ST. LOUIS - Already shaken by a yearlong sex abuse scandal involving priests and minors, the Roman Catholic Church has yet to face another critical challenge - how to help thousands of nuns who say they have been sexually victimized.
A national survey, completed in 1996 but intentionally never publicized, estimates that a "minimum" of 34,000 Catholic nuns, or about 40 percent of all nuns in the United States, have suffered some form of sexual trauma.
Some of that sexual abuse, exploitation or harassment has come at the hands of priests and other nuns in the church, the report said.
The survey was conducted by researchers at St. Louis University and was paid for, in part, by several orders of Catholic nuns. The study, recently obtained by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, indicates that the victimization often has had devastating psychological effects on the women.
Many of the nuns said they were left with feelings of anger, shame, anxiety and depression. Some said it made them consider leaving religious life, and a few said they had attempted suicide.
"These women have been the stalwarts of the church for centuries, and a significant percentage of them have been victimized as a result of the structure of the very institution to which they have dedicated their lives," said study co-author John T. Chibnall, a research psychologist and associate professor at St. Louis University.
Another of the researchers, Ann Wolf, said she believes it is vital that the Catholic Church recognize the problem.
"The bishops appear to be only looking at the issue of child sexual abuse, but the problem is bigger than that" Wolf said. "Catholic sisters are being violated, in their ministries, at work, in pastoral counseling."
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the group was unaware of the St. Louis University study on nuns, and its members have not addressed the issue.
Officials with local orders of nuns who participated in the study say they remain concerned, but have made no changes as a result of the report.
The survey is the only national scientific study dealing with the sexual victimization of nuns in the Catholic Church, according to its researchers.
Of the more than 1,100 surveys returned to the university, several included brief, personal stories from women who said they had been targeted. One woman wrote that after a priest fondled one of her breasts during confession, she remained so upset that she did not return to confession for the next 18 years. Another wrote that as a young girl, her uncle, who also was a priest, insisted on touching holy oil to her genital area "to keep me safe while dating."