As bishops' summit opens, Catholic women say: 'Let's be a nuisance!'

As bishops’ summit opens, Catholic women say: ‘Let’s be a nuisance!’

As bishops’ summit opens, Catholic women say: ‘Let’s be a nuisance!’

Lucetta Scaraffia, chief editor of Donne Chiesa Mondo, speaks at the Women Speak Symposium in Rome Oct. 1 inviting women to "be a nuisance" on the topic of sexual abuse and female exclusion from the Church.(Credit: Claire Giangravè.)

"Let's be a nuisance!" said Catholic women at a conference in Rome calling for bishops' accountability and female inclusion in the Church.

ROMEAs women around the world attempt to shatter glass ceilings, fueled by the #Metoo movement, some Catholic women – tired of not being heard – would just be happy entering the Holy Door.

“We women have also [been guilty of] the sin of clericalism. We also have entered into the Church mentality,” said Lucetta Scaraffia, Chief Editor of Donna Chiesa Mondo, a magazine focusing on women’s issues and attached to the Vatican news outlet L’Osservatore Romano.

“We have placed ourselves outside a door that excluded us and asked for it to be opened,” she added.

Scaraffia made her comments at a “Catholic Women Speak” Symposium Oct. 1 taking place at the Antonianum University in Rome.

No one would place Scaraffia in the rage-against-the-machine faction of the women’s movement in the Church, having chosen to work from within Catholic institutions, but at the event she admitted to her own bias in recognizing when women are excluded from the debate.

It was Scaraffia’s daughter who pointed out that only men were entering the Holy Door during the highly televised inauguration of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy in December 2015.

“The machismo and patriarchal point of view” is so strong, Scaraffia said, to have blinded her to that very evident misrepresentation.

“I am leading a war against the patriarchy of the Church,” she said. “Why don’t we become a nuisance in every place where women are not present?”

Scaraffia then listed the many examples of places within Catholic institutions where women have no voice, from Pope Francis’s trusted covenant of nine cardinals (also known as the C9) to the parish level.

She pointed to what she perceives as the “greatest crisis since the Reform” in the Catholic Church, driven by economic and sex abuse scandals. But Scaraffia also pointed to “a disintegration from within,” with Catholic credibility plummeting as its high-ranking members fail to be held accountable for wrongdoing.

“We women also have failed recently,” she said. “Many women, many mothers, were aware of cases of abuse in the Church. There have been a thousand circumstances where women showed solidarity with clericalism.”

“There are a thousand times when women must raise their voices in opposition when women are excluded, not because of dogmatic questions or canon law but because of tradition and habit,” she added.

Scaraffia made her comments before a fresco representing the Virgin Mary, high up on a gilded throne. Beneath her, clergy with tonsured heads and dark habits kneel, with no halo as high as the one circling the head of the Mother of God.

Female panelists, however, denounced a situation in the Church today that could not be further away from that artistic representation of Mary.

Scaraffia pointed to the fact that while the global media and attention has been focusing on sexual abuse of minors, the issue of women – both lay and religious – being raped and abused by their bishops has been largely ignored.

“Women no longer exist,” said the editor, who in March of last year published a report detailing the cases where women religious are undermined, harassed and sexually abused by male clergy.

A recent case in India, where a mother superior came forward to denounce her bishop for raping her 13 times over the span of two years, is just one of many examples, Scaraffia said, pointing to the next horizon in the clerical sexual abuse scandals.

“There is a culture of silence when it comes to sexual abuse,” said Indian scientist Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, who has worked as a consultant for the Indian episcopal conference.

Gajiwala said that while many bishops and public opinion rallied to advocate the cause of the nun, the event highlights “the might of the bishops, who are able to use all the resources of the Church for their own personal agenda.”

She also pointed to how in India, the local minority Church is torn on how to address abuse in a “potentially hostile society,” with one side promoting a prophetic Church that holds bishops accountable and the other supporting a united, yet sometimes complicit, front.

Underscoring the global dimension of the issue of abuse against women, South African theologian Nontando Hadebe called attention to often ignored realities on her continent.

“In the African context, the issue of religious sisters and lay women being abused is about to explode,” Hadebe said, denouncing “the toxic brotherhood of solidarity” that pushes male clergy to protect and cover-up for each other.

“There is something monstrous going on,” continued the senior lecturer at St. Augustine College in Johannesburg, saying that the sex abuse crisis has allowed many to “look into the abyss” of the Catholic Church.

Just as the Catholic Church was a strong voice during the apartheid era, she added, it needs to put debate aside and seize this pivotal moment.

“We need to say this is not us, not in our name. Use all the hashtags,” she said. “We can no longer move on with this kind of structure.”

Women from all over the world at the event denounced the lack of accountability for bishops and other high-ranking prelates.

“The American Catholic Church has a ‘bro-culture’ stronger than every fraternity,” said Celia Wexler, an author and journalist from the United States.

Irish journalist and LGBTQI activist Ursula Halligan agreed, recounting the dramatic impact 1990s sexual scandals in the Church had on the Irish people. Yet, just like 75 percent of her fellow countrymen, Halligan did not leave the Catholic faith.

“I decided to stay, but not to remain quiet,” she said.

Irish abuse survivor Marie Collins, long before the 11-page searing letter by Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò denouncing sex abuse and cover-up within the Vatican, was asking for bishops’ accountability while serving on the Pontifical Council for the Protection of Minors.

During the papal flight back from Ireland in August, Pope Francis praised Collins for her advocacy and witness for sex abuse survivors but controversially added “that she is a bit fixated” on these issues.

“Do you know what Ms. Collins is fixated with? The fact that there exists no institution to denounce bishops,” Scaraffia said.

“Bishops in the Catholic Church are untouchable,” she added.

The women at the symposium expressed solidarity with Collins and pointed to the October summit of bishops on youth and discernment as a pivotal moment to make their voices heard at the Vatican.

“It’s an unwelcome duty, because we can become annoying,” Scaraffia said. “Let’s be a nuisance please. Raising our voices is the only way for women to change things.”

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