44,000 Catholic Women Demand Answers From Pope Francis Over Sex Abuse Crisis

More than 44,000 Catholic women have signed a letter pressing Pope Francis to explain exactly when and how he found out about sexual abuse and misconduct allegations against a high-ranking former cardinal.

“Our hearts are broken, our faith tested, by the escalating crisis engulfing our beloved Church,” states the passionately worded letter organized by the Catholic Women’s Forum. “We are angry, betrayed and disillusioned.”

“We, your flock, deserve your answers now.”

For the past two weeks, Francis’ papacy has been thrown into crisis by claims that U.S. cardinals and Vatican officials covered up for then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Even though the Vatican has known about his allegedly abusive behavior with seminarians since at least 2000, McCarrick received clerical promotions and continued publicly representing the church, The Associated Press reports.

The accusations against Francis himself were brought up by the Vatican’s former U.S. ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano. The archbishop, who has long been a critic of the Argentine pontiff, claims Francis rehabilitated McCarrick, lifting canonical sanctions imposed by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.

Francis officially removed McCarrick from ministry in June after a church investigation determined that he had sexually abused an altar boy in 1971. McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals the following month.

Soon after Vigano’s allegations came to light, Francis told reporters that he would “not say a single word” on the subject and suggested that journalists read Vigano’s claims and make up their own minds.

The archbishop’s accusations and Francis’ silence have roiled the U.S. Catholic Church, with some in the hierarchy coming to the pope’s defense while others demand a thorough investigation. On Tuesday, the Vatican said Francis will meet with a delegation of U.S. cardinals and bishops about the issue on Thursday.

Thousands of Catholic women want better answers from Pope Francis. (Photo: Giulio Origlia via Getty Images)

The thousands of signatures on the letter to Pope Francis are evidence of how deeply this crisis has affected Catholic women, who see themselves as the backbone of the church.

The letter from the Catholic Women’s Forum, an international network that seeks to amplify the voices of faithful Catholic women, has continued to gather signatures since it was first published on Aug. 30. Signers include prominent female American Catholic theologians, professors, business executives, writers and speakers. 

Mary Rice Hasson, the forum’s director, told HuffPost that the group’s web team is working hard to delete duplicate signatures. They are also deleting any signatures from men, who are being asked to sign a separate online letter.

The women’s letter has already been sent to the pope twice ― through personal channels and through the apostolic nuncio in Washington, D.C. Hasson said via email that as long as the number of signatures continues to swell, the organization will continue to send it to Francis weekly.

Hasson added that she’s not surprised by the surge of signatures, given the “depth of feeling” around this issue. Although the number of abuse cases involving priests dropped sharply after the Catholic Church adopted reforms in 2002, she said the church is still falling short in holding the hierarchy accountable and acknowledging sexual misconduct by bishops and cardinals.

“These women love our Church, and they are heartbroken and appalled, not only at the underlying abuse, but also by an ecclesial culture that looked the other way in the face of egregious sexual abuse and misconduct,” Hasson wrote.

The letter to the pope specifically states that the women want to know when Francis learned about McCarrick’s alleged sexual misconduct and abuse, and whether Francis released the former cardinal from any restrictions imposed by Benedict. 

The women's letter reminds the pope that they "are not second-class Catholics to be brushed off while bishops and cardinals handle matters privately." (Photo: FILIPPO MONTEFORTE via Getty Images)

In the letter, the Catholic Women’s Forum also takes the opportunity to remind Francis how important women are to the church. 

Fifty-four percent of American Catholics are women, according to the Pew Research Center. Catholic women are more likely than men to say they attend Mass at least once a week (43 percent vs. 35 percent) and more likely to say they pray every day (67 percent vs. 49 percent).

“We are not second-class Catholics to be brushed off while bishops and cardinals handle matters privately,” the letter states. “We are the hands, the feet, and the heart of the Church. In short, we are the Church, every bit as much as the cardinals and bishops around you.”

Hasson said she was heartened by reports that the Vatican is preparing a response to Vigano’s allegations, describing it as simply “the right thing to do.”

“Our Church leaders need to realize that we cannot go back to ‘business as usual,’ absent significant efforts to address the situation,” Hasson said.

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St. Catherine of Siena

The second-youngest of 25 children, Catherine of Siena is one of only two patron saints of Italy. Catherine believed herself to be spiritually wed to Jesus and committed herself to a monastic life as a teenager. She was a peacemaker during the 1368 revolution in Siena and convinced Pope Gregory XI to return the papacy to Rome during a tumultuous time for the Catholic Church. One story from her life tells of Jesus appearing to her with a heart in his hands and saying, “Dearest daughter, as I took your heart away from you the other day, now, you see, I am giving you mine, so that you can go on living with it for ever.” She was canonized in 1461.

Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc grew up a peasant in medieval France and reportedly started hearing the voices of saints from a young age. At the age of 18, Joan believed that God had chosen her to lead France to victory in its ongoing war with England. The precocious Joan convinced crowned prince Charles of Valois to allow her to lead a the country’s army to Orléans, where it defeated the English and their French allies, the Burgundians. She was subsequently captured by Anglo-Burgundian forces, tried for heresy and burned at the stake in 1431. She was just 19 years old when she died. The Catholic Church canonized her in 1920.

Hildegard von Bingen

Hildegard von Bingen was a Benedictine abbess who lived between 1098 and 1179. Hildegard became a nun as a teenager, though she had received divine visions since early childhood. It wasn’t until her 40s that Hildegard began writing a record of these visions, which came to be known as Scivias (Know the Ways). She went on to write other texts documenting her philosophy and also composed short works on medicine, natural history, music and more. Bishops, popes, and kings consulted her at a time when few women engaged in the political domain. She was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.

St. Teresa of Avila

Teresa of Avila was born in Spain during the 16th century to a well-to-do family. Teresa was fascinated by stories of the Christian saints and martyrs from a young age and explored these interests through mystical games she played with her brother, Roderigo. Her early efforts to join a convent were interrupted by the disapproval of her father, as well as several bouts of malaria. She turned instead to quiet prayer and contemplation and attained what she described in her autobiography as the "prayer of union," in which she felt her soul absorbed into God’s power. She went on to join a convent and was said to have at one point restored her young nephew to health after he was crushed by a fallen wall. The episode was presented at the process for Teresa's canonization, which took place in 1662.

St. Catherine of Genoa

Born in 1447, Catherine of Genoa is perhaps best known for her visions of and treatise on purgatory. She conceptualized purgatory as an interior, rather than exterior, fire which individuals experience within themselves. “The soul presents itself to God still bound to the desires and suffering that derive from sin and this makes it impossible for it to enjoy the beatific vision of God,” Catherine wrote in her book of revelations. She developed a deep relationship with God which Pope Benedict XVI described as a “unitive life.” Catherine also dedicated her life to caring for the sick, which she did at the Pammatone Hospital until her death in 1510. She was canonized in 1737.

St. Clare of Assisi

Clare of Assisi shunned a life of luxury in her wealthy Italian family to devote herself to the burgeoning order of Francis of Assisi. When her parents promised her hand in marriage to a wealthy man in 1211, Clare fled for the Porziuncola Chapel and was taken in by Francis. She took vows dedicating her life to God, and Francis placed Clare provisionally with the Benedictine nuns of San Paolo. Her family, furious at Clare’s secret flight, went there to try to drag her home by force, but Clare was resolute. Clare’s piety was so profound that her sister, mother and several other female relatives eventually came to live with her and be her disciples in her convent outside Assisi. The group came to be known as the “Poor Clares” and walked barefoot, slept on the ground, abstained from meat, and spoke only when necessary. Clare died in 1253 and was canonized two years later by Pope Alexander IV.

Thérèse of Lisieux

Born in France in 1873, Thérèse of Lisieux experienced a mystical union with Christ while undergoing study for her First Communion in 1884. She entered the Carmel of Lisieux, a Carmelite hermitage, in 1888 and made a profession of religious devotion in 1890. She became ill and died at the young age of 24, but her writings and revelations formed the basis for widespread veneration after her death. Affectionately called The Little Flower, Thérèse believed that children have an aptitude for spiritual experience, which adults should model. "What matters in life," she wrote, "is not great deeds, but great love." She was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1925.

Julian of Norwich

Little is known about Julian of Norwich, an English mystic who lived from 1342 until roughly 1430. Information about her comes primarily from her Revelations of Divine Love in Sixteen Showings, the book in which Julian recorded her divine visions. In 1373, she became ill and nearly died within a matter of days. A priest came to her bedside and show her an image of Christ, after which Julian recovered and received the 16 revelations that she recorded in her book. God later revealed to her the meaning of these visions, which she recorded as: “‘Would you learn to see clearly your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Learn it well: Love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love.... Why did he show it to you? For Love’.... Thus I was taught that Love was our Lord’s meaning.” She chose to live a contemplative and reclusive life until her death.

St. Bridget of Sweden

Unlike many of her counterparts, Bridget of Sweden did not devote herself fully to a religious life until her 40s when her husband died in 1344. Reportedly distraught after his death, Bridget spent long hours in prayer beside her husband’s grave at the abbey of Alvastra. There she believed God spoke to her, telling her to “be my bride and my canal.” He gave her the task of founding new religious order, and she went on to start the Brigittines, or the Order of St. Saviour. Both men and women joined the community, with separate cloisters. They lived in poor convents and were instructed to give all surplus income to the poor. In 1350, Bridget braved the plague, which was ravaging Europe, to pilgrimage to Rome in order to obtain authorization for her new order from the pope. It would be 20 years before she received this authorization, but Bridget quickly became known throughout Europe for her piety. She was canonized in 1391, less than 20 years after her death.

St. Beatrice of Silva

Born in 1424, Beatrice of Silva abandoned a court life with Princess Isabel of Portugal to enter a Cistercian convent in Toledo. She lived at the convent until 1484, when she believed God summoned her to found a religious order. She started the Congregation of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where she lived and served as superior until her death circa 1492. Shortly before Beatrice’s death, Pope Innocent VIII approved a the convent’s adoption of the Cistercian rule, which consisted of three guidelines: be silent and submissive to God’s direction; strive for a life of obscurity and piety; and love everyone with a holy love. Beatrice reportedly received a vision of the Virgin Mary dressed in a white habit with a white scapular and blue mantle, which formed the basis of the dress for her order. Pope Paul VI canonized St. Beatrice in 1976.

St. Angela of Foligno

Angela of Foligno was a Franciscan mystic who was born into a prestigious family and married at the age of 20. A series of events, which included a violent earthquake in 1279 and an ongoing war against Perugia lead her to call upon St Francis, who appeared to her in a vision and instructed her to go to confession. Three years later, her mother, husband and all of her children died in the span of a few months. Angela then sold her possessions and in 1291 enrolled in the Third Order of St Francis. At 43, Angela had a vision of God’s love while she was making a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Francis of Assisi. She dictated her experiences in The Book of the Experience of the Truly Faithful. Pope Francis canonized Angela of Foligno in 2013.

Mechthild of Magdeburg

Like Hadewijch, Mechthild of Magdeburg was part of the Beguine community. The German mystic decided at age 22 to devote her life to God and authored a text entitled The Flowing Light of the Godhead. She entered the convent of Helfta in 1270 and used poetry to express her divine revelations. On the first page of The Flowing Light, Mechthild wrote: “I have been put on my guard about this book, and certain people have warned me that, unless I have it buried, it will be burnt. Yet, I in my weakness have written it, because I dared not hide the gift that is in it.”

Hadewijch

Hadewijch was a Flemish mystic who was part of the Beguine movement, a network of ascetic and philanthropic communities of women that arose primarily in the Netherlands in the 13th century. Little is known about her life outside of her writings, which include a collection of letters on the spiritual life of the Beguines, as well as a book of visions. According to Dr. Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff, a comparative literature professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Hadewijch “believed that the soul, created by God in his own image, longs to be one with divine love again, ‘to become God with God.’”

This article originally appeared on HuffPost.