It was a #MeToo moment from the Vatican with a seemingly unlikely accuser – a nun.
Vatican correspondent Nicole Winfield’s interview with a nun, who broke a 20-year-silence about being physically assaulted by an Italian priest, and reporting by Uganda correspondent Rodney Muhumuza about the scope of abuse in Africa, resulted in the AP being the first news organization to chronicle the global impact on nuns of the #MeToo movement.
Their story, which included expert analysis and exclusive Vatican comment urging nuns to report and bishops to sanction abusive priests, earns the Beat of the Week.
The AP story amplified the narrative of the clergy sex abuse scandal in a crucial new way by adding adult nuns to the long list of victims of predator priests and bishops.
It ran at the moment when the Catholic Church in general, and in the U.S. in particular, was focused on revelations that adult seminarians were victims of one of the most prominent U.S. cardinals, Theodore McCarrick.
Winfield started looking into the problem of sexual violence against nuns months ago after the Vatican's own women's magazine published an expose of how religious sisters are used – and abused – by the Catholic Church to cook and clean for bishops and cardinals for next-to-no pay.
Tipped off that the exploitation wasn’t just physical labor but sexual, Winfield began to investigate and asked Muhumuza in Kampala to help, given the worst abuses have long been reported in Africa.
Winfield contacted religious orders, advocacy groups and other Vatican-related sources to try to find anyone willing to speak about a subject cloaked in secrecy. It wasn’t easy. If the sexual abuse of children by priests was once hidden behind walls of silence, the sexual abuse of nuns remains taboo, given the institutional implications of nuns speaking out against the priests who run the church.
Winfield was tipped off that the exploitation of nuns wasn’t just physical labor, but sexual abuse too. She was put in touch with a religious sister who broke her decades-long silence.
But through word of mouth, Winfield was put in touch with a religious sister who broke her long silence to tell her story. The sister told of how a priest forced himself on her during confession, an assault that so traumatized her that she no longer goes to confession regularly. “It opened a great wound inside of me,” she told Winfield.
Muhumuza, meanwhile, provided up-to-date information about the many cases in Uganda and secured comment from the head of the Catholic Church there. In one case, he found a priest had been sanctioned for having spoken out about the problem.
With recent cases in Chile and India starting to surface, Winfield and Muhumuza proposed to international enterprise editor Mary Rajkumar that they move the story sooner rather than later to plant the AP flag, knowing that others were pursuing it.
Muhumuza reported on the many abuse cases in Uganda and found a priest had been sanctioned for speaking out about the problem.
The story had enormous impact.
The largest association of U.S. nuns issued a statement in response to the AP report demanding church authorities “take action to end a culture of silence, hold abusers accountable, and provide support to those abused.” Winfield's follow-up reported that The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80 percent of U.S. Catholic sisters, reached out individually to its members and urged them to come forward if they knew of cases of abuse.
For two days, the story led engagement on APNews. By the third day, it was still engaging readers for more than two minutes. It was a Top Ten in Mobile on Friday with 12,060 retweets and again on Saturday with a new headline with 11,596 retweets.
The New York Times ran the full 2,000-word story twice, under different headlines, and the story was referenced with credit by Newsweek in its story about McCarrick’s downfall. America, the magazine of the U.S. Jesuits and an AP client, ran it in full on its website, showing its resonance even among clergy. The story was translated by AP’s Italian partner ANSA and picked up online with full credit by Italian dailies Corriere della Sera and Il Messaggero. The Spanish version was used online by Mexico’s El Universal.
The Rev. Jim Martin, a prominent American Jesuit and commentator, tweeted it with the following comment: “Painful but necessary reading for all Catholics.”
For their resourcefulness and initiative in producing a timely story with global reach, Winfield and Muhumuza share this week’s Beat of the Week award.