Myra 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 says she carries a separate, secret torment that began some 25 years ago. It reaches not from the family grave, she says, but from her days as a student at a Catholic middle school in southwest Louisiana.
In 1977 at Opelousas Catholic Middle School, 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 or at the Marianites of Holy Cross motherhouse in New Orleans, Porte taught her about sex, coaxing the 12-year-old into a physical relationship that lasted more than two years.
"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 would start."
The grooming began inconspicuously, Hidalgo recalls: it started with a card that read, "You are special ... as a student and a friend." The two 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. Hidalgo says she and Porte began to spend more time together away from school -- and when Hidalgo's parents would go out of town, Porte would babysit her at the family home in Opelousas.
Porte now lives in Illinois and did not return calls and emails for comment for this story. Sister Mary Kay Kinberger, congregational leader of the Marianites, issued the following statement in response to Gambit Weekly inquiries: "Recently our congregation received a complaint from an adult alleging sexual abuse by one of our sisters in regards to a minor which occurred more than 20 years ago. In 1980 this allegation was reported to the provincial superior and action was taken. The sister was removed from her position. The Congregation is striving to provide a pastoral and healing response to this very painful situation."
Kinberger's statement didn't identify the nun involved, but her written response to a June 2002 phone call from Hidalgo was more specific: "Following diocesan policy and our own Marianite policy handbook, the sister involved in this allegation has been removed from her present living and ministering situation. ... The general council is in the midst of a major investigation regarding this situation."
Kinberger did not return further calls seeking clarification.
For years, Hidalgo thought Porte was out of the ministry. In June of this year, she learned that Porte had been sent 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. Msgr. Jim Margason, vicar general for the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., says he was notified of Porte's suspension, but has not been contacted with a formal complaint against her. He says he wouldn't be, because Porte was not "employed by the diocese and was not assigned to any ministry in the diocese."
In addition, Margason says because the complaint against Porte stems from an incident from outside the diocese, it would not be covered by the diocese's broader sexual misconduct policy. The case also would not be reviewed by the Fitness for Ministry Review Board -- because that board only treats allegations of sexual misconduct with a minor against clergy, such as deacons, priests or bishops.
Hidalgo says she knew she wasn't the only naive young girl to have a sexual encounter with a trusted nun. A Gambit Weekly 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 prosecution.
"With all this stuff going on, they need to go back and investigate nuns, too," says Hidalgo. "I knew back then I wasn't the only one. 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."
Currently, no national standard exists on how religious orders respond to sexual abuse allegations directed against nuns. The Leadership Congregation of Women Religious (LCWR), a national organization with more than 1,000 members who represent about 76,000 sisters in the United States, declined to participate in the widely publicized Bishop's Charter signed in Dallas in June, stating that the group was not involved in the formulation of the policy and would not be directly affected 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 among sisters will not be formally discussed at this month's annual LCWR meeting, to be held Aug. 17-21 in St. Louis.
Leading experts on clergy abuse, and an author of a book on abusive nuns, say that 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 are the exception. Studies show they compose about 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 accused of sexual abuse. He believes most of them had multiple victims. "At least half we've had confirmation there was somebody else," says Schoener.
Ashley Hill, who researched the subject for eight years for her book Habits of Sin, says she 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 they were abused by nuns. Six of those cases involve male victims.
A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former priest with more than 35 years 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 easier without suspicion.
Sipe says female abusers' approach typically involves "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 abusive nuns are severely mentally and emotionally disturbed.
Sipe was among those who interviewed victims in conjunction with one of the most notorious recent cases involving nuns, 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 more than 100 new accusations.
Joey Barquin, now 52, says that 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." He recalls being sodomized on several occasions and says he has the scars to prove it.
He says the abuse occurred frequently during his years at the orphanage, until May 1953, when Joseph Barquin, a Burlington shoe store owner, and his wife, Aurora, adopted 5-year-old Joseph. "Love saved me," says Barquin of the late spring day his new parents came to bring him home.
Sipe says anecdotal evidence suggests abusive nuns tend to be more sadistic than abusive priests, often mixing violence with their sexual forays -- much as 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."
For decades, Joey Barquin never mentioned the alleged abuse to his family. And his family, given rumors of rampant abuse at the orphanage, never asked. He attended elementary school in Vermont through eighth grade, and when his family moved to Boca Raton, Fla., he enrolled in boarding school. He went on to college, then worked as an ocean diver and a shipwreck salvager, and helped kick off an Internet startup.
In his early 40s, he met a psychotherapist, a woman who would become his wife. "She saw the scars, she said you need help with this," he says.
In 1993, Barquin confronted the Diocese of Burlington, which ran the orphanage. Officials there dismissed the allegation, Barquin says. Three years later, after Barquin led a much-publicized attack on the orphanage, the diocese settled the claim for an undisclosed amount, reportedly a six-figure settlement. By coming forward, Barquin encouraged scores more victims to tell their stories. It became, he says, the "Schindler's List" of Vermont.
Philip White, a Montpelier, Vt., attorney who briefly represented Barquin, 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.
In February of this year, the Rev. Kenneth A. Angell of the Diocese of Burlington released a statement on sexual abuse. "In my early years here in Burlington we dealt with a number of allegations of abuse at the former St. Joseph's Orphanage, most of them going back 30, 40 and 50 years," he said. "This was a difficult time but we worked through it with compassion and fairness to those who had been hurt and also to those who had dedicated their lives to the care of orphans, which was at that time a great need."
Sam Hemingway, a columnist and reporter who covered the story 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," says Hemingway.
The psychological effects of sexual abuse are well documented. Victims become withdrawn, insecure, often angry, and lash out at others. In addition, for some victims of nuns, the downside of being a teacher's pet can be exacerbated in a Catholic school 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.
Male victims can have trouble finding people who believe them, or even 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 laughing-stock. 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 is inherently more confusing because 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.
The neatly compartmentalized "victim's handbook" profile -- shy, insecure, craving attention -- has never been altogether accurate, says Schoener. But he identifies one trait that might make someone the perfect mark for an abusive member of the clergy. "The more devout, the easier the target," he says. "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 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 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 substitute teacher.
Her daughter, Mary, the middle of seven children, was two years old when the family moved into their new home. It would be three years before she would attend St. Catherine's kindergarten.
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, lavishing 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, Robrecht says, 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."
Robrecht says that nearly two years passed before she would learn 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 says, she, her husband Joe, and her brother, Jerry Hammell, complained to Sister Andre's mother superior. At first, she says, the mother superior dismissed the allegation. "She said, 'You're wrong. She's such a lovely person,'" Robrecht recalls. But the next day, the mother superior called and asked to meet with the family, says Robrecht.
Neither Sister Andre nor the mother superior could be located for comment for this story.
Robrecht recalls what happened next: the mother superior went to Connecticut to visit with Sister Andre, but the nun was nowhere to be found. But the mother superior did not return empty handed. She came back with "boxes of papers and journals" of Sister Andre's. 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." Robrecht says that Sister Andre, 35 at the time the allegations were made, had already served in three dioceses.
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 that she doesn't know the current whereabouts of Sister Andre or the mother superior who supervised her, and that the order has not investigated any charges, because they haven't received any complaints. Sister Doyle says she had talked with the Robrecht family recently -- but that Betty Robrecht merely inquired about the last name of Sister Andre and the name of the mother superior who supervised her at the time specified in the allegation.
Robrecht did initially talk to an attorney about a possible lawsuit, but decided "it would be best" to try and put it all in the past. The lawyer, Lou Anzalone of Florham Park, N.J., can still recall the conversation decades later. "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."
And after all, 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 -- the first a current one, and the other from a few years earlier, before the alleged abuse. The difference was startling. "There was no resemblance to the girl that she was, she had this blank stare on her face."
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, she says, her daughter would struggle with alcoholism and contemplate suicide often. She attended Keane College in Union, N.J., for about a month, then worked a variety of jobs -- including florist, plumber and journalist.
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 more."
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, she says, she's thankful.
It took years to sort out the 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 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 seems to have mixed emotions about her experience. She says that mixed into her anger is an undeniable urge to protect the woman she considered a friend.
"I do recognize it's important to identify her, but ... 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 believes 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. 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. She says her mother, when told of the abuse by a church official, swore her 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.
In 1988, Hidalgo says, she first faced the relationship with Porte for what it was: a grown adult sexually abusing a child. Soon after, she tracked Porte down. The nun was living in St. Louis and taking classes for an advanced degree. Hidalgo says she 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.' Then she just lashed out at me."
Hidalgo destroyed all the letters Porte had sent her through the years -- some as recent as 1987. "I have a rosary that she gave me and that's it."
"I felt some relief for having confronted her and naming what it was that happened between us," she says. "I was hoping that she would apologize and show some remorse, but she didn't. I just remember hanging up on her and saying that I never wanted to talk to her again."
CHARGES OF ABUSE Although the number of national cases alleging sexual abuse by nuns is significantly less than that of cases involving priests and other male clergy, at least a dozen lawsuits charging abuse by nuns have been filed in courthouses across the country. Several suits have been settled; none are known to have resulted in criminal prosecution.
-- 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, said that Stuppy acknowledged the sexual contact, but claimed it was a "spiritual" endeavor, not for sexual gratification. The suit was settled in 1993.
-- In 1990, Vicki R. Long of Riverdale, Ga., 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. That same year, Atlanta archbishop Eugene A. Marino resigned after acknowledging he'd had an adult sexual relationship with Long.
-- In 1993, a 53-year-old Texas woman sued the Archdiocese of San Antonio, claiming she was abused by a nun when she was between the ages of 5 and 14. The woman said she recovered the memory that had been repressed for more than 40 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.
-- In 1996, the Diocese of Detroit, Dominican High School of Detroit and the Adrian Dominican Sisters settled a lawsuit filed by a woman who alleged 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.
-- In 2000, a man who said he recovered memories of sexual abuse 20 years earlier settled a suit for an undisclosed amount. The man claimed a nun from School Sisters of Notre Dame in Mankato, Minn., abused him repeatedly in late 1978 and early 1979, when he was in the first grade at St. Michael's Catholic School in St. Michael, Minn.
-- In 2000, the Archdiocese of New York settled a case brought by a Bronx man who alleged that 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. 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 by offering 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.