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Former Charleston nuns criticize pope's crackdown on women's groups

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Pat Hussey and Barbara Ferraro, former Roman Catholic nuns who lived in Charleston for many years, criticized Pope Benedict XVI for launching a crackdown on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

LCWR is a group of organizations that represents 80 percent of the 55,000 Catholic nuns in the United States.

On Wednesday, Pope Benedict released a document criticizing LCWR for focusing too much on efforts to eliminate poverty and economic injustice. The Pope also attacked the group's failures to speak out strongly against allowing women to become priests, abortion and gay marriage.

"This is the same struggle that occurred with us in the 1980s," Hussey and Ferraro told the Gazette on Thursday.

"Nuns for decades have been at the forefront of justice issues both nationally and internationally addressing poverty, health care, war, equal rights for all, both within and outside of the church.

"And now, as the world has evolved, so too have the positions of nuns and women of the church. These rights now include gay rights, marriage equality and reproductive rights," Hussey and Ferraro said in a prepared statement.

"As evolutionary advances have been made by women in the Roman Catholic Church, the positions of the hierarchy have regressed. But the issue continues to be the same -- power and control over women's lives. These actions by the hierarchy are despicable and abusive."

Hussey and Ferraro headed the Covenant House, an organization that helped provide shelter and meals to poor people, for 25 years before they left Charleston in December 2006.

They moved back to Maine to live near other members of their families.

"This present Pope is the one who said, during our struggle [in the 1980s], that 'American nuns are dangerous because they are educated.' During this time, Pope Benedict, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger, was called 'The Enforcer' or 'The Pope's Rottweiler,'" Hussey and Ferraro stated.

The Pope also criticized the LCWR for sponsoring and holding conferences featuring a "prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."

Network, a Catholic social justice lobby also founded by nuns, and the Resource Center for Religious Life, also were cited in the document the Vatican released on Wednesday. The accusations were based on an investigation ordered by Pope Benedict in 2008.

The Vatican also is conducting a separate investigation, calling it a "visitation," about all women's religious orders and groups in the United States.

"From our perspective as former nuns with 47 years of experience, Rome's attempt to use a benign word such as 'Visitation of American Nuns' does not mask their heavy handedness and desire to control the women of the church."

Hussey and Ferraro criticized church leaders for failing to vigorously address improper sexual relations with children.

"Daily, we are reminded in the press, that children's welfare and safety were and continue to be sacrificed by the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. In our minds, these actions are an erosion of their moral authority," Hussey and Ferraro said.

"At the very least, the Pope and bishops ought to put their own house in order before they interfere with women who are committed to justice and are good moral decision makers.

"We hope women religious will stand strong and continue their quest for justice for all."

Hussey, now 69, and Ferraro, now 63, both resigned from their religious order as nuns back in 1988.

Each had been a nun for more than 20 years when they decided to resign rather than give up their support for a continuing dialogue on reproductive rights.

Kanawha Hospice and West Virginia Health Right, as well as the state's first residential program for people living with AIDS, were all started at Covenant House.

The Covenant House also helped start the Sojourner's Shelter in Charleston.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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