For the national survey, the researchers went to the Maryland-based Leadership Conference of Women Religious and asked for contact information for the 538 orders in the leadership group. Of those orders, 123 agreed to take part in the survey and supplied researchers with the names and addresses of their members. From the 29,000 names provided, researchers used random sampling to pare the list to 2,500 nuns who were sent questionnaires. Of those women, 1,164 returned completed surveys. The average age of the nuns surveyed was 62; the average time in religious life was 42
Nearly one in five nuns said she had been sexually abused as a child. While most of the abuse came at the hands of a male family member, about 9 percent of the cases were attributed to abuse by priests, nuns or other religious people.
One in eight nuns said she had been sexually exploited. Of those, nearly three of every four maintained she was victimized by a priest, nun or other religious person. The exploitation included everything from pressure for "dates" to requests for sexual favors to sexual intercourse. Two of every five nuns who said they had been sexually exploited said the exploitation involved some form of genital contact.
Slightly fewer than one in 10 nuns said she was the focus of sexual harassment at least once during her religious life. Almost half of those were reported to be at the hands of priests, nuns or other religious people. More than half of the total harassment cases involved some type of physical contact, according to the survey.
In their report, the researchers noted that they believe the figures are more likely to underestimate rather than overestimate the true prevalence of sexual victimization among sisters. "The fear and pain of disclosure would be sufficient enough to discourage responding in some sisters," the report said.
The results of the nun survey on abuse seem to be in line with many other surveys of women. National surveys indicate that about 20 percent to 27 percent of all women have been sexually abused as children.
The harassment figure for nuns would appear to be lower. In a 1994 Louis Harris and Associates national survey, 31 percent of women claimed to have been harassed at work.