Tuesday, November 15, 2005


Bronx nun, 68, goes public about being abused by priest in 1950s

LARCHMONT, N.Y. -- A 68-year-old nun who is an accomplished educator and counselor told a crowd of Catholics on Monday night that she was abused from the age of 11 by a priest who took advantage of her grief when her big sister died in a car crash.

"He would hug me ... and then he would be all over me," Sister Claire Smith said. "It was the 1950s, and I was an Irish Catholic girl from the Bronx. I thought priests were almost godlike."

The abuse continued until she was 18, she said, and "I was robbed of my growing up."

Smith, who has multiple sclerosis and broke her legs in an accident two weeks ago, spoke from a motorized wheelchair at the Larchmont Avenue Presbyterian Church to the local chapter of Voice of the Faithful, an organization that supports victims of priests' abuse and seeks a larger voice in church governance.

She said she became an Ursuline nun because she admired the nuns of the parish, but "hiding may have been a part of it." Because of the abuse, she considered herself unfit for romance and marriage, she said, because "Who would ever have me? I'm used goods."

But she made "a creative U-turn," stopped blaming herself, got psychiatric help and dedicated herself to a robust career. She was an antiwar and civil rights activist, earned graduate degrees in theology and counseling, taught at the College of New Rochelle and put in time as principal at her old school in the Bronx.

She still does counseling, sometimes for priests and nuns.

"Strange to say, the experience of being abused has helped sometimes when I counsel others who had the same experience," she said.

One woman in the audience criticized Smith for putting up with abuse when she was as old as 18. But Smith said she kept it to herself into her 40s because in the years before the scandal of abusive priests broke nationwide, "No one would have believed me. People would hate me if I told them."

Smith refused to name the priest, who she said is now dead, partly because she signed a confidentiality agreement with the Archdiocese of New York when she reported the abuse in the 1980s and received "a paltry sum" for counseling.

An archdiocese spokesman, Joseph Zwilling, said he was aware of Smith's story but couldn't comment on her claims. He said, however, that three years ago the archdiocese released people from such confidentiality agreements, leaving Smith free to name the priest.

Smith said she decided to go public after she mentioned the abuse to a writer profiling her for the College of New Rochelle alumni magazine.

"I figured, you never know who might be in the audience, waiting to hear from someone who overcame it," she said.

Smith said that once she had come to terms with her experience, she intended to confront the priest about it. But when she found him, he was in a nursing home and "rather confused. He could barely get my name."

"I decided I was not going to send him to his grave with the burden I was carrying," she said. "I forgave his limitations, and I forgave myself for waiting so long to get over what happened to me."

See also, the never-ending chronicle of church-related crime.

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