Nun Writes First-Ever Dissertation About Priest-on-Nun Sex Abuse at Vatican-Approved University

Sister Makamatine Lembo, a Togolese nun, made history on Thursday when she successfully defended her dissertation on the sexual abuse of nuns by priests at a Vatican-sanctioned university and won her degree—and summa cum laude honors—in the process, reported U.S. News and World Report and the Associated Press.

Lembo's dissertation, given at Pontifical Gregorian University, focused on nine nuns victimized by priests in five sub-Saharan countries and the relational elements therein. Her conclusion—that decades-old entrenchments of power imbalances between the nuns and priests made consent impossible, as it often involved priests trading money with impoverished sisters in exchange for sex after a years-long process of grooming—relationships that, Lembo said, the nuns felt trapped into and couldn't escape.

Three nuns listen to the Inauguration Mass for Pope Francis in St Peter's Square on March 19, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. Sister Makamatine Lembo was awarded summa cum laude for successfully defending her dissertation about priest sexual abuse of nuns in sub-Sahara areas. Spencer Platt/Getty

Lembo realized these exchanges of sex for cash were not consensual when her fellow sisters shared a feeling of spiritual torment with her, telling her the relationships caused them emotional distress. She was inspired to embark on her study because of these women.

Sister Lembo's examiners praised her courage in pointed out and questioning these entrenched authorities.

Examiner Sister Brenda Dolphin praised Sister Lembo "on behalf of consecrated women all over the world."

"After these experiences, they live, but they don't live," said Lembo of the sisters who participated in her research to the Associated Press.

"I said, 'Why, we have to do something to free these women. We have to help her have the courage to say "'no."'"

Pope Francis has said that the church must do better in treating cases of sexual abuse within its ranks—but as of Lembo's examiners pointed out, multiple reports of sexual misconduct by priests have emerged since Pope Francis' statement without further comment by the Vatican.

The curtain of silence around the abuse of nuns by priests began to be lifted by an article in the February Women Church World, a supplement of the official Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, written by editor Lucetta Scaraffia.

"These nuns believe they're the guilty ones for having seduced that holy man into committing sin," she said. "Because that's what they've always been taught."

She pointed out that raped nuns who are impregnated by priests are often shed from their orders and forced to raise their children with no support from the church. "These poor women are forced to leave...and live alone raising their child with no help," she says. "Sometimes they're forced to have abortions—paid by the priest because nuns have no money."