Friday 15 February 2019

'Vatican official came into my room and raped me': ex-nun

As Pope Francis prepares for a 'Sex Abuse Summit', women who were abused by priests are speaking up

ABUSE: Fr Hermann Geissler last week quit his Vatican post. Photo: CNS Photo/Courtesy FSO Rome
ABUSE: Fr Hermann Geissler last week quit his Vatican post. Photo: CNS Photo/Courtesy FSO Rome

Paddy Agnew

Right on the eve of this month's unprecedented so- called 'Sex Abuse Summit' in the Vatican, Pope Francis was this week rudely reminded of the seemingly intractable problem facing the Catholic Church.

This time, the many-headed Hydra monster that is clerical sex abuse manifested itself on the Pope's doorstep, in the hallowed environs of the Congregation of the Doctine of the Faith (CDF), once better known as the Holy Office. Last Monday, Austrian priest Father Hermann Geissler, one of three office managers at the CDF, resigned from the job he has done for the past 26 years.

A Vatican statement said Father Geissler had resigned in order "to limit the damage already done to the Congregation and to his Community [religious order]", adding that "he affirms that the accusation made against him is untrue".

So, what is the accusation? It goes back 10 years ago. German Doris Wagner, a former nun with the male and female religious community, "The Work" (Familia Spiritualis Opus), has accused Father Geissler, also a member of "The Work", of soliciting sex from her while hearing her confession in 2009.

This case highlights an aspect of the Catholic Church's sex abuse problem that has become more prominent. While for much of the past 20 years, clerical sex abuse investigations/reports/media coverage have understandably focused on abuse of minors, it has long been clear that the church has an equally big problem with the abuse of those in positions of subservience to powerful superiors, such as seminary students and nuns.

Last Friday, even the Vatican's own magazine, Women Church World, published along with the Vatican daily, L'Osservatore Romano, highlighted the problem. Citing the Pope's analysis of abuse, the magazine denounced the sexual abuse of nuns by priests - and the resulting "scandal" of religious sisters having abortions or giving birth to children who are then not recognised by their fathers.

FORMER NUN: Doris Wagner
FORMER NUN: Doris Wagner

If there has been a common denominator in the unfolding sex abuse story of the last year, it has concerned the abuse of power and rank by senior churchmen engaged in sexual harassment of either seminary students or nuns, from Chile to Pennsylvania and from Australia to Hondouras. These often silent victims clearly come under the category of "vulnerable adults".

Doris Wagner's accusations, filed to the CDF in 2014, first became known to many during the Voices of Faith event, "Overcoming Silence - Women's Voices in the Abuse Crisis", held in Rome last November. In a compelling and moving talk, Ms Wagner recalled the horrors of her experience.

She not only alleged that Father Geissler had solicited sex from her during confession, but she also said that she had been raped by the male superior of the convent where she lived. That had occurred in 2008 when she was 24, Ms Wagner explained: "I joined religious life when I was 19... At that moment, like any young sister, I was following an ideal... I was ready to follow Christ wherever he would lead me so that when my superiors told me that the way to perfection consisted in obeying orders even when I did not understand them, when they told me not to read books, not to speak with my fellow sisters about personal matters, not to contact my family without permission...when they told me always to smile, I trusted them..."

That trust however exploded in her face. Five years after she had joined the community and just some months after she had taken her solemn vows, she said, "the male superior of the house came into my room and raped me".

She added: "When he came in to undress me, the only thing I was able to say was 'you are not allowed to do this' which obviously did not help at all. Instantly I knew that whomsoever I would speak to about this in the community would blame me, not him. And so, I kept silent."

Ms Wagner also told how, one year later, "a priest working to this day as capo ufficio at the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith" [Father Geissler] and a fellow member of the community asked to be appointed as her confessor. She alleges that Father Geissler tried "to hold me and kiss me", telling her that "even though we couldn't marry, there would be other ways..."

When she complained to her female superior, she was told: "Yes, Father Geissler has a certain weakness for women but we have to put up with it."

Ms Wagner left the community and abandoned religious life two years later, in 2011. Now married with one child, she has in the meantime completed theology studies in Germany and written a book about her experiences, Nicht Mehr Ich (Not Me Anymore).

She thought she was "the only nun who had ever been raped by a priest" but soon learned otherwise. Her research drew her attention to the work of Irish missionary nun Sister Maura O'Donoghue

Having spent six years as Aids co-ordinator for the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, O'Donoghue (and others) produced a report in the mid 1990s which detailed widespread sexual abuse of nuns by male superiors, in 23 countries including Ireland, Italy and the USA.

Sme experts estimate that 30pc of religious females experience sexual harassment from male "colleagues". Ms Wagner now says that she tells her story because "unless victims speak out then the abuse will just go on forever".

Contacted by email this week by the Sunday Independent, Ms Wagner said that she was "relieved" by Father Geissler's resignation, adding: "At the same time I am quite shocked that he does not admit [to the abuse] and has even managed to include a threat [to take legal action] into the official Vatican press statement. Also, I am wondering why he has not been removed from his office when I first reported him in 2012 - and after he had admitted 'imprudent gestures on two occasions' in 2014. Finally, I am wondering what the apparently ongoing canonical process is about, who is leading it, whether I will be questioned in this process and what the outcome will be."

Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said Geissler was "under examination by the Superiors of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who reserve the right to take the appropriate initiatives".

Father Geissler's resignation remains a huge embarrassment as part of the CDF's brief is to deal with the most serious offences against the sacraments, above all including sex abuse cases.

As we move into 2019, on the clerical sex abuse front things are not getting a lot better for Pope Francis. Last year was marked by sex abuse scandals in Chile, Honduras, Australia and Pennsylvania which, in different ways, featured senior churchmen such as Cardinals Pell, Maradiaga, McCarrick and Errazuriz (and the list does not end there).

2019 has begun not only with this week's Geissler case but also with a potentially much more damaging case involving Argentine Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, appointed by Francis in 2013.

He is accused of the sexual harassment of seminary students, the posting on social media of naked selfies and other acts of "obscene" behaviour by the Bishop. Bishop Zanchetta's own vicar general, Father Juan Jose Manzano, has told Associated Press that the Holy See was informed of these accusations against Bishop Zanchetta in both 2015 and 2017. Even the naked selfies were sent to the Holy See, he claims.

Sunday Independent

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