Two survivors share stories of grooming, emotional manipulation and sexual abuse by nuns in the Catholic Church.
By Carol Kuruvilla and Jessica Blank Huffington Post.
The predator nun walked into Trish Cahill’s life straight out of the blue, on a busy summer day in the late 1960s.
Cahill was a teenager back then, wire thin with long, chestnut brown hair framing her face. She was babysitting her cousins in Glen Rock, New Jersey, and there were eight of them to look after ― a big Catholic family, much like her own.
One cousin was playing outside that day and Cahill had another little one in a high chair in the kitchen. It was quite a common child care tactic at the time, she said ― stick a kid in a playpen in the yard and watch through the window while doing chores and taking care of the others inside.
Cahill was washing dishes at the sink when she looked up and spotted a nun, in a full religious habit, hovering over the baby’s playpen.
At that point in her life, the teenager was still trying to make sense of a painful secret ― the sexual abuse she says she experienced just years earlier from her uncle, a Catholic priest. So when she saw the nun leaning over the baby, Cahill said, she sprinted outside to protect the child.
“It was like, ‘You’re not going to touch her, you’re not going to put your hands on her,’” Cahill remembers thinking.
But the nun she met took her by surprise.
Sister Eileen Shaw (pictured above) was 21 years older than Trish Cahill when they first met in Glen Rock, New Jersey. (Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Trish Cahill)
The woman introduced herself as Sister Eileen Shaw, telling Cahill that she was out on a walk from her nearby convent.
“She’s nice to me, which was confusing,” Cahill recalled.
The two struck up a conversation, Cahill said, which led to an invitation for the teen to play guitar at an upcoming Mass. That invitation led to more special treatment, private phone calls and private trips.
In fact, this strange encounter on the lawn was just the beginning of a long period of grooming and emotional manipulation, Cahill said. She didn’t realize until much later that the 12 years of history she had with Shaw was not a relationship ― but sexual abuse.
“She stole from my body, my mind and my soul,” Cahill, now 66, told HuffPost. “The woman was a thief who did not keep her vows.”
For over a year, the Roman Catholic Church has faced a reckoning over the crime of clerical sexual abuse. Catholics are once again demanding answers about bishops’ mishandling of abuse allegations, after high-profile scandals in the U.S., Australia and Chile toppled prominent figures. In response to this renewed call for transparency, Pope Francis acknowledged for the first time ever this February that nuns have been victims of sexual abuse by priests and bishops. Nuns from across the world have come forward to share their stories and demand change.
But stories like Cahill’s, about nuns being the perpetrators of sexual violence, have largely been lost in this new wave of accountability. Although abuse allegations against “women religious,” meaning nuns and Catholic sisters, are rarer than allegations against priests or monks, Cahill and other survivors of nun abuse are convinced that there are more stories out there. But because of gender stereotypes about female perpetrators of abuse, it is much harder to see the broader picture.
As survivors push more states to extend their statutes of limitations for child sex abuse cases, experts believe more of these stories will start coming to light.
“Why are they not coming out?” Cahill mused about fellow survivors of abuse by nuns. “They don’t have any other survivors to see what’s happened. They’re the only one.”
“The boys thought they were the only ones for a hundred years,” Cahill added. But now, she said, “the girls think they’re the only ones.”
A Childhood Lost
Trish Cahill is a 66-year-old survivor living in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. (HuffPost)
Church was an integral part of Cahill’s life growing up. Her family made sure to respect holy days of obligation ― the days in the liturgical calendar that Catholics are expected to attend Mass. Her parents sent her and her siblings to Catholic schools. Cahill said she was taught from a very young age to believe that heaven and hell were real places where people would be sent based on their earthly deeds.
So when her uncle ― the priest ― allegedly threatened that she would “burn and blister in the fires of hell” if she told anyone about the sexual abuse he was inflicting on her, Cahill said she believed him.
Cahill said the alleged abuse from the Rev. Daniel F.M. Millard, who died in 1973, happened between the ages of 5 and 13. (The Diocese of Camden told HuffPost that Millard’s name was not on a recently released list of credibly accused priests because Cahill’s allegation against Millard ― “the only accusation ever received about him,” it said ― “was deemed not credible.” The diocese also pointed to a 2005 article in which a family member questioned Cahill’s reliability. The diocese said it has not been provided with additional information since 2002.)
Trish Cahill claims she was abused as a child by her uncle, the Rev. Daniel F.M. Millard. (Courtesy Trish Cahill)
Because of the abuse Cahill claims happened to her as a little girl, when she met Shaw, she was already feeling vulnerable and lost.
At the time, Shaw was a teacher at St. Catherine School in Glen Rock. Cahill was a student at Paramus Catholic Girls’ High School, which was staffed by Shaw’s religious order, the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth.
Back then, Cahill said, she was just flattered that an adult who seemed so kind and caring was paying attention to her.
“For her to be nice to me was just fantastic. She cared like she wanted to be with me. She was 36. I was 15. Who gets to hang out with a 36-year-old?” Cahill said. “Everything was in my favor.”
Looking back, the unusual nature of the pairing seems so obvious, Cahill said. She said she now wishes she had somebody “just watching out for me.”
Cahill remembers Shaw calling her at home for private, scheduled chats. The nun gave the teen gifts. Cahill said she soon felt safe enough to confide in Shaw about her uncle’s abuse.
About three months after they first met, Shaw allegedly invited Cahill to her bedroom at St. Catherine Convent ― which is where the abuse first turned physical.
In the years afterward, Shaw used to pull the teenager out of high school in the middle of the day, Cahill said. They would go to a nearby motel, where the pair would stay for hours.
“Then she’d bring me back to school, so I was there for dismissal,” Cahill said. “Nobody questions a nun.”
Trish Cahill is pictured with Sister Eileen Shaw in this photo collage. Cahill said Shaw sexually abused her throughout high school. The pair remained close until Cahill was about 27 years old. (Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Trish Cahill)
They started taking trips together ― to Shaw’s parents’ house and vacation home, to religious retreat houses, to Atlantic City, to the Meadowlands Racetrack. They traveled all over the East Coast, Cahill said, from Florida to Quebec. They went on camping trips and slept in the same sleeping bag, she said. Shaw allegedly taught Cahill how to gamble on horse races and introduced her to alcohol and drugs. The nun told her how to dress and fashion her hair, and discouraged her from dating boys, Cahill said. They once went to a gay bar in New York City’s Village neighborhood, she said.
“She told me she loved me,” Cahill said. “I believed it.”
Shaw had a medal inscribed with the religious name she took when entering her religious order ― Sister Marian Anthony. That medal took on another meaning during their time together, Cahill said.
“She would take it off of herself at night and put it on me, and then we would have sex. Not a relationship, sex,” Cahill said. “And then, in the morning, it would go back on her. It was the seal of confessional.”
Cahill told HuffPost that members of the Sisters of Charity knew or at least suspected that she was spending an inordinate amount of time alone with Shaw.
Now we have the nuns abuse story.
Some nuns were quite normal and very well integrated.
Others were either neurotic or psychotic.
There was a lot of lesbianism in convents.
Lesbian nuns targeted girls and girl teenagers.
I attended a convent school in Carlow in the late 1950s.
One of the nuns that taught me was a raging sadist and loved doing out corporal punishment.
A lot of girls were forced into convents by ambitious Catholic families.
Their reproductive drive was denied and it made them crazy.
In my earlier years as a priest I was stalked by two nuns.
They acted crazily and it was hard coping with them.
Abuse by nuns is a large part of the RCC system.