Washington: Forty percent of nuns in the United States have been sexually abused, often by a priest or another nun, according to an independent study's findings, carried by the St Louis Post-Dispatch paper.
The report comes at a sensitive time for the US Catholic Church, which is reeling under disclosures made in the past year about sex abuse involving priests and children.
The survey, conducted by researchers at St Louis University and paid for in part by several orders of Catholic nuns, was completed in 1996 but kept under wraps because Catholic officials feared the information would create a scandal.
It found that about 34 000 nuns in the US may have experienced some form of sexual abuse. Many of the nuns said the abuse left them feeling anger, shame, anxiety and depression. Some attempted suicide.
"These women have been the stalwarts of the church for centuries and a significant percentage of them have been victimised because of the structure of the very institution to which they have dedicated their lives," said John Chibnall, a research psychologist at St Louis University and co-author of the study.
Another researcher, Ann Wolf, said the problem had received far too little attention from the Catholic hierarchy.
"The bishops appear to be only looking at child sexual abuse, but the problem is bigger than that," she said.
Nearly one in five of the nuns in the study said she had been sexually abused as a child. Most of the abuse came at the hands of a male relative, but about 9% of the cases involved a priest, nun or other member of the church, the newspaper said.
For the study, 1 164 nuns representing 123 religious orders completed a questionnaire of 15 pages.
The researchers said the figures were likely to underestimate the phenomenon of sexual victimisation of nuns.
"The fear and pain of disclosure would be sufficient to discourage some sisters from responding." - Sapa-AFP