecting the integrity of the Church before the Indian Society, the Church should act without any delay to bring justice to the abused.  There should be clear mechanisms in place to investigate and punish bishops who themselves abuse or allow the abusers to remain in their ranks unchallenged.  

With a rising consciousness, awareness and confidence in themselves and their own equality before God, women have been raising questions which are making the men uncomfortable.  Now women in the Church have gathered sufficient audacity to come out in the open and to stand for their cause. Though, we still live in a Church, where standing for women’s rights is frowned upon and male chauvinism is tolerated, our hope is that s ome religious women are now finding their voices.  There is also a growing recognition that adults can be victims of sexual abuse when there is an imbalance of power in a relationship. The sisters are daring to go public because of the years of inaction by Church leaders and their apprehension in the justice system within the Church.  Integrity in ministerial life and relationships are demanded not only for the good of the clergy but also for the good of the Church.

(Published on 13th August 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 33)