In 1998 a Roman Catholic nun named Marie McDonald wrote a brief and painful summary of her concerns to her colleagues and superiors. It was labeled “strictly confidential.” She was worried, she said, about the sexual abuse of nuns by Roman Catholic priests in Africa.
The memo—titled “The Problem of the Sexual Abuse of African Religious in Africa and in Rome” was concise. “Sexual harassment and even rape of sisters by priests and bishops is allegedly common,” it said. Sisters, financially dependent on priests, occasionally have to perform sexual favors in exchange for money. McDonald analyzed the causes of this widespread violation of chastity vows and then made this plea: “The time has come for some concerted action.” According to the National Catholic Reporter, which made McDonald’s memo public in 2001, Vatican officials did take steps to rectify the problem, but publicly, their stance was chillingly familiar. “The problem is known and is restricted to a limited geographical area,” said Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Vatican spokesman at the time. This is an isolated incident, in other words; we’ve got it under control.