ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Pope Francis has talked a lot about young people who have been sexually abused by priests. Now for the first time, he is addressing a related problem. During a press conference on an airplane, a reporter asked about priests who have abused nuns. The pope acknowledged that it has happened.
POPE FRANCIS: (Speaking Italian).
SHAPIRO: "It's not everyone that does this, but there have been priests and bishops who have," he said. "And I think that it's continuing because it's not like once you realize it, that it stops."
We're joined now by Sister Carol Zinn. She runs the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organization of leaders of orders of Catholic sisters here in the U.S. Welcome to the program.
CAROL ZINN: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: How did you first come to know about this problem?
ZINN: I personally first came to know about it almost 20 years ago now at the assemblies that happen at the international level. And we had our sisters from the continent of Africa and Asia sharing these kinds of stories, and so it's been a very long time.
SHAPIRO: Can you tell us about some of those stories you heard from women who've suffered through this?
ZINN: Well, I would say that it follows the typical pattern that we are hearing in the stories of the abuse of power. Those same dynamics are part of the experience that Women Religious have, everything from the - you know, the secrecy to the shame to, no one will believe me, to, what will happen to me if I do say, you know, something either to my superiors. So it's the same pattern of abuse of power, really.
SHAPIRO: Now that the pope has spoken publicly about it, what do you think of his response?
ZINN: Well, I think that if you have the Holy Father, the leader of the global Catholic Church, saying that this is true, that this has been happening for a long time and just because you say something about it doesn't mean that it stops, I think we already have movement that we have never seen before. The day of these situations happening in the dark and people not being able to speak about them are over at least theoretically in the same way that the #MeToo movement has unleashed a whole avenue for exposing this kind of reality that people are no longer afraid. They're actually encouraged to come forward and share their story.
SHAPIRO: Is there a particular step you would like to see the church take next?
ZINN: The first thing that I know that I and we would like to see is an absolute priority on the need for compassion and empathy, deep listening so that people have a safe space and a respectful space to tell their story without any sense of judgment. The second thing is that there would be immediate assistance offered, whatever that might be - counseling, support, accompaniment.
I think the third thing that we would like to see would be - that the way the institutional hierarchical church - Catholic Church - is organized, which ties all of the power and the decision-making to our brothers who are ordained and really does leave the lay members of the church out of any of those structures where these kinds of conversations, you know, could happen.
SHAPIRO: What role do you think there is for law enforcement to play here?
ZINN: Part of the reason why we have this situation that we have is because the institutional Church, as other institutions, kind of police themselves and leave out, if you will, any law enforcement vehicles that are available. So I think the - one of the pieces of learning that I think goes across the board is that any utterance of an allegation goes first and foremost to law enforcement.
SHAPIRO: Your organization, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, helped to facilitate a survey of nuns in the mid-'90s that showed that 40 percent of American nuns had suffered some form of sexual trauma. Do you think your own organization should have done more to address this a long time ago?
ZINN: Twenty-twenty hindsight is always, you know, much more clear, as you know. Could there have been something different done - yes, which is why we are really delighted to be involved in any way we can right now - cooperating and participating with any kind of processes that really does allow this terrible tragedy and horrific abuse of human beings to actually come to the forefront for the purpose of being healed, reconciled and corrected.
SHAPIRO: Sister Carol Zinn, thank you so much for speaking with us.
ZINN: Thank you very much for having us.
SHAPIRO: She is executive director of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.