On February 5, 2019, Pope Francis, for the first time, publicly admitted that Catholic nuns are sexually abused and exploited by Catholic priests.
That admission was due, in part, to the courageous witness of Dr. Doris Wagner Reisinger, one of the speakers at the October 2018 Voices of Faith event,“Overcoming Silence” just a few months before Pope Francis made his confession.
On that day, Catholics women, three being survivors of clergy sex abuse, spoke publicly about their experience of abuse by clerics, and the additional abuse they endured at the hands of their religious superiors and churchmen.
Because Dr. Reisinger boldly spoke “truth to power,” Father Hermann Geissler, an Austrian priest at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith who had abused his sacred authority in the confessional with Reisinger and sexually assaulted her, was forced to resign from his post.
He was never convicted for his abuse by the Vatican Apostolic Signatura (the highest judicial authority in the Catholic Church), even though they made their decision without testimony from Reisinger. In a May 15 meeting the Apostolic Signatura “issued the decree of acquittal of the accused" because the tribunal could not prove the crime “with the required moral certainty.”
The decision is not a surprise to the many victims of clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church who have seen the institution protect their clerics over victims -- children, seminarians, vulnerable adults, and, of course, women. Churchmen would, once again, dismiss the testimony of a victim to do damage control.
Yet, even obstructionist clerics cannot stop Reisinger from changing the Church. No doubt, her words and witness had a impact on the Vatican evoking new confessions.
Born in Germany in 1983, at the age of 19, she joined the Catholic religious community Das Werk, which maintains close ties to the Roman Curia. Reisinger was subjected to abuse from her superiors and rape and sexual assault by priests. In 2011, Reisinger escaped Das Werk, began her theological studies, and completed them in 2014 in Germany.
A former nun, Doris Wagner Reisinger, has become a well-known philosopher, theologian, author and activist. Her forth coming book, "Spiritueller Mißbrauch in der katholische Kirche" (Spiritual Abuse in the Catholic Church), details her experience, chronicles the spiritual abuse in religious communities, and provides insights into the structures that keep such horrors in place. Her experience and her intellectual acumen are the foundation for her analysis of the dysfunctional structures of the Church and religious life. Of the institution Reisinger notes, "Something is fundamentally flawed," and calls for a new constitution for our church.
She has been at the forefront of the #NunsToo movement writing and speaking about the abuse of nuns because "I want no young sister to go through what I have gone through."
She writes that Catholic leaders from the Congregation for Religious Life have long been aware of the abuse of nuns because Marie McDonald of the Missionaries of Our Lady of Africa, Benedictine Esther Fangman, and, above all, Maura O'Donohue from the Medical Missionaries of Mary reported on the widespread problem back in the mid-1990s. Horror stories of forced abortions, pregnant nuns being forced from their religious communities into a life of poverty, and even death were all captured in the reports. Yet, Vatican officials kept the reports secret until they were made public by National Catholic Reporter. And when they did speak, they minimized the crimes and sins at every turn, a pattern that continues even with the Pope's 2019 admittances.
Reisinger writes about the abuse of nuns within religious communities, an issue that organizations like the LCWR and UISG are often loathe to discuss. She also critiques the structures and culture that keep most women in a position of unquestioning obedience to a superior. The spiritual and sexual abuse within religious communities has been another dark side that Reisinger prophetically confronts.
It is clear that Dr. Doris Wagner Reisinger is one of the rising voices for reform in the Catholic Church today. FutureChurch is proud to honor her with the 2020 Christine Schenk Award for Young Catholic Leaders. She will join FutureChurch at our annual Fall Event this Thursday, October 22nd at 7:00pm ET. Please join us as we honor Dr. Reisinger and hear her speak about her work.