“Few people think about adult women”

Symbolic image: Desperate woman © Julia Steinbrecht (KNA)

Coming to terms with abuse in the Catholic Church often involves underage victims, mostly boys. But adult women are also affected by sexual and spiritual assaults, as a book shows.

Ellen Adler wants to become a nun. But on her way to the monastery, she is abused by a budding priest. The head of the convent she wants to join turns Adler down. She was no longer a virgin. This is how the author, whose name is actually different, tells it in the book "Narrating as Resistance," which will be published next Wednesday on the International Day Against Violence Against Women. 23 women describe spiritual or sexual abuse they experienced as adults in the Catholic Church.

The book project was initiated by the Catholic German Women's Federation (KDFB). "Very few people think of adult women when they hear the words abuse in the Catholic Church," explains co-editor and KDFB official Regina Heyder. However, the association knows that these cases exist.

Often a mixture of sexual and spiritual abuse

16 reports are about sexual abuse and 17 reports are about spiritual abuse, with a mix often present. All women use pseudonyms. Perpetrators, dioceses and religious orders are also not named. The book can nevertheless reveal mechanisms behind acts of abuse, Heyder emphasizes. She says the volume is intended to create publicity for the experiences of those affected. Every account thus strengthens the account of other women.

Also the one by the GDR citizen Ellen Adler. She sets out for Austria shortly after the fall of the Wall in 1989, she writes. There she wants to enter a monastery. In southern Germany, through the mediation of her home bishop, she initially finds lodgings with the aspirants of a men's convent, as she must wait for her West German passport, which she needs to enter Austria. "I had thought myself safe in this novitiate in southern Germany, among people whose longing was directed toward God alone," Adler explains. "I was terribly mistaken."

Prere exerted with information from confession

Soon, the novice master in charge of training the new friars asks Adler to confess, as she reports. At his request, one of the monastic candidates was present at the interview – to gain experience as a prospective priest.

Later, the aspirant had put prere on Adler with information from the confession, she says. And: "He used my isolation: I had no (West) money, no telephone, no contact with family, friends, companions, fellow sisters."This is how the sexual abuse finally took place – with the knowledge of the novice master.

In about half of the accounts in the book, the perpetrators are priests; however, there are also assaults and boundary violations involving other women. In 14 of the 23 cases, the abuse occurred during spiritual accompaniment or a spiritual exercise and five times during confession.

The authors trusted the perpetrators as pastors, says co-editor Ute Leimgruber. "When abuse takes place within pastoral relationships, it is within a very fragile situation."As soon as there are dependency relationships and hidden power structures, even adults can find it difficult to defend themselves against assaults," she said.

Kicked out of convent after confession of abuse

Adler finally arrives at the convent in Austria. After some time, the superior found out what had happened to her, the author says. "She stated that then, after all, I was no longer a virgin and therefore unfit for the vows. One day later I was standing in the street in Austria."

The KDFB estimates that there is a high number of unreported cases of women abused in the church. The book is intended to make the problem visible, says Heyder. Some bishops had already shown interest in the volume.

According to her account, Adler travels to southern Germany again a few weeks after she was kicked out. She had wanted to find an explanation "of what God had done to me there". Instead, she says, she was met with rejection. For example, she says, the novice master claimed she was trying to seduce the priest-to-be – and he passed the "test". She has contacted church authorities several times – without success. "No one felt responsible."The book also aims to change that.

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