(LOUISVILLE, August 2nd, 2004, 4 p.m.) — The Roman Catholic sexual abuse crisis has focused primarily on molestation by priests, but in Louisville, more than 20 people are now suing an order of nuns that staffed an orphanage decades ago.
While most experts agree the incidence of abuse by nuns has been much less frequent than with male clergy, the phenomenon has been gaining some attention recently.
The initial lawsuit against the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth was brought by seven plaintiffs July 15, just over a year after 243 people reached a $25.7 million settlement with the Archdiocese of Louisville over abuse claims.
Herman J. Lammers, a longtime Catholic Charities director who was accused by two of those plaintiffs, was the resident chaplain at St. Thomas-St. Vincent Orphanage, which the sisters ran from 1952 until it closed in 1983. Lammers died in 1986.
The recent complaints have been filed mostly by women who say Lammers raped or molested them. But there are also allegations against more than 10 nuns.
“As women, they should want to protect children,” said 30-year-old Landa Mauriello-Vernono of Hamden, Conn., who has a pending lawsuit against a nun and the Catholic school she attended.
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She’s also leading a national awareness campaign for the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests. The campaign included a demonstration in Maryland earlier this month asking the Leadership Conference of Women Religious to allow victims to speak at its national gathering in August.
“What we’re really doing is reaching out to the victims and educating parents and grandparents that not all women are safe,” Mauriello-Vernon said. “But I think our country will have a pretty hard time hearing that.”
A Boston lawsuit filed in May included allegations by nine people who said they were abused by more than a dozen nuns at a Catholic school for the deaf.
Jeff Anderson, a Minnesota attorney, said he has represented more than 1,000 people over 22 years in cases involving priests or religious men, but has only handled about a half-dozen involving nuns.
“That tells you something,” Anderson said. “The whole phenomenon of nuns abusing is somewhat recent.”
Anderson said many nuns who abused minors were exploited by male clergy themselves.
“Abuse in religious orders is a grave problem because they don’t have geographic boundaries and can move abusers from parish to parish, state to state and country to country,” he said. “It’s a serious problem yet to be realized and appreciated.”
The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, for example, is a 192-year-old order of 650 nuns that provides education, health care and social services in the United States and India, Belize, Nepal and Botswana. Spokeswoman Barbara Qualls said the community has had as many as 1,600 nuns.
The order and its attorney have denied that they have any evidence of abuse or a cover-up at the orphanage, which was owned by the archdiocese through Catholic Charities, or at three schools mentioned in the suits. The archdiocese recently told the order it had heard from some of the accusers.
“We are very grieved at the memories of any individual of this nature. We want to cooperate in any way we can,” Qualls said. “We are also grieved at the memory of our own deceased sisters, who are indeed innocent until proven guilty.”
The order’s sexual abuse policy, approved in February 2003, requires an accused nun to be removed from her ministry while a full investigation is conducted. Only one sister named in the lawsuits, Mary Jane Rhodes, is living and still part of the community.
William McMurry, who orchestrated the settlement with the archdiocese, said the alleged abuse at the orphanage is far worse than priests who preyed on young parishioners.
“When I reflect on the 243 victims in the archdiocese case, the horrors that occurred here are far more frightening because those children had a home to at least retreat to, but instead these were captives living a child’s nightmare,” McMurry said.
McMurry said the orphanage could hold up to 450 children at one time, meaning the number of people suing the nuns could be high. The initial plaintiffs were five biological sisters who were reunited this spring after a half-century and realized they shared similar abuse.