DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This week, for the first time, Pope Francis is publicly acknowledging the widespread abuse of nuns by Catholic clergy. There have been some reports of nuns having abortions or giving birth to children fathered by priests or bishops. These allegations are not new. Reports about this kind of abuse were given to Vatican officials as far back as the 1990s. Now nuns around the world are speaking out. We have Sister Christine Schenk on the line with us. She's the co-founder of the group FutureChurch, which advocates for more involvement of laypeople in church leadership. Sister Christine, good morning. Thanks for taking the time.
CHRISTINE SCHENK: Good morning. And thank you for having me.
GREENE: Was this a significant acknowledgment by the pope?
SCHENK: I think it was. Historically, the hierarchical church tries to keep all of this quiet. But Francis is not one to be that way. He's been out of the box on internal, structural sin from the very beginning. And so I really welcomed his statement because any time you bring stuff that's shrouded in secrecy into the light, it's a step in the right direction.
GREENE: I wonder when you first learned about this happening within the church.
SCHENK: Actually, I was around in the 1990s when all of the women from Africa began reporting just horrific abuses. And at the time, we tried very hard to get more information and to do an advocacy thing on their behalf but because of the power dynamics, were very fearful of, you know, becoming more public and would not engage at that time. So, you know, we left it to the internal structures to work it out of their own religious orders. I was happy to learn that things had improved quite a bit in Africa.
But they've improved mainly because the religious orders themselves have taken very big steps to educate their young sisters and to avoid being alone with clerics, to stop asking for letters of recommendation to enter religious orders from clerics, to stop clerics being spiritual directors. And so the incidents have gotten better. But it hasn't been because of the hierarchy. It's been because the sister leadership has taken care to protect their young sisters.
GREENE: Are they going to do something? Like, are you confident that the pope is going to do something that would really make a difference here?
SCHENK: I think he's going to try. But until the church develops some kinds of structure of accountability for removing bishops who abuse sisters but who also abuse children, I'm afraid not a whole lot will happen. I mean, and so my whole...
GREENE: This just goes on. And no one even realizes it.
SCHENK: Right, they don't. They don't think it's a big problem. And it's because people don't speak out because of - fearing retaliation. In some countries, the church is a persecuted minority. And they don't want to make it look bad in the larger public. I mean, there's a lot of complexity about the issue. My hope is the February 21 meeting, even though I don't expect a lot in the way of bishop accountability, could well be a consciousness-raising moment for the bishops - the Catholic bishops of the world, especially in the...
GREENE: This is the pope meeting with bishops and priests in a couple of weeks to...
GREENE: ...Actually address the issue of sex abuse around the globe. So this, in theory, would be a place where this would...
GREENE: ...Come up if the pope was going to do something.
SCHENK: Exactly. And so in some ways, I'm really glad a lot of this is breaking now because it puts it on the table, as well as the horrific issues of child sex abuse.
GREENE: I just want to ask you. Is getting more laypeople in church leadership, as your group advocates - is that - could that make a difference here?
SCHENK: I think it would make a huge difference. And we've said for years if we had parents at the decision-making table, these, you know, abusive priests would've been out of there immediately. And so I think we - unfortunately, we're not close enough. But real, systemic change won't happen until we have all of the voices in the church at the decision-making table.
GREENE: Sister Christine Schenk, thank you so much.
SCHENK: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.