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'I Just Froze': Former Nun Talks About Experiences Of Sexual And Spiritual Abuse


Pope Francis made history earlier this week as the first pontiff to visit the Arabian Peninsula. And, on the plane flying back to Rome, he made history again. He acknowledged for the first time that priests and bishops in the Catholic Church have not only abused children but also nuns. And he said it may still be happening. Doris Wagner joined a religious community in Germany at the age of 19, where she says she was sexually assaulted. She left that order in 2011 and has written a book about her own experience and another about spiritual abuse in the Catholic Church. And here's where I'd like to tell you that the details may be very disturbing to some listeners. With that being said, Doris Wagner is with us now from Herzberg, Germany. Doris, thanks so much for talking with us.

DORIS WAGNER: Well, thank you.

MARTIN: How did the abuse, as you understand it, begin if you could tell us that? And I do want to recognize, again, that this is not an easy thing to talk about.

WAGNER: Actually, I experienced two kinds of abuse, and the first abuse I experienced is spiritual abuse. I wasn't allowed to think for myself and to have my own relationship to God. It was all dictated by my superiors, you know? This really actually prepared the sexual abuse because it put me in a position where I was not able to say I, I want or I don't want something because that was just not possible in that kind of spirituality that I was obliged to follow.

So the sexual abuse really happened when I - it was in Rome. I was given a new task. I was the librarian in the house. And the male superior of the house started to visit me in the library. He would come up, regularly. He would hug me, and I really got frightened. And I decided to talk to my female superior about it. And I was frightened because she had told me at the beginning when I joined the community that we had to be very careful that nothing sexual - feelings or sexual relationships or anything like that and that the sisters who have the greater responsibility.

Eventually, he came into my room in the evening and just started to undress me. And it was in this very moment when he started to undress me that I realized what was going to happen. And I just completely froze, and there was only one sentence I was able to say to him. It was, you're not allowed to do this. But it obviously didn't help. And then, he just went on.

MARTIN: But you felt that you couldn't speak up. You felt - and based on your experience that you - if you did speak up, you would be blamed.

WAGNER: Yeah. And that's exactly what happened, you know? I thought I'm obliged to be silent because when I speak out, the community and the church will be damaged. And it was only in 2010 - that was two years after I had been raped - there were all those headlines about sexual abuse of children. And it was really then that I understood that survivors, victims have to speak out.

MARTIN: And what happened when you did?

WAGNER: Well, the first time I spoke up was with my female superior. And she was really - she was crazy, you know? I've never ever again seen a person like that. She was completely out of her words. She was red in her face. She was jumping on her feet. She was shouting, screaming. What's really extraordinary to watch her reaction. And, at the end, she simply refused to understand that it was rape. At the end, she came up to me, took me into her arms - which was very unusual, never happened in the community that anybody would touch anybody else, usually. So she took me under her arms and said to me, I forgive you.

MARTIN: You know, in recent days, we've heard some really horrendous stories, including from the pope himself. I mean, he says that there was even an order where women were being used as sex slaves. And I think that a lot of people would just have a hard time understanding. How is this possible? How is something so antithetical to what people understand to be the teachings of the church could be? How is that - how do you understand it? You've given a lot of thought to this.

WAGNER: Well, I think it's - actually, it's not surprising. When you look at the roles of men and women in the church, the men represent Christ. They are ministering the sacraments. They're in a position of power. All the positions of power in the church are kept by men, and the women, especially religious sisters - they are there to serve the men. And then, those men are not allowed to have any kind of sexual activity, actually, at all. But they have these women close to them who serve them, you know?

When you become a sister - and it shouldn't be that way, but in many, many communities - and definitely in the one I was in - sisters are trained to accept to see their own role as, you know, always being available. You don't - not to have any personal wishes or any personal ideas or versions of your life. Just be available for others and ready to suffer and ready to smile. Your own personal view or your own personal wishes don't matter. You're just available for others. So it's not surprising at all that, eventually, those men will abuse those women.

MARTIN: What happened to the priest who you say raped you? I know that you did not initially name him, but it has been discovered, you know, who he is. What happened to him?

WAGNER: The priest who raped me is still a priest. He's still in the community. And there was another priest who sexually assaulted me during confession, and he became head of the unit of the doctrinale (ph) at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. And he stepped down, recently.

MARTIN: And I have to ask. The order that you were in put out a statement, saying that your allegations have been investigated by ecclesiastical and civil authorities and couldn't be substantiated. And how do you respond to that?

WAGNER: I find this very - I find this ridiculous, actually, because, first of all, it's, again, the same problem you see with other cases of sexual abuse. The ones who are investigated are investigating themselves. That's just ridiculous. And, two, I have to say I was never questioned on these matters, and I don't have any access to the files nor does my canon lawyer. So I don't know, actually, what they investigated and how they've found out because I was not questioned in the process.

MARTIN: You've been researching this question, this whole - the experience that you had. And how prevalent do you think the abuse of nuns is?

WAGNER: There are, first of all, the reports of Maura O'Donoghue and others, who just, you know, documented the cases that they came across in their book as sisters and social workers in the 1980s. And they collected horrible cases, including women being raped by priests, women having children and being thrown out of convents, women infecting themselves with HIV, women who were forced to abortion. And the reports of Maura O'Donoghue had been sent to Rome in 1994 and were leaked in The New York Times in 2001. And I have been raped in 2008, which has shocked me how preventable that would have been if officials would have reacted, appropriately, to what they had been knowing much earlier.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you, finally - and thank you again for visiting with us - about something that has been - it is so difficult to talk about. But do you think that the pope's acknowledgement will help?

WAGNER: Well, it's definitely helped already because everybody's speaking about it now. And I'm so glad that people are speaking about it now. And women - actually, nuns who have been abused are contacting me now. I'm really happy that they start to speak out. On the other hand, I think that the statement didn't help in a way because the pope did not present a plan. He did not say anything concrete, what he's going to do about it or what he has - would have done and has done in the past. There were no concrete action, nothing about persecution of perpetrators or compensation of victims. And that's, really, what I'm still waiting for and many others, too.

MARTIN: That's Doris Wagner. She is a theologian and an author. She was kind enough to join us from Herzberg, Germany. Doris Wagner, thank you so much for talking with us.

WAGNER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.