Isabelle Jonveaux

The Prevention of Abuse in Female Communities

Questioning the structures of communities


The subject of abuse, notably by priests on children is overwhelmingly omnipresent in the Church. The question of the abuse of nuns and religious has needed more time to become visible in the media. In Europe it is essentially with the documentation of Arte1 in 2019 that this subject has entered the awareness of the general public. The struggle of religious sisters against these abuses with regard to the Church dates from long before this, meeting many difficulties. As a sociologist of monastic life I have been confronted in the course of my enquiries in Europe since 2004 and in Africa since 2013 several abusive situations. But such abuses do not normally begin with sexual aggression but are prepared by spiritual abuse.

Not being a psychologist I do not work with victims or direct cases of abuse. My questions concern the structures which make such abuse possible. I seek to throw light upon the structural elements which open the door to such consequences, often invisible. It is obviously not relevant to consider that all feminine communities are open to the same risks, but rather to identify the modes of functioning which can facilitate the abuse of authority, spiritual or sexual.


1. The structures of feminine communities

I have identified five levels of structure whose combination makes possible forms of abuse and eventually encourage silence from the victims.


Internal structures of authority in feminine communities

In the course of my enquiries I have established clearly that structures of authority are stricter in feminine than in masculine communities. Authority is much more centred on the person of the superior. It has often happened to me that when I asked a sister for something, for example an interview, to receive the answer, ‘I must ask the abbess’, while men were more often able to give me a direct answer. This structure of authority leads to what the Cistercian Michaela Pfeifer calls ‘a hospital mentality’,2 where the sisters no longer feel in charge of themselves but abandon all their adult will to the superior. Why is obedience lived differently in communities which live according to the same rule, e.g. that of St Benedict? The American Benedictine sister Shawn Carruth shows that obedience has developed in the Church as a properly feminine virtue, associated with humility, within a patriarchal structure:

‘Obedience is given to the patriarchal structure by giving it to those who understand power as control. Silence keeps women from expressing our own reality and our own understanding of the world’s reality. … Humility enjoined upon women teaches us to accept a subordinate position and the label of incapacity placed upon us by patriarchal presuppositions.’3

The more severe structures of authority in feminine communities would in this sense be a residue of masculine authority on feminine monasteries.


Institutional hierarchical structures and systems of accompaniment

Because of the hierarchical institutional structures in place, the majority of feminine communities are under the authority of masculine figures. Many of them are directly under the jurisdiction of the bishop. In certain mixed orders the feminine communities are systematically accompanied by masculine communities, while the masculine
communities are always accompanied by masculine ones. These authority-structures concern equally decision-making and management of goods. In addition, in certain dioceses the use of religious sisters is regulated by specific contracts where the sister is paid less than a brother or lay person in the same job.


Relationships between masculine and feminine communities

Relationships between masculine and feminine communities may be seen in the events of daily life, notably the difference of status accorded to masculine superiors. For example, at a celebration in an Austrian Benedictine monastery to which representatives of neighbouring monasteries were invited, the abbots were seated in choir with the monks, whereas the prioress of the neighbouring monastery of Benedictine sisters found herself with some sisters in the assembly. It still remains rare, as a Benedictine monk regretted at interview, for sisters to preach a retreat for monks, although the great majority of retreats for nuns are preached by men. Besides, it is frequent, including in Europe, that apostolic sisters serve masculine communities in household and kitchen, which directly implies inequality. Certain feminine communities have even been founded for this purpose.


Relationships between sisters and priests

In certain feminine communities, notably new communities, the figure of the priest remains an incontestable authority. This means that when a priest behaves inappropriately no questions are asked. Thus an Austrian sister of a new community (since departed) told me that when a priest visited a community the sisters had to abandon everything they were doing in order to be at his service.


Spatial structures and organisation of space

Spatial structures can facilitate abuse or the silence which follows it, notably the space where sisters meet priests, but also the way in which the authority of priests is handled in the Church. I have been able to observe, for example, in a new community an elevation
of about two metres for the presbytery above the choirstalls of the sisters, while other feminine communities on the contrary have rearranged their chapel to introduce a greater equality between the priest and the sisters, and between the liturgy of the Word and that of the Eucharist at the altar during Mass.


2. Sisters in the religious structure

The second level of interrogation concerns the place of the individual sister in these structures. The structures of authority and obedience operate at three levels: intellectual, spiritual and corporal.


a. Intellectual level

The abuse of authority thrives especially when the level of knowledge is unequal. In my enquiries I have identified a significant inequality in the access of monks and nuns to studies. The most important access for brothers to study is first linked to the function of priest, which implies at least five years of study of philosophy and theology. Thus in Austria 95% of Benedictine monks have at least the degree of Master. Nuns have more difficulty of access to study and formation either because certain orders have historically cultivated a refusal to study out of humility (e.g. the Poor Clares) or because the stricter enclosure of feminine communities makes access to studies outside the monastery more difficult. The lack of intellectual formation and of knowledge can lead to different forms of abuse. A Trappistine sister in Africa who had received training in psychology said to me in interview:

Sometimes, since we do not know our rights there are certain abnormalities… I have seen in the life of the monastery certain things which the abbot imposes which are not normal. Sometimes it is the young person who is in the right. But because the abbot does not have a firm grasp of his rights, the young person has to undergo difficulties. But in the case of the teacher one sees clearly that sometimes there are certain things tolerated which should not be tolerated.

Lack of knowledge of the definite rights of the professed sister, the novice or the superior can lead to abusive situations which are not identified as such by the victim. Studies or other formations can contribute to avoiding these.


b. Spiritual level

In feminine religious life spiritual authority is in the hands equally of the superior and of the priest in charge of the spiritual accompaniment of the sisters. Spiritual abuse comes into play mainly when abuse of authority is justified on religious grounds. In the case of communities of sisters this form of abuse occurs notably when the priest accompanying the community or particular sisters is an uncontested authority and the accompanying priest or confessor is imposed by the superior. Centralisation of spiritual power in a monastery of sisters on a single priest presents an additional danger of spiritual abuse.


c. Corporal level and intimacy

The bodily level of intimacy in the structures of authority of feminine religious life is the most critical in the occurrence of various forms of abuse. Renunciation of possessions implies in a large proportion of monasteries the absence of any personal bank account. In various situations monks and nuns receive pocket-money to buy what they need locally or can ask for what is needed. Enquiries have shown that a situation where absolutely everything is received and/or requested are more frequent in monasteries of sisters. It is also more frequent that nuns have to ask in writing for what they need from the bursar or sometimes the superior. This system becomes more problematical when it touches the intimacy of individual sisters. The Austrian sister already mentioned said that for ten years she had washed without soap because only one type was available and she could have no other. The question becomes even more intimate when it concerns menstrual health. The same sister reported that only one type of hygienic protection was offered and that it was not possible to request any other. Similarly a Benedictine in Kenya who accompanies spiritually a community of sisters which I have studied said that the sisters were obliged to ask in writing for anything they needed. Those who did not dare to ask for products for menstrual hygiene had to manage with what they could find, despite the risk to their health incurred. Control of the body and its intimacy constitutes a form of ascesis which is not only more plausible but also runs close to being an abuse of authority. The body and its intimacy are therefore particularly central for the risk of abuse of authority in monasteries of women, and can lead to a dispossession of their bodies which can open them to other forms of abuse.



This has been a rapid panorama of different levels of structure of feminine communities which can – once again it is not a question of considering these systematic, since abuse is perpetrated by particular persons – lead to abuse of authority, spiritual or sexual. The prevention of different kinds of abuse, committed in a manner internal to the community, or by priests or religious on sisters, must pass through interrogation of these structures. Most of these structures have been inherited from centuries of male domination in the Church, and the spirituality of obedience and exaggerated humility in monasteries have had a tendency to diminish free will. Interrogation of these structures therefore means on the one hand throwing light on deviations, and on the other on their effect on recruitment and the work of particular communities to readjust these structures and thus reduce the risks.


1. Arte is a Franco-German distance chain.

2. Michaela Pfeifer, « Le renoncement conduit-il à la liberté ? Réflexion systématique sur l’ascèse dans la RB », Revue de spiritualité monastique, vol. 68 (1), 2006, p. 11.

3. Shawn Carruth, “The monastic virtues of obedience, silence and humility : a feminist perspective”, The American Benedictine Review, 51(2), 2000, p. 126.