STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Most of the stories of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church focus on acts by priests; in some stories of sexual abuse, the alleged abusers are nuns. Some victims say we can't tell how widespread the problem may be because allegations against women have been treated differently. Laura Benshoff reports from member station WHYY. And we should note, this story will be inappropriate for some audiences.
LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: When Trish Cahill was 15, a nun two decades older offered to be her mentor. First, it was an invitation to play guitar during mass. Then it was...
PATRICIA CAHILL: If you get an A on your report card, I'll take you down to the shore for a day. And I'm like, my parents didn't take me down to the shore for a day. It was fantastic. So I got an A on my report card.
BENSHOFF: Cahill grew up in an Irish Catholic family in northern New Jersey and went to Catholic school. She says the nun's kindness was flattering. But during one of those outings, she says the nun slipped something into her tea.
CAHILL: I passed out. I don't really know what happened that night. I mean, I do know what happened that night, but I was not conscious. I was not able to make a decision.
BENSHOFF: That was the first time the sister sexually assaulted her and the start of an abusive dynamic that would last for more than a decade. Now in her late 60s, Cahill is sober after years of struggling with drugs and alcohol.
CAHILL: Oh, my God.
BENSHOFF: In the friend's house where she's staying, she pulls out bags of pictures and slides - artifacts she now sees as evidence of abuse.
CAHILL: See how long my hair is? Because she told me she wanted me to wear my hair long, wear these, get these glasses, don't hang around with this person. She just controlled my life; she controlled every facet of my life.
BENSHOFF: Though less known than sexual misconduct by priests, there are many documented cases of similar allegations against nuns. The watchdog group Bishop Accountability has compiled a list of about 100 religious sisters who've been credibly accused. But there's no official count, in part because big investigations into Catholic clergy tend to focus on male abusers. Last year's massive Pennsylvania grand jury report contained one passing reference to a sexually abusive nun. Mary Dispenza with the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, says when it was released, victims of nuns also came forward.
MARY DISPENZA: Survivors went looking to find their stories listed among those shared, and they weren't there. They've actually made calls to ask, why aren't there more stories? Can my story be counted?
BENSHOFF: Part of the issue is that their stories aren't counted the same way. Accusations against nuns, monks and religious order priests are usually dealt with by their respective orders and not their local dioceses. But survivors say their abusers all exploited the same religious authority. When Steve Theisen was 9 years old, he says a nun started molesting him at his Catholic school in Dubuque, Iowa. Here he is talking about that experience in a 2014 recording archived with SNAP.
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STEVE THEISEN: She had me come over to her desk, where she's sitting at. And she taught me how the Eskimos kiss by rubbing her nose against my nose. And then she later taught me how the Americans kissed. And then she taught me how the French kissed.
BENSHOFF: Today, Theisen says he kept quiet for more than 30 years because he couldn't reconcile what happened to him with Catholic teaching about nuns.
THEISEN: She belonged to those people that our parents and grandparents put on pedestals, in that they could do no wrong.
BENSHOFF: After many decades, he did come forward, and the nun's religious order cooperated with an investigation that found his allegations credible but not provable. In Trish Cahill's case, the religious order of the nun who abused her substantiated her claims and paid Cahill $70,000 in an out-of-court settlement. Neither order would make the nuns available for interview. In the meantime, Cahill's started going to church sporadically - not a Catholic one - where she's able to talk openly about her experiences.
CAHILL: To say, I was sexually abused by a nun, without immediately the cloud of, you're a sinner; this was a lesbian relationship; you tempted her.
BENSHOFF: She says those were all stereotypes she had to overcome to bring her abuse to light. For NPR News, I'm Laura Benshoff in Philadelphia.
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