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Pope Francis on his recent visit to Ireland MAXWELLS DUBLIN

Opinion It is time for change in the Catholic church and that starts with equality for women

‘Guided by the Holy Spirit we must come together and find new inclusive governance structures to replace the old patriarchal model, which has broken down’, writes Colm Holmes.

SENIOR CATHOLIC BISHOPS from all over the world gather in Rome this week for a four-day summit on clerical sexual abuse, which some say is the most serious crisis in the church since the Reformation.

Child sexual abuse will rightly top of the agenda, but it’s also just this month that Pope Francis admitted that Catholic priests and bishops have sexually abused nuns and that that abuse is likely to still be happening.

“I think it is still going on because it’s not something that just goes away like that,” said Pope Francis. He correctly identified that it is a cultural problem, the roots of which lie in “seeing women as second class”.

That was a very honest admission by the pope – that women are seen as second class within the Catholic Church. They were viewed that way by society at large for many centuries – women were there to raise children but men were in charge.

That has changed dramatically in the last 100 years, at least in western countries, with women getting the vote and almost all career paths being open to them.

There is just one very notable exception – ministry within the Catholic Church remains closed, thus the church is now one of the few places where women are still second class.

It is that second-class status that has allowed the cover-up of the fact that priests and bishops have sexually abused nuns.

Abuse of nuns

In 1994, Sr Maura O’Donohue of the Irish Medical Missionary of Mary prepared a detailed report for the Vatican.

O’Donohue visited nuns a large number of nuns in 22 countries including Ireland, the USA and Italy – as well as many African nations. She reacted with “shock and disbelief” at the magnitude of the problem she encountered, in terms of the sexual abuse of nuns.
According to the National Catholic Reporter 16 March 2001, she found that:

  • In some instances, candidates to religious life had to provide sexual favours to priests in order to acquire the necessary certificates and/or recommendations to work in a diocese.
  • One diocesan congregation has had to dismiss over 20 nuns because of pregnancy, and in many cases the fathers were priests.
  • Some priests recommended that the nuns take an oral contraceptive, claiming it prevented HIV, while others encouraged nuns to have abortions.
  • Some priests had children with more than one woman.
  • In one instance, a recent convert from Islam was subjected to rape by the priest. When she discovered she was pregnant, she went to talk to the bishop. He called in the priest, who admitted he fathered the child and he was told by the bishop to go on a two-week retreat.
  • Since the 1980s, in a number of countries, nuns were refusing to travel alone with a priest in a car because of fear of harassment or even rape.


The church hierarchy effectively suppressed Sr Maura O’Donohue’s report. Here are just two examples of the ways in which they did this:

In 2001 Petronilla Samuriwo resigned her position as Editor of the Zimbabwe Bishops Conference newspaper ‘Catholic News’. She had published an account of Sr Maura O’Donohue’s Report. The bishops banned the sale of their own publication because it contained that report.

In 2005, Regina Soares Jurkewicz, eight years a professor at the Theological Institute of the Catholic diocese of São Paulo, Brazil, was fired soon after she published the results of her doctoral research on sexual violence against women by Catholic clergy in Brazil.

Her findings were in keeping with the findings of internal church reports from the 1990s, which documented the sexual exploitation and abuse of nuns and other adult women by Catholic priests in 23 countries on five continents.

Second-class status continues

At the 2018 Youth Synod, non-ordained men representing their religious orders were given votes; women representing much larger orders were given no votes.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission (which included no women) in 1976 reported that there is nothing in scripture preventing the ordination of women. Yet Pope Francis has confirmed Pope John Paul II’s 1994 ban on the ordination of women priests saying the door is closed.

No woman has been appointed to head any Vatican Department and the report from Pope Francis’ Commission for Women in the Diaconate has not been published.


For centuries the church hierarchy did not have to justify excluding women from all ordained ministries. Most in society accepted the ideology that women were inferior to men.

But in the 21st century, we understand that view was wrong.

Now the church hierarchy justifies not ordaining women by referring to the Last Supper and claims it was an ordination ceremony for the 12 (male) apostles.

But would Jesus have excluded the women who supported him in his ministry?

Women followed Jesus up to Jerusalem and they were at the Last Supper. They stood at the foot of the cross when the men ran away.

Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles, was the first witness of the Resurrection.

Time for change

At the International Women’s Day Conference on 8 March 2018, the former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese said:

The Catholic Church has long since been a primary global carrier of the virus of misogyny. It has never sought a cure although a cure is freely available. Its name is equality.

In the churches around Ireland, the large majority of the congregations are women.

With the dramatic decline in the moral authority of our hierarchy, the way forward must be through sharing decision-making with all the faithful, men and women, married or single, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Guided by the Holy Spirit, we must all come together in dialogue and find new inclusive governance structures to replace the old clericalist and patriarchal model which has broken down.

“In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor male and female (Galatians 3:28).

Colm Holmes is a longtime campaigner for the full equality of women in the Catholic Church and is a spokesperson for We Are Church Ireland.

We Are Church Ireland campaigns for the reform of the Catholic church. Among other things they aim for the full participation of women in all ministries, celibacy to be optional and to create an inclusive church welcoming to all, especially LGBT Christians.

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