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You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!

Jean Birkenstein Washington

Boston Herald

MSNBC feature

Robin Washington
Articles - Catholic Church abuse scandal

Years later, some charge sexual abuse by nuns

Boston Herald, June 3, 2002

A half-century after his Catholic school boyhood, John Kerrigan says he is still haunted by the memories: a figure draped in the mantle of the church, finding sexual gratification through his fearful 12-year-old body.

Though his story echoes countless others in the ever-widening church molestation scandal, it differs in that the alleged abuser was not a priest.

Rather, it was a nun.

"This was one sick woman," Kerrigan, 69, said of the Chicago nun whose image he has captured in oil paint, a scene recalling Picasso's "Guernica" nightmare.

While abuse by nuns is little known, it is not an anomaly, said Ashley Hill, who documented allegations against nuns in 23 states for her 1995 book, "Habits of Sin: An Expose of Nuns Who Sexually Abuse Children and Each Other."

"I don't think people want to go near the fact that women abuse, let alone nuns. But believe me, it is real," said Hill, an alleged victim of a molester nun at a New Hampshire Catholic school in 1962.

Since Hill's book, more accusations have surfaced, including:

-- In Vermont, lawsuits by as many as 100 former residents of Burlington's now-shuttered St. Joseph's Orphanage charging sex abuse in the 1940s and '50s.

-- The naming of a nun along with 11 priests in a current suit against the Diocese of Providence.

-- Two impending suits involving Boston nuns by attorney Roderick MacLeish Jr.

In another complaint brought to the Archdiocese of Boston, a woman said she was raped repeatedly by a nun as a first-grader in South Boston 55 years ago.

"She held me back another year so she could keep doing it," said the woman, who said she reported it to the archdiocese in March 2002 but was encouraged to keep quiet. The Rev. Chris Coyne, an archdiocese spokesman, said there is no record of her complaint.

A. W. "Richard" Sipe, a psychotherapist and former priest who has done extensive work with pedophile priests, said he has worked on dozens of nun cases.

Though he said there are no studies regarding the numbers of nuns who molest children, the anecdotal evidence is telling.

"I was on the St. Joseph's (Orphanage) case and interviewed a number of (victims)," he said.

"In one case, this nun would get a boy an erection and then burn him on his penis," he said, noting a common thread of sadism mixed with sex in many allegations.

"The sadism is worth noting. I think they got away with the sex abuse because of the stereotype of nuns slapping kids with rulers."

Andrew Ketterer, Maine's former attorney general, is familiar with that pattern.

His knowledge is not from a courtroom but from the New Jersey classroom where he says a nun abused him 46 years ago.

"She would basically say mean things to me until I started crying, then her demeanor would change," said Ketterer, whose mother died when he was 5.

"She'd say, `I'll be like your mother,' and she'd kiss away every one of those tears, culminating with a very long kiss on the lips."

Ketterer, who stunned colleagues by testifying as a victim at a legislative sex-abuse hearing, is quick to point out that his experience may not qualify as sex abuse, which some states define as contact below the waist.

But he paused to consider that the only person he told before the hearing was his wife, shortly before their marriage.

"I probably did think of it as sexual, and I wanted my wife to know, `Look, you might be getting damaged goods,' " said Ketterer, who is not considering a lawsuit and has made no attempt to locate the nun.

While Ketterer says he has coped with memories of the abuse his entire life, other cases fall into the more controversial category of so-called recovered memory.

Hollywood screenwriter Elizabeth Anderson says after a miscarriage, frightful memories resurfaced of molestation by nuns at an Ohio boarding school.

"It was just unspeakably terrible," she said of the alleged rapes.

But Sister Katheen Hughes, who heads the Sisters of the Sacred Heart order in St. Louis, which ran the now-closed school, disputes the accusation.

"We thoroughly investigated it and there are serious inconsistencies," she said, asserting the number of nuns vary in the story and school rules prohibited a nun from being alone with a child.

Anderson scoffed at that, saying, "Having sex with students was also against the rules."

While Hughes acknowledges Anderson's complaint, other orders may be far more secretive.

Gary Schoener, a Minnesota psychotherapist who has treated thousands of religious people, called that troubling because almost all nuns belong to orders.

"If you want to talk about a secret world, the nunnery is it. The diocese is an open book compared to the convent," he said.

Even if an order is relatively open, victims may have difficulty finding nuns who cast off their given names and change names again as they move between orders.

Kerrigan found that to be the case with the nun he alleges molested him, though he located her with the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1993.

Both the nun, who has since died, and the order denied his accusations.

In a neighborhood where the mantra was "God bless the nuns," Kerrigan said his family welcomed her offer to tutor him.

Once the classroom door was locked, however, the lesson stopped. He detailed extended abuse at her hands.

Though he said he told a Jesuit priest about it in 1954, and others at least once a decade, no one acted. In 1983, his twin brother, Ed, told him he, too, was abused by her.

A form of therapy, Kerrigan calls his paintings of his tormentor "pretty scary," and not indicative of his usual work.

"Is it revenge? I don't know," said Kerrigan, now of New Mexico. "I just want these people to make a bona-fide attempt to straighten out the mess they've made for thousands and thousands of people."

For the latest on the church scandal, click here for the Boston Herald's Trail of Abuse coverage.

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