Devotion and Deceit
Over the last decade, more than 100 nuns have been accused of molesting children. Most victims remain silent, but The Times tracked down two, and the mother of a third, willing to talk about their journey of recovery.
Posted on August 7, 2002
Myra Hidalgo was 14 when her older sister Mona shot herself in the head. During her second year in college, her 52-year-old mother died of heart problems weeks after undergoing what was supposed to be a routine angioplasty. Little more than a year later, her father, heartbroken, shot himself in the heart.
Within the next year, Hidalgo tried to take her own life - three times. First, she cut her wrists and swallowed a bottle of aspirin. Six months later, she tried to hang herself. A few months after that, she drank a bottle of pesticides labeled "fatal if swallowed." That time, she nearly succeeded.
The loss of her family members haunted Hidalgo for years. But she also carries with her a separate, secret torment she says began some 25 years ago. It reaches not from the family grave, but from her days as a student at a Catholic middle school in southwest Louisiana.
It was there, in 1977 at the old Opelousas Catholic Middle School, where 12-year-old Hidalgo first encountered Sister Cheryl Porte, a young, charming nun with silky brown hair and soft brown eyes who often dressed in street clothes and was as fluent in pop music as she was in pop psychology.
"She taught me about theology, the Beatles, Carl Jung and social justice," says Hidalgo.
And, she says, during overnight stays at Porte's family home and the old Marianites of Holy Cross motherhouse on Woodland Drive in New Orleans, Porte taught her about sex, coaxing the 12-year-old into a physical relationship that lasted more than two years. Toward the end of the relationship, as Porte got more brazen, the contact occurred in the middle of the day at Porte's Opelousas convent, Hidalgo says.
"It would generally start with her requesting that I rub her back or stomach," Hidalgo says. "Then she would take over, guiding my hand over her body. When I would pull away from her, she would cry. In guilt, I would reach out to comfort her, and again the sexual contact would start."
The grooming began inconspicuously, Hidalgo recalls: It started with a card that read, "You are special ... as a student and a friend." Then they began sitting next to each other during lunch, talking during recess and after school. Eventually, there were nightly phone calls, letter and poetry writing and gifts.
"The general assumption in the community was that she was mentoring me for religious life," says Hidalgo.
Before long, other rumors began to spread, so Hidalgo and Porte spent more time together away from school.
The abuse lasted for more than two years, says Hidalgo, until in 1980 an anonymous person notified the Marianites of the Holy Cross, the New Orleans-based religious order for whom Porte still works. Porte was removed from her position soon after, according to Sister Mary Kay Kinberger, Marianite congregational leader. Monsignor Alex Larroque, who handles sexual abuse complaints for the Diocese of Lafayette, says he didn't recall any abuse complaint filed in 1980 stemming from an incident at Opelousas Catholic. Hidalgo learned recently that a neighbor apprised the Marianites of the liaison after she saw Hidalgo and Porte kissing in a car outside the convent.
For years, Hidalgo thought Porte was out of the ministry. In June of this year, she learned that Porte had been shuffled off to another parish and, until last month, was serving as a nun in O'Fallon, Ill., a rural town 20 miles west of St. Louis. Porte is currently on leave, according to O'Fallon Parish officials. Porte did not return calls and e-mails for comment, but Kinberger acknowledged in a June 18 letter to Hidalgo that Porte had been "removed from her present living and ministering situation."
Back then, Hidalgo thought her experience was an aberration, a chance occurrence between a single deviant nun and a naοve young girl.
But according to experts on clergy abuse - as has been reported voluminously in the last several months regarding priestly sex abuse - the scenario has played out at convents, Catholic schools and churches across the country.
A Times investigation has revealed that, in the last 10 years, at least a dozen lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by nuns have been filed in courthouses across the country. Suits filed in Minnesota, Vermont, New York and Michigan have been settled. None are known to have resulted in criminal prosecution.
Currently, no national standard on how orders respond to sexual abuse allegations among sisters religious exists. The Leadership Congregation of Women Religious (LCWR), a national organization with more than 1,000 members (congregational leaders) who represent about 76,000 sisters in the United States, declined to be included in the Bishop's Charter signed in June, stating that the group was not involved in the formulation of the policy and would not be directly impacted by it.
In an official statement made in April, the executive committee of the LCWR said, "As women religious leaders who are an integral part of our church and society, we ... are deeply troubled by the current escalating crisis of allegations of clerical abuse."
Nonetheless, the handling of sexual abuse allegations against sisters will not be formally discussed at this month's annual LCWR meeting, to be held Aug. 17-21 in St. Louis, according to a LCWR spokesperson.
Leading experts on clergy abuse, and an author of a book on abusive nuns, say over the years they have been contacted by more than 100 people who claim nuns sexually abused them. In addition, abuse scandals at orphanages in New England and across Canada have resulted in more than 100 out-of-court settlements stemming from sexual and physical abuse.
In the annals of clergy abuse, as in society in general, women sex abusers remain the exception. Studies show they comprise no more than 5 percent of all abusers. Experts say the rarity of such abuse makes it even more difficult for victims to come forward - and for society, as a whole, to believe their accusations.
Gary Schoener is a Minnesota-based therapist who has consulted on thousands of abuse cases, including hundreds involving clergy. In addition, he's served as an expert witness in hundreds of abuse cases for plaintiffs and defendants. Over the years, Schoener has become familiar with 20 nuns who were accused of sexual abuse. He says most of them had multiple victims.
"At least half we've had confirmation there was somebody else," says Schoener.
Ashley Hill, who researched the subject for eight years for her book Habits of Sin, (Xlibris Corp.), understands society's inclination to dismiss such allegations.
"It's so hard to believe that women do this," says Hill, who says that she was abused as a 7-year-old student in a New Hampshire parochial school.
Hill says that during her research she heard from people claiming to be victims of sexually abusive nuns in 23 states, as well as in Ireland and Canada. She's corresponded with more than 40 victims who said nuns sexually abused them. Six of those cases involve male victims.
A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former priest with more than 35 years of experience working with clergy sex abuse, says he's handled dozens of sexual abuse cases in which nuns were the abusers. He says society's comfort level with intimate touching between women and children enables female abusers to initiate contact far more easily without suspicion.
Sipe was among those who interviewed scores of victims at the now-closed St. Joseph's Orphanage in Burlington, Vt. There, one man's lawsuit against the orphanage where he lived until he was 5 years old resulted in a flood of new accusations - more than 100 in all.
Female victims can suffer differently. "When the victim's a woman, it's going to make her wrestle a bit more with her sexuality. It's harder for them to separate sex from warmth and closeness," says Schoener.
Sipe agrees, adding that girls abused by women often grow up wondering if the abuse was "a lesbian phase" of their development. Women victims, no matter what sex the abuser, are still less likely to come forward than men, he adds.
Psychologist Schoener says that neatly compartmentalized "victim's handbook" ideal - shy, insecure, craving attention - has never been altogether accurate. But he says Hidalgo and many other victims shared one trait that may have made them the perfect mark for a member of the clergy.
"They were devout," says Schoener. "The more devout, the easier the target. The more rigid the Catholic, the more fundamentalist the Jew or Baptist, the easier the target."
The Robrecht family spent three years looking for the perfect home in Hillside, N.J. They needed five bedrooms, a big yard and a spacious kitchen. And they wanted to be within walking distance to the neighborhood Catholic school and church.
In 1955, they bought their home on Beechwood Place, an oak-lined road with wide sidewalks that separated Hillside from Elizabeth. Down the block sat St. Catherine's of Siena Catholic Church, a brick and granite monolith punctuated with flying buttresses and a large steeple built in the 1920s. A near-life sized crucifix, carved in Bavaria, greeted parishioners at the Broad Street entrance.
"It was perfect," says Betty Robrecht, the matriarch of the large, devout family.
It wasn't long before the Robrechts' two oldest children, 8-year-old Joseph and 5-year-old Bill, were enrolled at St. Catherine's school and the family was taking part in many church functions. Betty Robrecht taught art at the school for many years, and served as an occasional substitute teacher.
Her daughter, Mary, the middle of seven children, was 2 years old when the family moved into their new home. It would be three years before she would attend school at St. Catherine's, which was run by the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell.
The first seven years of Mary's schooling passed quietly, without incident. Then, in 1965, at the age of 12, Mary met Sister Andre, a nun who paid her special attention, who lavished her with praise and affection. Mary began to spend a lot of time with Sister Andre, spending most every evening at the convent, Robrecht says.
Late that summer, Sister Andre asked if Mary could spend the weekend with her at her family's house in Point Pleasant, a 90-minute ride away. Robrecht obliged her, offering money to cover the cost of food and entertainment. That fall, Sister Andre was transferred to a parish in Connecticut. Over the next several months, she wrote Mary numerous letters.
"The letters kept coming and coming," recalls Robrecht. Still, she never thought once about anything improper. "I think what we thought, very smugly, was that our daughter was going to have a vocation."
Nearly two years passed before Robrecht learned that Mary and Sister Andre never made it to the shore that summer day, but stayed instead at a motel about 15 minutes from the family's home.
One day, in 1967, when Mary was a freshman at Benedictine Academy in Elizabeth, she left one of the nun's letters on her bed. Robrecht opened the letter, in which she says Sister Andre wrote about romantic interludes with her daughter. Robrecht says when she confronted her daughter about her relationship with the nun, Mary acknowledged a sexual liaison.
Soon after, Robrecht, her husband, Joe, and her brother, Jerry Hammell, complained to Sister Dolorita, mother superior of the Dominicans of Caldwell. At first, she says, Sister Dolorita didn't believe it. "She said, 'You're wrong. She's such a lovely person,'" Robrecht recalls. But the next day, Sister Dolorita called and asked to meet with the family, says Robrecht. Sister Dolorita could not be located for comment for this story.
Robrecht recalls what happened next: Sister Dolorita went to Connecticut to visit with Sister Andre but could not find her. But the mother superior did not return empty handed. Sister Dolorita came back with "boxes of papers and journals" of Sister Andre's, says Robrecht. In many of the entries, Sister Andre wrote about her relationship with Mary.
"She said to my husband, 'I don't care what you do with this. She's going to leave by Friday. She'll be gone.'" Sister Andre, 35 at the time the allegations were made, had already served in three dioceses.
Days later, the Robrechts talked to an attorney about a possible lawsuit, but decided "it would be best" to try to put it in the past. The lawyer, Lou Anzalone of Florham Park, N.J., recalls the conversation. "I absolutely believe it was true," says Anzalone of the allegation.
And that was the end of it as far as Betty Robrecht was concerned. "We did nothing; I'm so embarrassed to say that now," says Robrecht. "We thought the best thing to do would have been to hide it."
To the untrained eye, Mary seemed normal. She was a cheerleader, played for the high school basketball team and was art editor for the yearbook. But a year or so after the abuse allegation surfaced, Mary's mother recalls looking at two pictures of Mary - a then-current one and one from a few years back, before the abuse. The difference, she said, was startling. "There was no resemblance to the girl that she was, she had this blank stare on her face."
By then, Robrecht says the church had helped Mary get counseling as she wrestled with the abuse and the fear that she might be homosexual. But in the years to come, Mary would struggle with alcoholism and contemplate suicide often. She attended Keane College in Union, N.J., for about a month, and then worked a variety of jobs as a florist, plumber and journalist.
Jim Goodness, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark, says the archdiocese has not been contacted about any complaints involving Sister Andre. Sister Joan Doyle, prioress for the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell, for whom Sister Andre worked, says she doesn't know the current whereabouts of Sister Andre, and that the order has not yet investigated any charges.
In June of this year, looking for support from victims and their families, Betty Robrecht attended her first gathering with members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). A week or so later, after attending mass at St. Joseph's Church in Mendham, she saw Bishop Frank Rodimer visiting with parishioners after addressing the issue of clergy abuse. She leaned over and whispered to him, "You've got to do more."
But now, 35 years after her daughter was allegedly abused by a nun, Betty Robrecht knows whatever is done will have little impact on her family. In the fall of 1989, Mary Robrecht attempted suicide for the third time. This time she succeeded.
"She never really recovered," her mother says.
Myra Hidalgo failed at her third attempt to commit suicide. For that, she's thankful.
It took years to overcome the complex range of emotions that stirred in her restless mind. But as survivors' stories go, hers is one of hope.
After several years of constant psychiatric counseling, Hidalgo steadied herself and earned a bachelor's degree at Loyola University and a master's degree in clinical social work at Tulane University. Today, she's setting up her practice as a clinical social worker in New Orleans.
"As I gained emotional strength and insight into how my childhood experiences affected me, I felt compelled to help others who might have experienced similar trauma or neglect," she says.
Today, Hidalgo sees little in the black and white of habits and Roman collars. Mixed with anger lies an undeniable urge to protect the woman whom she considered a friend.
"I do recognize it's important to identify her," she says, "but at the same time while I don't really care to protect her I don't want the rest of her life to be ruined either. There's a part of me that wants to protect Cheryl from public humiliation because she loved me and didn't really mean to hurt me."
Hidalgo compares the relationship dynamic to that of incest.
"My feelings are split between wanting to fight back, wanting justice, wanting her to hurt, too - and the feelings of guilt and shame for getting her in trouble," she says. "She was both an abuser and a nurturer, which makes it really difficult and confusing. She taught me a lot of wonderful things, which made it even harder to resist her sexual advances because I felt guilty for making her cry. I considered it a relationship. I feel some loyalty toward her. It's difficult for me to give up the idea that I was special to her."
But deep down, she knows that the relationship was unnatural, that Porte must have known the dalliance was morally wrong.
"I had not started menstruating, I was just barely starting to get pubic hair, I had no breasts ... and she would tease me about that," she says. "It was very clear to both of us that I was not a woman."
Hidalgo understands how difficult it can be for abuse victims to come forward to their families, friends and counselors - especially for those whose abuse was masked as part of a "romantic relationship."
Her mother, when told of the abuse by a church official, swore Hidalgo to secrecy. "My mother told no one of the abuse, not even my father. I believe that her intent was to protect me from being labeled a lesbian, but it only drove the shame deeper."
Today, as a professional and a survivor, Hidalgo strives not for revenge. "My intention is to educate," she says. "With all this stuff going on they need to go back and investigate nuns, too ... No stories have been written about it and I think there's a lot more that's going to come out once it's publicized."
It was more than eight years before Hidalgo finally saw the relationship for what it was - a grown adult sexually abusing a child. Soon after first facing this truth during a therapy session in 1988, she tracked Porte down. The nun was living on the East Coast, taking classes for an advanced degree. Hidalgo called her.
"I basically said that I was very angry and that she had never been accountable to me for the abuse," says Hidalgo. "She just got very angry and said, 'You have no idea what I've been through and how I have been made accountable.' And I said, 'Well, you were never accountable to me.'"
Hidalgo says she left the conversation with some sense of accomplishment, but that it wasn't complete.
"I felt some relief for having confronted her and naming what it was that happened between us. I was hoping that she would apologize and show some remorse, but she didn't."
On July 26, Hidalgo took another step toward recovery. She met with Sister Kinberger and her assistant.
At the end of the meeting, the assistant began to cry, Hidalgo says, and each of them expressed sympathy for whatever pain her relationship with Porte may have brought. Though the Marianites acknowledged an "inappropriate relationship" between Porte and Hidalgo, they remain unsure if any sexual abuse occurred, Hidalgo says.
But Hidalgo describes the spirit of the meeting as open and honest, and even makes apologies for the Marianites' having to be cautious because of their legal position.
"I felt they wanted to say more, but couldn't because of the situation," says Hidalgo. "But it was a good meeting. Very healing."
Louis Rom is public life editor for The Times. Phone him at 237-3560, ext. 118, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lawsuits in which nuns were accused of sexual abuse
In 1989, a Minnesota woman filed a lawsuit against a Rochester, Minn., religious order, alleging that Sister Georgene Stuppy molested her between 1978 and 1981. Jeffrey Anderson, a St. Paul attorney representing the plaintiff, claimed that Stuppy acknowledged the sexual contact, but claimed it was a "spiritual" endeavor, not for sexual gratification. The suit was settled in 1993.
In 1990, a Riverdale, Ga., woman, Vicki R. Long, sued the Archdiocese of Atlanta, accusing a nun and two priests of abusing her. The archdiocese settled the suit, agreeing to pay for some of Long's psychiatric care.
In 1993, a 53-year-old Texas woman sued the Archdiocese of San Antonio, claiming she was abused by a nun between the ages of 5 and 14. The woman said she recovered the memory that had been repressed for 40-plus years. The lawsuit was dismissed after a judge ruled it did not meet any of the exceptions to the state's statutes of limitation. A Texas appeals court upheld the lower court's ruling in 1994.
In 1996, a Lexington, Mass., woman settled a lawsuit with the Diocese of Detroit, Dominican High School and the Adrian Dominican Sisters after alleging that Gael N. Biondo, a former nun and teacher, molested her for several years as a student at a Catholic high school in the 1960s.
In 2000, a Winnipeg, Manitoba, man sued a Canadian church parish, and claimed he was sexually abused by a nun in school between 1940 and 1945.
In 2000, a man who claimed to have recovered memories of sexual abuse by a Minneapolis area nun 20 years earlier settled a suit with the order for an undisclosed amount. The man claimed a nun from School Sisters of Notre Dame in Mankato, Minn., an international religious order of nuns with provinces around the world - abused him repeatedly in late 1978 and early 1979, when he was a first grader at St. Michael's Catholic School in St. Michael, Minn.
In 2000, the Archdiocese of New York settled a case involving a Bronx man who alleged a nun molested him when he was 12 years old. Brian O'Rourke, a former student at St. Francis de Chantal in the Bronx, sought $150 million in damages in 1996, when he filed the suit. In the suit, O'Rourke alleged that Sister Linda Baisi, his homeroom and religion teacher, induced him into sex on a weekly basis at the age of 12 through gifts and money. Baisi soon after renounced her vows but was working as a principal at a Catholic school when the suit was filed. She was placed on an indefinite leave of absence.
In 2002, in addition to 11 priests currently named in lawsuits against the Diocese of Providence, R.I., one nun is accused of molesting a student there. The diocese is said to be on the verge of settling the lawsuits. Plaintiffs in the suits say they were molested as recently as the 1980s and as far back as the 1960s. It's not clear when the abuse allegedly involving a nun occurred.
It is better to be Dragon Master than Dragon Slayer. Some Dragons are meant to be mastered, others meant to be slain. Odin, Great Spirit, God, grant me the wisdom to know the difference. "May the Valar guide and bless you on your path under the sky"