A July 14 article about alleged child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic nuns erroneously reported that five people said at a news conference that they had been abused as minors. Four of the five said they were abused as minors. The fifth said she was in her twenties when the sexual contacts took place. (Published 7/15/04)

Four women and a man who say they are victims of child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic nuns held a news conference yesterday outside the Silver Spring headquarters of an organization of nuns to spotlight what they contend is an unrecognized problem.

"I'm here today because I'm concerned that in the midst of the sex abuse scandal about priests . . . people are not paying attention to the fact that people were sexually abused by nuns and sisters," said Mary Guentner, 46, a social worker from near Milwaukee who said she was sexually abused by a nun for four years, beginning in her senior year of high school.

The five, along with a dozen supporters, delivered a letter to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious requesting that some victims be allowed to speak at the conference's annual meeting next month in Texas.

"We think it's imperative for them to hear our stories," said Landa Mauriello-Vernon, 30, of Hamden, Conn., whose alleged abuse at 17 would be the most recent case involving one of the five.

The request "is being communicated to the executive committee of our national board, who will take their request under consideration," said Sister Annmarie Sanders, spokeswoman for the conference, an association of about 1,000 leaders of women's religious orders with a membership of about 75,000 sisters.

Members of the protest group, sponsored by the victim advocacy organization Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said they want to work with the conference to draw up policies aimed at helping victims heal and preventing future abuse.

The protesters acknowledged there is little research about the extent of child abuse by nuns.

David Clohessy, SNAP's national director, said that "it's safe to say several dozen" nuns accused of abusing minors have been identified publicly. Most cases came to light through litigation. "I can't think of a case where they announced they removed a nun voluntarily," he said.

"We don't know how extensive the problem is, but individual [religious orders] have been addressing this for years," Sanders said.

She said she did not know how many nuns had been accused publicly or dismissed because of child abuse. "We know there have been allegations. That's all we know," she said.

A study of clerical sex abuse of children in the Catholic Church found that 10,667 children allegedly were victimized by 4,392 priests from 1950 to 2002. That study, by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, did not include sexual abuse by nuns.

St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, a church-sponsored facility for troubled clergy and religious, has treated "a few" sisters for inappropriate relationships with women in their twenties, but never for sexually abusing a minor, according to its president, the Rev. Stephen J. Rossetti.

Most research indicates that "women are much less likely to be perpetrators of child sexual abuse than men . . . but it does happen," he said.

After the news conference, about eight protesters went to the offices of the Conference of U.S. Catholic Bishops in Northeast Washington to ask the bishops to encourage the nuns group to work with victims. The bishops, however, have limited authority over nuns. Most religious orders in this country report not to bishops but to a Vatican entity, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

Leaders of men's religious orders in the United States have agreed to follow the U.S. bishops' rules and guidelines for dealing with child sexual abuse by clergy. Those guidelines, adopted by the bishops in 2002 in Dallas, do not apply to women's orders, Sanders said. But she added, "Probably at this time, most [orders] would have a policy in place" for handling such allegations.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. bishops, said they "are very confident that the organizations for men and women religious take the problem of sexual abuse very seriously and would address the matter compassionately and justly."

The people who told their stories yesterday said they hoped that their examples would encourage other victims to report their experiences.

"I think there are a lot more victims of nuns out there who have not come forward," said Mauriello-Vernon. In a telephone interview, she said that she was abused while attending Sacred Heart Academy in Hamden, Conn., and has sued the school and the nun.

Stephen P. Fogertyan attorney for school, said he could not discuss the allegations because of the pending litigation. Guentner, the social worker, said the nun who sexually abused her was 12 years older than she was at the time. The nun died in a car accident, she said.

"The church needs to deal with the issue of female perpetrators and help their victims to heal," Guentner said.

A major obstacle, she said, is "that people don't believe that women are sexually abusive. . . . I really can't think of any group of perpetrators that people are less willing to recognize."

Outside the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in Silver Spring, Mary Guentner, center, who says she is the victim of child sex abuse by a nun, is flanked by Pat Serrano, who holds a picture of friend, Mary Robrecht, who committed suicide after suffering sexual abuse, and Robrecht's uncle Jerry Hammill.