19 February 2019, The Tablet
File Photo, Pope Francis greets a group of nuns during his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Aug. 22
Photo: CNS photo/Paul Haring
Poland's most senior nun has been banned from further media contact after condemning the sexual abuse of religious sisters by Catholic priests in her country, and welcoming the Pope's recent highlighting of the issue.
A church source told The Tablet "urgent internal enquiries" were underway to establish how the interview with Mother Jolanta Olech, secretary-general of the Conference of Higher Superiors of Female Religious Orders, was run last week by the church's official Catholic Information Agency, KAI. The source, who asked not to be identified, added that Poland's Catholic bishops had "reacted with outrage" to the 78-year-old Ursuline's decision to publicise the scandal, and said the nun had been cautioned to avoid further public statements.
In her 14 February interview, Mother Olech said no comprehensive data had been collected on the abuse of nuns in Poland. However, she added that she had been notified of "very painful" cases during her years as Conference president and secretary-general, none of which had been made public, and welcomed the Pope's pledge on 5 February that the Church was now tackling the "scandal" of priests and bishops who molested nuns.
One young Polish nun had been forced to leave her order after becoming pregnant, Mother Olech said, while the priest who fathered her child had remained in his post without "any serious consequences". The Ursuline added that most abuse cases had been "covered up in the dark recesses of the human spirit", but said she hoped the new generation of nuns would demand support from beyond their immediate congregations.
"This isn't the first time this has been raised, and we don't know if it will change much - but it should at least show some people the time for concealment is over", Mother Olech told the KAI agency. "Certainly, this problem has a wider setting and reflects a general attitude to women in our society, a society to which church groups belong, and in which they're formed and shaped".
Poland is currently home to 17,858 nuns, mostly engaged in teaching, healthcare and charity work, but also employed in parishes, seminaries and diocesan offices, according to a late January Church report, although its 105 female orders have cited falling recruitment, alongside a drop in priestly vocations.
A senior member of the Warsaw-based Ursuline order denied that a formal ban had been imposed on Mother Olech for her interview, but told The Tablet on Monday the nun had "said all she had to say". "As secretary-general, she's been well placed to know what happens here - and what she said is certainly true", the order member said. "We haven't heard of any concrete action being taken against her by the Church for saying it".
It was the latest of many outspoken statements by Mother Olech, a former sociologist and Vatican diplomat, who also served as Superior-General of the Polish Ursulines in 1995-2007 and as a consultant to the Vatican Congregation responsible for religious orders. In 2017, she told Poland's Gazeta Wyborcza daily she would resist any infringement of the dignity of nuns, while in March 2018 she said religious sisters should be better paid and acknowledged for their work alongside male clergy.
In her KAI interview, she said she doubted many Polish nuns would wish to be involved with the US-based MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault, launched via social media in October 2017. "But we must, as nuns, look after ourselves - we're not children or people without free will", the Ursuline told KAI. "We have our dignity and must be aware of this in our relationships. We can't allow ourselves to be used - we must respect ourselves and ensure others respect us".
In a brief statement to The Tablet on 20 February, Mother Olech denied being the object of "any prohibitions" in connection with her Catholic Information Agency interview, but provided no further information about the circumstances of her KAI disclosures.