For almost five years I have not mentioned the type of community or location where I first entered into the religious life and experienced abuse, but the time has come to reveal my story. I am tired of veiling the truth, and offering the possibility for young women discerning religious life to enter their community and be treated maliciously and cruel by formation directors and superiors in the same way that many others have been over the years. Abuse in the convent although being more and more shared by former religious sisters through testimonies is still being swept under the rug by the Church. Young women who give their lives to the Church need to stop being abused by nuns in various convents spread across different continents. There needs accountability for abusive religious sisters. Enough is enough.
Especially, our priests need to understand that praying for more vocations to abusive communities that have long ago lost their way is dangerous, and only keeps the vicious cycle of hurt, pain, and even torture continuing in convents. The truth is that most priests, through no fault of their own, do not know what goes on behind the convent walls because they only see what the sisters want them to see from the outside. I have heard first hand during meal conversations or during recreational talk the bashing of the priesthood, and even sisters speaking negatively about or making fun of the very priests that were coming to celebrate Mass for the Sisters. But to their face they would serve them when they would come for dinner, and offer only smiles.
The physical, emotional, verbal, psychological, or even sexual abuse that many women who enter the convent experience is very real. I have not shared my story in such detail, but I feel I need to speak now on behalf of those of us who entered the convent to give their lives to God and to serve His Church, and lost their vocation to the religious life because of abuse. This is the real crisis of vocations in the Church.
This is my story. Reader discretion is advised.
I entered a Benedictine monastery in New Jersey in September 2015. The community was abusive from the beginning starting with their psychological exam. I was told by the vocation director, that they could not accept me into the community unless I admitted to fantasizing and having sexual dreams, including masturbation. I cried after the first part of the exam because I could not believe that to be a nun a requirement was masturbation.
The vocation director kept rephrasing the question in various ways despite me telling her that masturbation is a mortal sin, but she said that was not a satisfactory answer, and one cannot enter religious life unless she has experienced sex whether physically or mentally. I ended up saying "Yes," even though that was a lie because saying, "No," meant I could not be a nun, or so I thought at the time. She again reiterated, "Phew, I thought I was not going to be able to accept you." I had no way to know that this was not the norm for a psychological exam since I had never entered a community previously, and thought it was the standard to enter a community. This I found out later is a typical part of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) psychological exam, but not the Council of Major Superior of Women Religious (CMSWR) psychological exam.
I recall the day of entrance standing at the front wooden door to the Chapel, and having an overwhelming feeling of "Run, leave now," and I had uncontrollable shaking because something just did not seem right. But I wanted to be a nun and become a Bride of Christ so much, and I couldn't bring myself on that day to walk away. I know now that I should have listened to that powerful sense of absolute dread that rushed over me at the last moment before becoming a Postulant in that community.
Once I entered I was befriended by a final professed sister who constantly bombarded me with stories of how horrible the other sisters were and how she was a victim. She would come crying to me about how she was mistreated and how she needed my help. Her stories caused me much distress because at the time I could not fathom a religious sister could be making up such horrible things. When I could no longer take it I wrote a letter to the Prioress.
After some time the Prioress admitted to me they had been trying to get this particular sister removed from the community now because there were other grave concerns about her, but Canon Law prevented it, and they believed she was a sociopath. I was told to lock my door and she would be forbidden from coming to my living quarters area because they feared for my safety. The sister retaliated in other ways such as hiding the car keys for the car I was in charge of, taking the steering wheel cover off and throwing it on the floor of the car, hiding the gas credit cards, and there was one incident when she was walking up the stairs and I was walking down the stairs and she threw herself on the staircase in front of me and shouted that I pushed her. After some time had passed the sisters stopped caring about what the sister did or her whereabouts and how she was treating me. After the incident of her throwing herself on the steps in front of me, I immediately went to find my director, but she was in a meeting, so I went to the next director who was in charge of the scholastic sisters. She told me she didn't care, and I shouldn't be bothering her. I had no one to turn to towards the end of my time in the convent, I was alone.
I witnessed much inappropriateness between two sisters. They would miss prayers frequently to go out together alone for dinner and the movies, walks around the neighborhood, vacationing together for several weeks alone at a sibling's cabin, attending Broadway plays, etc. Once in a while they would invite me to come for a walk with them, but being around them together brought great discomfort because of how flirtatious they were with one another. They would constantly hang out in one another's bedrooms, and they were very inappropriate with one another in public. For example, I witnessed one touching the other's hair and adjusting her blouse, and they both admitted that they had slept in the same bed together when they went away somewhere. One of the former first professed sisters who left before I did told me she felt uncomfortable because her director who was one of the sisters mentioned above, would hug her so tight that her breasts would be up close against her breasts. She informed me that it was reported to the Prioress, but she would not believe her and did nothing about it.
Another sister, now deceased, admitted to being close with a cloistered nun in the UK, where she had spent some time years ago. She always wore a ring that she told me the other nun gave her. That religious sister also constantly bad-mouthed the other sisters in the community, and bragged about how she enjoyed gambling in Atlantic City, how one of her friend's kept her inheritance for her, and how she had a credit card in her friend's name. She told me she knew that when she died she would go into the fire and would look down at the floor when making the statement. All of the gossip around the community was started by her, and she blamed me for it, and made up lies.
The showers were stalls attached to one another and we were forced to sometimes have to shower at the same time as another sister because often there were other sisters also showering during the morning or evening. It was very uncomfortable because the shower walls did not go down low enough in between stalls. The postulant director always wanted to talk when we were showering and it was extremely awkward. Then at night we had to watch television together and the shows were always secular shows, and my postulant director always wore a robe that was not long enough and she would sit with her legs open, and stoke her inner thighs.
I was sent once with an elderly sister to go for a breast examination and I wanted to stay in the waiting room, but she told me I had to go in with her because that's what they always did so out of obedience I did. She took off her entire blouse and bra for the doctor to check her, and I closed my eyes and turned the other way. It felt very uncomfortable.
The community was not faithful to the Church. They used inclusive language, glass and crystal sacred vessels, blue for Advent, and even crossed out what they deemed too masculine terms in the Lectionary, which we had to follow when being the lector. Sometimes we would be invited to go to Masses of other Benedictine communities, and I was grilled for not wanting to attend them when I had an option. I remember an anniversary of vows Mass that I was able to not attend, and some of the sisters when they returned spoke to me about it. They mentioned how the priest sat for most of the Mass except the consecration, and the Prioress of the other community was the main Presider. In our own community one of the Sisters would leave notes for the priests before Mass for how to wear their stole, either under or over depending on which way looked prettier with the chasuble, made them wear blue for Advent even though in the men's own community they wore violet, and if a priest was taking too long to find a page in the Sacramentary, she would walk right up to him during Mass, take the book, and find the page for him.
Those in formation were forced to attend formation retreats with other Benedictine communities or other LCWR communities, and we were forced to use Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier instead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in prayers, and new age spirituality such as centering prayer, the enneagram, and mother earth and the cosmic Jesus were incorporated into the workshops. There were Daily Masses in local parishes, but they would purposely schedule something at the exact same time as Mass to ensure that we could not attend the Mass. The virtual classes we had to take were led by extreme liberal leaning nuns and even former nuns who had left the Church and became an ecumenical community with women priests.
One of my Postulant directors after we would return home to the monastery after a formation retreat would tell me I had to speak about what bothered me about it, and would tell me I had to sit in the chair and could not leave until I cried. She would scream at the top of her lungs while her face would become red in color. I told her multiple times if they made me choose between them and the Church it would always be the Church. I was forced to read heretical books attacking the Church patriarchy, for example, in one book my director pointed out how I should not be genuflecting to the Tabernacle because we should not be genuflecting to the man.
When I asked my director about why we used blue for Advent I was immediately sent to a therapist, who was an extremely liberal priest who refused to wear clerics, did not want to be called, "Father," and made it clear how much he supported the ordination of women in the Catholic Church. He recommended anxiety medication even though he stated that he knew I did not need it, and referred me to a psychiatrist, since according to him the community wanted me to have it. My director during our meetings would constantly refer to the enneagram, and even gave me to read a book all about it. It was a huge part of the psychological games that they would play on you during formation.
When the community hosted a Benedictine convention for Prioresses I was informed that not all of the sisters felt the same way that I did about Mass and the Eucharist, and to respect that. Majority of the sisters would not come down for daily Mass. When we went on vacation to the summer house at the Jersey Shore I was only able to go to Daily Mass because I asked ahead of time, and one of the sisters agreed to take me. When we went on Sundays not all of the sisters would even go to Mass on that day.
The Federation did come at one point to do a sort of visitation where we were all questioned privately and had written testimonies to submit about life in the monastery. I revealed a lot of the abuse taking place along with other women there too, but nothing ever came of it, and the abuse continued until the day I left.
There reached a point when I was mostly in isolation except for prayers and meals. They would give me nothing to do and I would be in my room all day alone for hours. I would sit and pray Rosary after Rosary all day long. There were days I was assigned to go alone to the food pantry, but it was in a dangerous neighborhood and I would have to park blocks away and walk by myself. I was accused of being a racist by my director for feeling uncomfortable walking in the neighborhood. I had previous experiences walking to the bank to deposit checks for one of the sisters and several times I was either followed or spit and cursed at by someone for not giving them any money. It was very uncomfortable and I was afraid, and I would have severe anxiety. I began to live in survival mode, and would do what had to be done to get through each day.
Two final professed sisters, a temporary professed sister, and a postulant left during my time there. One final professed sister left after ten years, and one left after twenty years of being in the convent. Two of the sisters had shocking ways of how they left the community, that spoke volumes for me. One of the final professed sisters after Mass on the day of her departure took off her veil in front of the priest as she stormed out of the chapel, and the temporary professed sister went out for breakfast one day, and never came back there. The other final professed sister I found out later on after I left, said she knew she had to leave after time and time again she saw how I was being treated in formation.
I was torn because I knew I could not remain there if the abuse continued, but I could not bring myself to walk away from the vocation to the religious life. I longed so much to give my life for Christ. I wanted to believe that it would get better if I just held on tight enough. I actually packed my stuff twice, but was asked to stay both times by the vocation director because according to her, the community really wanted me there. I had already been accepted to become a novice, and given a date, but it only got worse and worse, and I reached a breaking point where I became severely depressed and wanted to die. One night I got down on my knees and prayed to God, "I can't get out, I don't know how, You have to do it."
The next morning I was called down to the Prioress' office, and asked to leave for being too conservative, and for wanting to be a Bride of Christ, which they said they were not that in their community. My director told me they did not live radical lives for Christ. I was informed that although they had given me a date to become a novice, they were never going to let me become one, and they were purposely doing things to get me to leave, but their efforts failed because I was a strong woman. An example of an effort they made to deeply upset me was at the Easter Vigil. They had stopped using the glass chalices that were from a dinner set from one of the sister's relatives who had passed away, for Mass, because I was told they did not want to scandalize us in formation, but that night they used them. The whole Mass the sisters kept staring at me, and I could not figure out why, but later realized they were waiting for a reaction from me.
The Prioress told me she knew I was called to religious life, but not there. Then they wanted me to wait a couple of days to have me leave in a pleasant departure after Mass and bid farewell to all of the sisters. I refused and left later that afternoon. They could not torture me any longer, I was finally free, and would not allow it.
After leaving a priest that I had befriended through another sister in the convent who had already left about a year before me, told me if I did not leave when I did he was coming to get me. He knew how bad it was there from my correspondence with him as well as his correspondence with the temporary professed sister before and after she had left the community. He had known her prior to her entrance into religious life because she worked for his parish. Father did not know how he was going to do it, but said if he went there he was not going to leave without me. Thankfully, God had already sprung me free before such would have taken place.
After I left, extremely long letters were sent to the Abbot Primate in Rome, the Federation President, and the Archdiocese Delegate for Religious. It all appeared to fall on deaf ears. The Abbot Primate informed me that he had no delegation over the Benedictine women. The Federation President met with me via Zoom, and seemed concerned, but nothing seemed to have ever come from our conversation because until this day the community still is permitted to accept vocations and attend vocation fairs. And for the Religious Delegate I even exclaimed how they kept my tax return of over $1600, and only gave me back what I paid when I entered the community.
Despite the Religious Delegate making visitations to the community after myself and two other women who formerly were at the monastery submitted testimonies to the Archdiocese, and her informing me that she could see something was definitely wrong in the community, the Cardinal of the Archdiocese of Newark asked me through the Religious Delegate to just leave it alone because the community had a lot of issues. It was first suggested that I could possibly speak with the canon lawyer for the diocese, who was another religious sister about the monetary issue, but then was asked to drop it. I had spoken with the Religious Delegate multiple times, and met with her once in person, and she seemed confident something would get done, but after our last conversation she appeared to make clear that no further action would be taken on behalf of the Archdiocese. I was never contacted again with regards to the testimonies given by the two other women and me.
Please pray for all of the young women who have been out of the convent for a short time or many years, and who are still recovering from abuse endured at the hands of religious sisters.