‘Invisible’ victims: Survivors of sexual abuse by nuns demand to be counted

Last year's sweeping Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy sexual abuse did not investigate abuse by nuns.

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Patricia Cahill (right) greets Sister Eileen Shaw, the nun she says sexually abused her, at an event at Paramus Catholic High School in 1970. (Courtesy of Patricia Cahill)

Patricia Cahill (right) greets Sister Eileen Shaw, the nun she says sexually abused her, at an event at Paramus Catholic High School in 1970. (Courtesy of Patricia Cahill)

When Patricia Cahill was 15, a nun who taught at a nearby Catholic high school invited her to perform at a hootenanny mass.

“This was the 60s, you know, Peter Paul and Mary and all that,” said Cahill, now 67. “I didn’t really play guitar, but a nun — a nun! — asked me to come to mass and play guitar.”

Cahill, who lives in Lancaster, Pa., grew up in an Irish Catholic family in Ridgewood, New Jersey that revered clergy.

One invitation from Sister Eileen Shaw led to another. Cahill, who felt alienated from her family, came to see the nun as her mentor. The two became close.

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Then, one day, she invited Cahill to a shore house, and slipped something into her tea.

“She took me into the bedroom and I passed out,” said Cahill. “I was not conscious. I was not able to make a decision.” She said this was the first of many sexual assaults.

Patricia Cahill, pictured at her home in Lancaster. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Cahill says Shaw, who was more than 20 years older, was a part of her life for the next decade, a tumultuous time that fueled bouts of drug and alcohol addiction.

Today, she’s sober and living in a friend’s guest room in a quiet Lancaster subdivision. Nestled in the cushions of the living room couch, she went through bags of photos and slides that she’s kept, reminders of a toxic adolescence she still can’t shake.

“See how long my hair is?” Cahill said, picking up a photo. “[It’s] because she wanted me to wear my hair long. ‘Cut your hair this way, don’t hang around with this person’…She controlled my life.”

‘They weren’t there’

Survivors of sexual abuse by women in religious orders say stories like this one have been pushed aside amid the larger quest for justice by victims of sexual assault at the hands of Catholic clergy.

Last year’s Pennsylvania grand jury report, one of the most sweeping investigations into sex abuse in the Catholic Church, was limited to priests. It mentions one nun who helped Reverend Charles Thomas abuse one of his victims starting in 1958, while he was a minister at a parish in Greene County.

”[The victim] explained that this unknown nun had sexually assaulted him on separate occasions as well,” the report states.

The church also does not take responsibility for the actions of nuns and male religious order priests, such Jesuits and Franciscans, and the victims of these groups are not eligible for the compensation programs created by some dioceses.

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During Pope Francis’ February summit on protecting minors from clerical sexual abuse, the discussion focused explicitly on male perpetrators.

Relative to abuse by priests, known cases of nun abuse are few in number. About 100 nuns nationwide have been “credibly accused,” meaning allegations resulted in a lawsuit or news story, according to lists maintained by the watchdog group Bishop Accountability.  

By contrast, a 2004 report by John Jay College and commissioned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops found more than 10,000 accusations lodged against more than 4,000 male clergy between 1950 and 2002. Last year’s report on Pa. alleged 300 “predator priests” had sexually abused more than 1,000 victims.

The difference in scale doesn’t matter to survivors, says Mary Dispenza, a former nun who now works for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

“With the Pennsylvania investigation and the ‘MeToo’ movement, survivors went looking to find their stories listed among those shared in the investigation and they weren’t there,” she said.

As the point person for SNAP’s advocacy around nun abuse, Dispenza has heard from more than 60 people who say nuns sexually assaulted them since the grand jury report’s release in August. SNAP hopes to launch an online support group for those victims later this month.

Whether perpetrated by a priest or a nun, story after story of abuse has shown a similar pattern, with faith leaders using their stature to gain trust in the community while exploiting vulnerable minors behind closed doors.

As a sophomore in high school in New York City, Cait Finnegan said her Spanish teacher, a nun, began raping her at school.

“She told me that she loved me, that God is love, and this was the way she could express her love to me, which was very godly,” said Finnegan, who described her teenage self as “shy” and “a wallflower.”

At that age, Finnegan had hoped to become a nun too, and could not untangle her faith from the abuse.

“We prayed together one evening, and I was praying to God to make her stop,” said Finnegan, 67, who now leads Celtic Christian community in the Poconos.

She blamed herself for what happened in her youth and did not come to recognize it as abuse until she shared her story with her husband in her late 30s.  

Prior to that, she said, “I didn’t think of it as abuse, because who thought those words then?”

‘Invisible minority’

The passage of time closes most windows for restitution for young victims of sexual abuse. Unless an allegation happened in a state that has temporarily lifted the statute-of-limitations for decades-old claims, which Pennsylvania has not, survivors have few options.

For victims of nuns, the quest for accountability must go through women’s religious orders themselves.

In Trish Cahill’s case, she was in her early 40s and in recovery for drug and alcohol abuse when she approached the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth. At the time, Sister Eileen Shaw was working as the principal of Our Lady of Visitation School in Paramus, New Jersey.

“I wanted her out of her principalship, away from girls, and I wanted money for PTSD and relapse prevention,” said Cahill.

The order investigated and “substantiated the Sister’s improper conduct,” said Donna Sartor, director of communication for the Sisters of Charity. Shaw was taken out of ministry, and forbidden from interacting with anyone younger than 21. Cahill received $70,000 in an out-of-court settlement, and signed away her right to sue in the future.

The convent declined to make Shaw available, and attempts to reach her were unsuccessful.

Finnegan also approached the religious order of her perpetrator, and received money for counseling.

At the national level, “The Leadership Conference of Women Religious offers its deepest sympathy to anyone impacted by abuse perpetrated by Catholic sisters” and has moved to address it,” wrote communications director Sister Annmarie Sanders in a statement. Those steps include creating policies and training materials distributed to members to try to prevent exploitation.

Cahill, though, is far from healed. To cope, she spends hours a day writing about her abuse on social media under the name P K Hill. She said it is her way of openly confronting a culture she says silenced her.

“We’re an invisible minority unless, we shove it in their face,” she said. “So I’m shoving it in their faces.”

Correction: An previous version of this story incorrectly stated the location of Patricia Cahill’s first experience being abused by Shaw. 

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