Senior nun decries way Catholic church views women 

 BADLY TREATED: Sister  Baker says nuns have had a lot to put up with.   Picture:  Marina Neil
BADLY TREATED: Sister Baker says nuns have had a lot to put up with. Picture: Marina Neil

THE Catholic Church was ‘‘patriarchal’’, had regarded women as useful for ‘‘cooking the Sunday lunch roast’’ but not much else, and even today left women feeling ‘‘fairly well overlooked’’ , a senior Hunter nun has told the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry.

Former Lochinvar Sisters of St Joseph congregation leader Sister Lauretta Baker said she was not a feminist because the word was divisive, but in a short burst of evidence she laid bare how a nun felt about the church and its global child sex abuse crisis.

‘‘I think it’s true to say the Catholic Church is as good as it is today because of its religious women, not because of its religious men,’’ she told the inquiry in evidence made public on Friday. ‘‘We have endured much, put up with much.’’

In the 1980s when the first wave of child sex allegations emerged in America, the Catholic Church had ‘‘little regard for women in general, whom they saw as doing the flowers in the church, washing the altar linen, etc etc’’, she said.

Asked by counsel assisting the inquiry Warwick Hunt if that included ‘‘cooking the Sunday lunch roast for priests’’, Sister Baker replied: ‘‘Yes, and never being part of any decision-making – even any kind of consultation, collaboration. I’m sure they didn’t know the meaning of the word, really, in those days, the 1980s.’’

‘‘You know that the Catholic Church is basically patriarchal in its organisation and its systems,’’ she said.

‘‘If you know anything about the Catholic Church and its system then you know that women are still today fairly well overlooked.’’

The NSW Special Commission of Inquiry, headed by Commissioner Margaret Cunneen, SC, is investigating the Catholic Church and police handling of child sex allegations about the late Hunter priests Denis McAlinden and James Fletcher.

Its final report is due in late February.

Sister Baker gave evidence in private at Wallsend on April 19 last year. She finished her five-year term as congregational leader of the Lochinvar Josephites in January.

Asked by Mr Hunt if she had any views about systemic obstacles facing nuns or their superiors who had knowledge or suspicions about clerics ‘‘misbehaving with children’’ in the past, Sister Baker replied: ‘‘Yes, I do. Have you got all day?’’

‘‘The major superiors that I knew in the 1980s would have to have been extremely courageous women to have approached the bishop,’’ she told the inquiry.

‘‘Nobody believed that a priest in such a position of trust would act like that – act in a way that we’ve seen some of them did.

‘‘They (bishops) wouldn’t have believed it, to start with. My conjecture is that they (nuns) would have been patted on the head and ignored.’’

Sister Baker told the inquiry that nuns were ‘‘even further behind the eight ball’’ than other women in the Catholic Church because their vows of chastity, obedience and poverty meant ‘‘many clerics regarded religious women as odd’’.

Sister Baker told the inquiry about a recently-completed two-year papal investigation of nuns in America. It was ordered because of their social justice work with the very poor and disadvantaged.

Josephite nuns in Australia did similar social justice work with the very poor and the homeless, she said.

‘‘We work in areas that at times make us work in opposition to the doctrine of the church, and it’s a question of doctrine or people,’’ she told the inquiry.

‘‘Women choose for people over doctrine. Happily so.’’

In the 1990s nuns had become ‘‘more enlightened and outspoken, and I think we have claimed more and more of our identity’’.

While the Catholic Church was changing, it was ‘‘only very gradually’’.


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