Devotion and Deceit
Over the last decade, more than
100 nuns have been accused of molesting children. Most victims remain
silent, but The Times tracked down two, and the mother of a third, willing
to talk about their journey of recovery.
Robrecht, center, in plaid jacket holding her baby sister,
Gretchen, at her christening in 1966. The photo was taken
one year after a nun allegedly began sexually abusing Mary.
To Mary's right, her parents, Joe and Betty, her sister
Maureen; to her left, her brother, Bill.
Hidalgo was 14 when her older sister Mona shot herself in the head.
During her second year in college, her 52-year-old mother died of heart
problems weeks after undergoing what was supposed to be a routine angioplasty.
Little more than a year later, her father, heartbroken, shot himself
in the heart.
Within the next year, Hidalgo tried to take her own life - three times.
First, she cut her wrists and swallowed a bottle of aspirin. Six months
later, she tried to hang herself. A few months after that, she drank
a bottle of pesticides labeled "fatal if swallowed." That
time, she nearly succeeded.
The loss of her family members haunted Hidalgo for years. But she also
carries with her a separate, secret torment she says began some 25 years
ago. It reaches not from the family grave, but from her days as a student
at a Catholic middle school in southwest Louisiana.
It was there, in 1977 at the old Opelousas Catholic Middle School, where
12-year-old Hidalgo first encountered Sister Cheryl Porte, a young,
charming nun with silky brown hair and soft brown eyes who often dressed
in street clothes and was as fluent in pop music as she was in pop psychology.
"She taught me about theology, the Beatles, Carl Jung and social
justice," says Hidalgo.
And, she says, during overnight stays at Porte's family home and the
old Marianites of Holy Cross motherhouse on Woodland Drive in New Orleans, Porte taught her about
sex, coaxing the 12-year-old into a physical relationship that lasted
more than two years. Toward the end of the relationship, as Porte got
more brazen, the contact occurred in the middle of the day at Porte's
Opelousas convent, Hidalgo says.
"It would generally start with her requesting that I rub her back
or stomach," Hidalgo says. "Then she would take over, guiding
my hand over her body. When I would pull away from her, she would cry.
In guilt, I would reach out to comfort her, and again the sexual contact
The grooming began inconspicuously, Hidalgo recalls: It started with
a card that read, "You are special ... as a student and a friend."
Then they began sitting next to each other during lunch, talking during
recess and after school. Eventually, there were nightly phone calls,
letter and poetry writing and gifts.
"The general assumption in the community was that she was mentoring
me for religious life," says Hidalgo.
Before long, other rumors began to spread, so Hidalgo and Porte spent more time
together away from school.
The abuse lasted for more than two years, says Hidalgo, until in 1980 an anonymous
person notified the Marianites of the Holy Cross, the New Orleans-based
religious order for whom Porte still works. Porte was removed from her
position soon after, according to Sister Mary Kay Kinberger, Marianite
congregational leader. Monsignor Alex Larroque, who handles sexual abuse
complaints for the Diocese of Lafayette, says he didn't recall any abuse
complaint filed in 1980 stemming from an incident at Opelousas Catholic.
Hidalgo learned recently that a neighbor apprised the Marianites of
the liaison after she saw Hidalgo and Porte kissing in a car outside
For years, Hidalgo thought Porte was out of the ministry. In June of
this year, she learned that Porte had been shuffled off to another parish
and, until last month, was serving as a nun in O'Fallon, Ill., a rural town 20 miles west
of St. Louis. Porte is currently on leave, according to O'Fallon Parish officials.
Porte did not return calls and e-mails for comment, but Kinberger acknowledged
in a June 18 letter to Hidalgo
that Porte had been "removed from her present living and ministering
Back then, Hidalgo thought her experience was an aberration, a chance
occurrence between a single deviant nun and a naïve young girl.
But according to experts on clergy abuse - as has been reported voluminously
in the last several months regarding priestly sex abuse - the scenario
has played out at convents, Catholic schools and churches across the
A Times investigation has revealed that, in the last 10 years, at least
a dozen lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by nuns have been filed in courthouses
across the country. Suits filed in Minnesota, Vermont, New York and
Michigan have been settled. None are known to have resulted in criminal
Currently, no national standard on how orders respond to sexual abuse
allegations among sisters religious exists. The Leadership Congregation
of Women Religious (LCWR), a national organization with more than 1,000
members (congregational leaders) who represent about 76,000 sisters
in the United States, declined to be included in the Bishop's Charter
signed in June, stating that the group was not involved in the formulation
of the policy and would not be directly impacted by it.
In an official statement made in April, the executive committee of the
LCWR said, "As women religious leaders who are an integral part
of our church and society, we ... are deeply troubled by the current
escalating crisis of allegations of clerical abuse."
Nonetheless, the handling of sexual abuse allegations against sisters
will not be formally discussed at this month's annual LCWR meeting,
to be held Aug. 17-21 in St. Louis, according to a LCWR spokesperson.
Leading experts on clergy abuse, and an author of a book on abusive
nuns, say over the years they have been contacted by more than 100 people
who claim nuns sexually abused them. In addition, abuse scandals at
orphanages in New England and across Canada have resulted in more than
100 out-of-court settlements stemming from sexual and physical abuse.
In the annals of clergy abuse, as in society in general, women sex abusers
remain the exception. Studies show they comprise no more than 5 percent
of all abusers. Experts say the rarity of such abuse makes it even more
difficult for victims to come forward - and for society, as a whole,
to believe their accusations.
Gary Schoener is a Minnesota-based therapist who has consulted on thousands
of abuse cases, including hundreds involving clergy. In addition, he's
served as an expert witness in hundreds of abuse cases for plaintiffs
and defendants. Over the years, Schoener has become familiar with 20
nuns who were accused of sexual abuse. He says most of them had multiple
"At least half we've had confirmation there was somebody else,"
Ashley Hill, who researched the subject for eight years for her book
Habits of Sin, (Xlibris Corp.), understands society's inclination to
dismiss such allegations.
"It's so hard to believe that women do this," says Hill, who
says that she was abused as a 7-year-old student in a New Hampshire parochial school.
Hill says that during her research she heard from people claiming to
be victims of sexually abusive nuns in 23 states, as well as in Ireland
and Canada. She's corresponded with more than 40 victims who said nuns
sexually abused them. Six of those cases involve male victims.
A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former priest with more than
35 years of experience working with clergy sex abuse, says he's handled
dozens of sexual abuse cases in which nuns were the abusers. He says
society's comfort level with intimate touching between women and children
enables female abusers to initiate contact far more easily without suspicion.
Sipe was among those who interviewed scores of victims at the now-closed
St. Joseph's Orphanage in Burlington, Vt. There, one man's lawsuit against
the orphanage where he lived until he was 5 years old resulted in a
flood of new accusations - more than 100 in all.
Joey Barquin, now 54, says he has memories of life as a 3-year-old,
when a nun pulled him into a closet, dropped his pants to his ankles
and fondled his genitals. Then, when he recoiled, she squeezed his scrotum,
brushing a sharp object between his legs.
"Next thing I know there was unimaginable pain, and there was just
blood everywhere." On several occasions, he recalls being sodomized
and says he has the scars to prove it.
The alleged abuse occurred frequently during his years at the orphanage
until, in May 1953, Joseph Barquin, a Burlington shoe store owner, and
his wife, Aurora, adopted 5-year-old Joey.
For decades, Joey Barquin never mentioned the alleged abuse to his family.
And his family, given the rumors of rampant abuse at the orphanage,
never asked. For years, he put the painful memories behind him, storing
them safely in the dusty, upper shelves of his distant memory. He attended
elementary school in Vermont through eighth grade, and when his family
moved to Boca Raton, Fla., enrolled in boarding school.
He went on to college, then worked as a diver on Florida's Gulf Coast,
a shipwreck salvager and helped kick off an Internet startup.
In his early 40s, he met a psychotherapist, a woman who would become
"She saw the scars, she said you need help with this." Eventually,
he acquiesced and the nightmares returned.
"Essentially, therapy released the monsters from the id. Next thing
I know there's a tsunami, a tidal wave ..."
In 1993, Barquin confronted the Diocese of Burlington in Vermont, which
ran the orphanage. Officials there dismissed the allegation, Barquin
says. Three years later, after Barquin lead a much publicized attack
on the orphanage, the diocese settled the claim for an undisclosed amount,
reportedly a six-figure deal. By coming forward, Barquin encouraged
scores more victims to tell their stories. It became, he says, "the
Schindler's List of Vermont."
Eventually, more than 100 people - some with stories of abuse even more
grotesque than what Barquin claims happened to him - reported that they
were abused at the orphanage, says Philip White, the Montpelier, Vt., attorney who briefly
"Joey was pretty much on his own. He didn't know whether there
would be anybody else. It added credibility to his claim," says
"I thought he was one of probably hundreds." White says he
settled more than 50 such cases with the orphanage, for around $5,000
each. He says many but not all of those cases involved sexual abuse.
Earlier this year, officials for the Burlington diocese acknowledged
that the orphanage had a troubled past and said the diocese acted with
"compassion and fairness to those who had been hurt."
Sam Hemingway, a columnist and reporter for the Burlington Free-Press,
says he still gets the occasional call from a person claiming they were
physically or sexually abused at the now-infamous orphanage.
"It's down to a trickle now. It was a flood when Joey went public,"
Barquin, meanwhile, is trying to move on with his life. He divorced
his first wife shortly after the 1996 settlement and remarried in 1998.
A few wise investments in Internet stocks left him with "more money
than God." Today, he owns two planes and three homes - one in Vermont
just miles from where the abuse allegedly occurred.
"I'm working constantly to overcome this, but some very good things
happened to me in Vermont. I can't let this take my history away,"
Sipe, who interviewed several victims at St. Joseph's, among them Barquin,
says anecdotal evidence suggests abusive nuns tend to be more sadistic
than abusive priests, often mixing violence with their sexual forays
- much like Barquin claimed.
"There tends to be a sadomasochism, a strict discipline mixed up
with the abuse," says Sipe. "Joey is a perfect example of
that. She would get him sexually excited and burn him on his penis."
Overall, experts say there are surprisingly few differences with both
the pattern and the impact of female and male abusers.
Sipe says women abusers' approach is "much more total body, hugging,
embracing, more than direct genital contact." There also tends
to be a more romantic quality to the relationship, he says.
Many experts - including Sipe, Schoener and Hill - say the anecdotal
evidence shows that a higher percentage of cases involving nuns involve
abusers who are severely disturbed. Some are paranoid schizophrenics;
others suffer from hallucinations, delusions and even visitations.
"With women ... they're not predators per se but they're not well
put together," says Schoener.
The immediate effects of sexual abuse are well documented. Victims become
withdrawn, insecure, often angry and lash out at others. In addition,
for victims of nuns, the downside of being a teacher's pet is exacerbated
in a rigid Catholic setting. The victim, already separated from his
or her peers by the secret relationship, is further separated through
the jealousy of others, says Sipe.
Later in life, the effects vary. Some become hypersexual, others become
frigid. Experts agree that over the long term, male and female victims
abused by women share similar problems but wrestle with unique challenges
as well. Sipe says there is "a wide spectrum of responses"
to sexual abuse - but boys abused by women tend to dismiss it until
it creates problems in their adult relationships.
"Other than this kind of softening, or him wondering about his
masculinity, I think that most boys who are abused this way tend to
pass it off," says Sipe.
And male victims can have trouble finding people who believe them, or,
if they are believed, who consider it abuse.
"Today's male victims remind me of what the female victims looked
like 20 years ago," says Schoener. "For those kids it's confusing
because society views them as lucky. They have this pleasurable experience
that all their friends are dreaming about. So, for a man to consider
himself a victim of a woman, it's hard to come forward.
"They're very reluctant, frightened to death. They're expected
to be a laughingstock," Schoener says. "A male victim of the
nun has really got a problem in turns of perceived credibility - men
aren't supposed to be victims except of bigger men."
Female victims can suffer differently. "When the victim's a woman,
it's going to make her wrestle a bit more with her sexuality. It's harder
for them to separate sex from warmth and closeness," says Schoener.
Sipe agrees, adding that girls abused by women often grow up wondering
if the abuse was "a lesbian phase" of their development. Women
victims, no matter what sex the abuser, are still less likely to come
forward than men, he adds.
Psychologist Schoener says that neatly compartmentalized "victim's
handbook" ideal - shy, insecure, craving attention - has never
been altogether accurate. But he says Hidalgo and many other victims
shared one trait that may have made them the perfect mark for a member
of the clergy.
"They were devout," says Schoener. "The more devout,
the easier the target. The more rigid the Catholic, the more fundamentalist
the Jew or Baptist, the easier the target."
The Robrecht family spent three years looking for the perfect home in
Hillside, N.J. They needed five bedrooms, a big yard and a spacious
kitchen. And they wanted to be within walking distance to the neighborhood
Catholic school and church.
In 1955, they bought their home on Beechwood Place, an oak-lined road
with wide sidewalks that separated Hillside from Elizabeth. Down the
block sat St. Catherine's of Siena Catholic Church, a brick and granite
monolith punctuated with flying buttresses and a large steeple built
in the 1920s. A near-life sized crucifix, carved in Bavaria, greeted
parishioners at the Broad Street entrance.
"It was perfect," says Betty Robrecht, the matriarch of the
large, devout family.
It wasn't long before the Robrechts' two oldest children, 8-year-old
Joseph and 5-year-old Bill, were enrolled at St. Catherine's school
and the family was taking part in many church functions. Betty Robrecht
taught art at the school for many years, and served as an occasional
Her daughter, Mary, the middle of seven children, was 2 years old when
the family moved into their new home. It would be three years before
she would attend school at St. Catherine's, which was run by the Dominican
Sisters of Caldwell.
The first seven years of Mary's schooling passed quietly, without incident.
Then, in 1965, at the age of 12, Mary met Sister Andre, a nun who paid
her special attention, who lavished her with praise and affection. Mary
began to spend a lot of time with Sister Andre, spending most every
evening at the convent, Robrecht says.
Late that summer, Sister Andre asked if Mary could spend the weekend
with her at her family's house in Point Pleasant, a 90-minute ride away.
Robrecht obliged her, offering money to cover the cost of food and entertainment.
That fall, Sister Andre was transferred to a parish in Connecticut.
Over the next several months, she wrote Mary numerous letters.
"The letters kept coming and coming," recalls Robrecht. Still,
she never thought once about anything improper. "I think what we
thought, very smugly, was that our daughter was going to have a vocation."
Nearly two years passed before Robrecht learned that Mary and Sister
Andre never made it to the shore that summer day, but stayed instead
at a motel about 15 minutes from the family's home.
One day, in 1967, when Mary was a freshman at Benedictine Academy in Elizabeth,
she left one of the nun's letters on her bed. Robrecht opened the letter,
in which she says Sister Andre wrote about romantic interludes with
her daughter. Robrecht says when she confronted her daughter about her
relationship with the nun, Mary acknowledged a sexual liaison.
Soon after, Robrecht, her husband, Joe, and her brother, Jerry Hammell,
complained to Sister Dolorita, mother superior of the Dominicans of
Caldwell. At first, she says, Sister Dolorita didn't believe it. "She
said, 'You're wrong. She's such a lovely person,'" Robrecht recalls.
But the next day, Sister Dolorita called and asked to meet with the
family, says Robrecht. Sister Dolorita could not be located for comment
for this story.
Robrecht recalls what happened next: Sister Dolorita went to Connecticut
to visit with Sister Andre but could not find her. But the mother superior
did not return empty handed. Sister Dolorita came back with "boxes
of papers and journals" of Sister Andre's, says Robrecht. In many
of the entries, Sister Andre wrote about her relationship with Mary.
"She said to my husband, 'I don't care what you do with this. She's
going to leave by Friday. She'll be gone.'" Sister Andre, 35 at
the time the allegations were made, had already served in three dioceses.
Days later, the Robrechts talked to an attorney about a possible lawsuit,
but decided "it would be best" to try to put it in the past.
The lawyer, Lou Anzalone of Florham Park, N.J., recalls the conversation.
"I absolutely believe it was true," says Anzalone of the allegation.
And that was the end of it as far as Betty Robrecht was concerned. "We
did nothing; I'm so embarrassed to say that now," says Robrecht.
"We thought the best thing to do would have been to hide it."
To the untrained eye, Mary seemed normal. She was a cheerleader, played
for the high school basketball team and was art editor for the yearbook.
But a year or so after the abuse allegation surfaced, Mary's mother
recalls looking at two pictures of Mary - a then-current one and one
from a few years back, before the abuse. The difference, she said, was
startling. "There was no resemblance to the girl that she was,
she had this blank stare on her face."
By then, Robrecht says the church had helped Mary get counseling as
she wrestled with the abuse and the fear that she might be homosexual.
But in the years to come, Mary would struggle with alcoholism and contemplate
suicide often. She attended Keane College in Union, N.J., for about
a month, and then worked a variety of jobs as a florist, plumber and
Jim Goodness, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark, says the archdiocese
has not been contacted about any complaints involving Sister Andre.
Sister Joan Doyle, prioress for the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell, for
whom Sister Andre worked, says she doesn't know the current whereabouts
of Sister Andre, and that the order has not yet investigated any charges.
In June of this year, looking for support from victims and their families,
Betty Robrecht attended her first gathering with members of the Survivors
Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). A week or so later, after
attending mass at St. Joseph's Church in Mendham, she saw Bishop Frank
Rodimer visiting with parishioners after addressing the issue of clergy
abuse. She leaned over and whispered to him, "You've got to do
But now, 35 years after her daughter was allegedly abused by a nun,
Betty Robrecht knows whatever is done will have little impact on her
family. In the fall of 1989, Mary Robrecht attempted suicide for the
third time. This time she succeeded.
"She never really recovered," her mother says.
Myra Hidalgo failed at her third attempt to commit suicide. For that,
It took years to overcome the complex range of emotions that stirred
in her restless mind. But as survivors' stories go, hers is one of hope.
After several years of constant psychiatric counseling, Hidalgo steadied
herself and earned a bachelor's degree at Loyola University and a master's
degree in clinical social work at Tulane University. Today, she's setting
up her practice as a clinical social worker in New Orleans.
"As I gained emotional strength and insight into how my childhood
experiences affected me, I felt compelled to help others who might have
experienced similar trauma or neglect," she says.
Today, Hidalgo sees little in the black and white of habits and Roman
collars. Mixed with anger lies an undeniable urge to protect the woman
whom she considered a friend.
"I do recognize it's important to identify her," she says,
"but at the same time while I don't really care to protect her
I don't want the rest of her life to be ruined either. There's a part
of me that wants to protect Cheryl from public humiliation because she
loved me and didn't really mean to hurt me."
Hidalgo compares the relationship dynamic to that of incest.
"My feelings are split between wanting to fight back, wanting justice,
wanting her to hurt, too - and the feelings of guilt and shame for getting
her in trouble," she says. "She was both an abuser and a nurturer,
which makes it really difficult and confusing. She taught me a lot of
wonderful things, which made it even harder to resist her sexual advances
because I felt guilty for making her cry. I considered it a relationship.
I feel some loyalty toward her. It's difficult for me to give up the
idea that I was special to her."
But deep down, she knows that the relationship was unnatural, that Porte
must have known the dalliance was morally wrong.
"I had not started menstruating, I was just barely starting to
get pubic hair, I had no breasts ... and she would tease me about that,"
she says. "It was very clear to both of us that I was not a woman."
Hidalgo understands how difficult it can be for abuse victims to come
forward to their families, friends and counselors - especially for those
whose abuse was masked as part of a "romantic relationship."
Her mother, when told of the abuse by a church official, swore Hidalgo
to secrecy. "My mother told no one of the abuse, not even my father.
I believe that her intent was to protect me from being labeled a lesbian,
but it only drove the shame deeper."
Today, as a professional and a survivor, Hidalgo strives not for revenge.
"My intention is to educate," she says. "With all this
stuff going on they need to go back and investigate nuns, too ... No
stories have been written about it and I think there's a lot more that's
going to come out once it's publicized."
It was more than eight years before Hidalgo finally saw the relationship
for what it was - a grown adult sexually abusing a child. Soon after
first facing this truth during a therapy session in 1988, she tracked
Porte down. The nun was living on the East Coast, taking classes for
an advanced degree. Hidalgo called her.
"I basically said that I was very angry and that she had never
been accountable to me for the abuse," says Hidalgo. "She
just got very angry and said, 'You have no idea what I've been through
and how I have been made accountable.' And I said, 'Well, you were never
accountable to me.'"
Hidalgo says she left the conversation with some sense of accomplishment,
but that it wasn't complete.
"I felt some relief for having confronted her and naming what it
was that happened between us. I was hoping that she would apologize
and show some remorse, but she didn't."
On July 26, Hidalgo took another step toward recovery. She met with
Sister Kinberger and her assistant.
At the end of the meeting, the assistant began to cry, Hidalgo says,
and each of them expressed sympathy for whatever pain her relationship
with Porte may have brought. Though the Marianites acknowledged an "inappropriate
relationship" between Porte and Hidalgo, they remain unsure if
any sexual abuse occurred, Hidalgo says.
But Hidalgo describes the spirit of the meeting as open and honest, and even makes
apologies for the Marianites' having to be cautious because of their
"I felt they wanted to say more, but couldn't because of the situation,"
says Hidalgo. "But it was
a good meeting. Very healing."
Louis Rom is public life editor for The Times. Phone him at 237-3560,
ext. 118, or e-mail him at email@example.com.
Lawsuits in which nuns were accused of sexual abuse
ˆ In 1989, a Minnesota woman filed a lawsuit against a Rochester, Minn.,
religious order, alleging that Sister Georgene Stuppy molested her between
1978 and 1981. Jeffrey Anderson, a St. Paul attorney representing the
plaintiff, claimed that Stuppy acknowledged the sexual contact, but
claimed it was a "spiritual" endeavor, not for sexual gratification.
The suit was settled in 1993.
ˆ In 1990, a Riverdale, Ga., woman, Vicki R. Long, sued the Archdiocese
of Atlanta, accusing a nun and two priests of abusing her. The archdiocese
settled the suit, agreeing to pay for some of Long's psychiatric care.
ˆ In 1993, a 53-year-old Texas woman sued the Archdiocese of San Antonio,
claiming she was abused by a nun between the ages of 5 and 14. The woman
said she recovered the memory that had been repressed for 40-plus years.
The lawsuit was dismissed after a judge ruled it did not meet any of
the exceptions to the state's statutes of limitation. A Texas appeals
court upheld the lower court's ruling in 1994.
ˆ In 1996, a Lexington, Mass., woman settled a lawsuit with the Diocese
of Detroit, Dominican High School and the Adrian Dominican Sisters after
alleging that Gael N. Biondo, a former nun and teacher, molested her
for several years as a student at a Catholic high school in the 1960s.
ˆ In 2000, a Winnipeg, Manitoba, man sued a Canadian church parish,
and claimed he was sexually abused by a nun in school between 1940 and
ˆ In 2000, a man who claimed to have recovered memories of sexual abuse
by a Minneapolis area nun 20 years earlier settled a suit with the order
for an undisclosed amount. The man claimed a nun from School Sisters
of Notre Dame in Mankato, Minn., an international religious order of
nuns with provinces around the world - abused him repeatedly in late
1978 and early 1979, when he was a first grader at St. Michael's Catholic
School in St. Michael, Minn.
ˆ In 2000, the Archdiocese of New York settled a case involving a Bronx
man who alleged a nun molested him when he was 12 years old. Brian O'Rourke,
a former student at St. Francis de Chantal in the Bronx, sought $150
million in damages in 1996, when he filed the suit. In the suit, O'Rourke
alleged that Sister Linda Baisi, his homeroom and religion teacher,
induced him into sex on a weekly basis at the age of 12 through gifts
and money. Baisi soon after renounced her vows but was working as a
principal at a Catholic school when the suit was filed. She was placed
on an indefinite leave of absence.
ˆ In 2002, in addition to 11 priests currently named in lawsuits against
the Diocese of Providence, R.I., one nun is accused of molesting a student
there. The diocese is said to be on the verge of settling the lawsuits.
Plaintiffs in the suits say they were molested as recently as the 1980s
and as far back as the 1960s. It's not clear when the abuse allegedly
involving a nun occurred.