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Nigerian Priest Highlights Plight of Victims, Survivors of Abuse in Religious Communities

Jesuit Fr. Noel Nwadike highlighted the plight of sexual abuse victims, survivors in religious communities. Credit: Fr. Noel Nwadike/JCAM

A Nigerian Catholic Priest has, at a virtual colloquium, which members of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) have spearheaded, highlighted the plight of victims and survivors of abuse in religious communities whose experiences “leaves one speechless and devastated.”

Speaking during the Friday, April 30 event dubbed, “African Child: Promoting A Consistent Culture of Protection, Care, And Safeguarding In Church and Society,” Fr. Noel Nwadike said, “A significant number of women have been victims of sexual abuse and there are even more who are survivors of childhood sexual abuses.”

In his presentation on the topic, “Holistic Formation and Accompaniment of Victims and Survivors of Abuse in Religious Communities,” the Jesuit Priest noted that Pope Francis’ 2019  Apostolic Letter  “Vos estis lux mundi” that established procedural norms in dealing with sexual abuse in the Church brought to light incidences of sexual abuse.

“The document came at a time when there was an increased public awareness of the fact that consecrated women are being abused by members of the Clergy,” Fr. Nwadike who is the Director of the Jesuit Novitiate in Nigeria’s Archdiocese of Benin City said.

With the publication of the document, “what had been going on for several years in the dark finally came to light,” the holder of a Masters of Arts and Professional Licentiate in Clinical Psychology added during the last day of the virtual event organized by the Jesuit Conference of Africa and Madagascar (JCAM).

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He said that what he was presenting is informed by experiences of accompanying consecrated men and women who are survivors of sexual abuse.

Fr. Nwadike went on to describe the magnitude of the abuses saying, “When victims open their hearts to share their pain, shame, vulnerabilities, anger and rage, such an encounter leaves one speechless and devastated.”

“Let it be known to those who are skeptical and doubtful that there are numerous consecrated persons who are victims of sexual abuse,” the alumnus of Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University said.

In his presentation, Fr. Nwadike shared the written account of one of the Catholic Nuns identified as Sr. Victima (not her real name), a victim of sexual abuse whom he is accompanying in her healing journey.

First abused at the age of three by her uncle, Sr. Victima was also abused by her cousins and neighbors “at every opportunity.” However, it was at the age of 14 that she got her “first explosion.”

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“This time, it was by a Seminarian who threatened to kill me if I screamed. He violently defiled me. The same cruel act was to be followed by a Priest six years later. I buried all these somewhere in response to a call to Religious Life,” Sr. Victima noted in her written testimony, which she “freely and willingly offered” to Fr. Nwadike for presentation during the seminar.

She added, “At the end of my Novitiate formation, I went home on holiday. My then Parish Priest got to know me, and he invited me. At our first meeting, he drugged the served drink. My suspicion was my narrow escape.”

Sr. Victima was again abused “a few months ago” by a doctor “on his examination table,” an encounter she described as “unfathomable.”

“Broken by this recent abuse, I confided in my Superior with hopes of getting justice. But it was not to be. She was preoccupied with preserving the image of the congregation (rather) than supporting a shattered Sister,” she said adding, “In the end, it's just me, us (victims) to our pain. How we get off the trauma, it's our business.”

Out of the trauma of sexual abuse, Sr. Victima says that in her vocation as a Nun, she lacks “the courage to listen and be present to victims of sexual abuse. I do most of the crying and raging. Day after day I mourn over my ‘lost self’ and I hear myself reiterating: ‘The day I'll walk onto a man abusing a woman is the day I'll go to jail’.”

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According to Fr. Nwadike, Sr. Victima’s account is “the reality of a good number of consecrated women.”

He acknowledged the courage of Sr. Victima for opening up saying, “The less courageous Sisters suffer from fear, shame, and depression. Some others are terrified by the consequences of reporting their abuser, especially if they don't feel supported by their Religious Superior and community.”

“A painful fact still remains,” the Nigerian Cleric said, and explained, “Some Religious Superiors lack the empathy and compassion to support their abused members. There are those who are not willing to pay for the therapy sessions of their sexually abused Sister. When victims express the need to begin therapy, they are stoically rebuffed with the cold statement, ‘the congregation cannot afford such expenses.’” 

He added, “Many of these victims and survivors, whether they are men or women, suffer in silence. Their suffering is all the more aggravated by the neglect and lack of support systems in the religious communities.”

Fr. Nwadike, who is a member of the Child Protection Commission of JCAM, however acknowledged some “bold Religious Institutes that are equipping and supporting their members in dealing with the reality sexual abuse.”

Making reference to Religious Orders, he said, “Some of them have policies and structures to deal with allegations of sexual abuse. However, there are some other institutes that are still struggling to learn how best to respond to the sexual abuse of their members.”

“There are formators and spiritual directors who are yet to learn how to accompany their members who are suffering from both short-term and long-term effect of sexual abuse. As a result of this situation, victims and survivors under their care suffer from a lack of empathy and compassion from their formators, spiritual directors and religious superiors,” he further said.

The Jesuit Cleric whose research interests include Developmental Trauma and Personality Pathology lamented that although Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter on sexual abuse “encourages and obliges victims to report and denounce their abusers, the reality among consecrated religious here in Africa has not changed much, despite the growing awareness of sexual abuse.”

He explained, “Victims neither feel safe nor secure to disclose and report their abusers due to threats of victimization, recrimination, shame, and fear of expulsion from their religious institute. Thus, these religious men and women continue to feel oppressed, suppressed, and neglected.”

To those that consecrated persons may reveal to, that they have been abused, Fr. Nwadike urged to, among other things, protect the victim, show empathy and compassion to them, believe them, resist the temptation to doubt the disclosure, and affirm the victim for their courage.

He called on people to whom abused persons confide, to ensure that the victims receive the appropriate therapeutic support, and follow the procedure for reporting to the Child Protection & Safeguarding officer of the perpetrator's Diocese, or Religious Order or Church institution.

“Ensure that the victim is very well prepared and protected, before, during and after the process of investigation begins,” Fr. Nwadike said during the seminar, adding, “It is usually a very painful process for the victim, and terrifyingly shameful for the abuser.”

Inspired by Pope Francis’ Apostolic Letter on tackling abuse in the Church, the colloquium, which brought together Jesuits, laypersons, church leaders, and representatives from other Religious Orders from across the continent aimed to “contribute to the global ‘task regarding all of us as the People of God’ to create a safe environment for all, especially children, in Church, family and society.”

According to the leadership of JCAM, the papers presented at the three-day virtual event are set to be edited into a single resource volume and made available for publication to inform further research, study, formation, and practice.