Sister Mary Hughes stands inside the chapel of The Dominican...

Sister Mary Hughes stands inside the chapel of The Dominican Sisters of Amityville. (June 8, 2012) Credit: Steve Pfost

Nuns across the United States are fighting back against a controversial Vatican crackdown on their main leadership organization, and one of the group's heads -- a religious sister with the Dominican order in Amityville -- is helping to lead the charge.

Sister Mary Hughes, immediate past president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, said she was stunned by the recent Vatican report that accused U.S. nuns of promoting "radical feminism" and failing to support official church doctrine on abortion, same-sex marriage and the all-male priesthood.

The Vatican also ordered a special delegate, Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, to oversee the rewriting of the group's statutes, review its plans and programs and approve speakers at its programs.

"I was surprised by the severity of the report," Hughes, who is also head of the Dominicans in Amityville, said in an interview. "From our perspective, there was a significant amount of misinformation upon which it might have been predicated."

She added: "If something happens to you that you don't feel is true or it's not the whole story I don't think God wants us to sit back and say, 'Oh, that's all right.' "


Four-year probe

The four-year Vatican investigation and a subsequent report on the nuns, released April 18, set off a firestorm among some Catholics, with protests and vigils around the country supporting the sisters. But others say an investigation was long overdue.

William Donohue, president of the conservative Manhattan-based Catholic League, said that while "most nuns have done yeoman's work . . . it's no secret that there is a minority of nuns who have been conquered by radical feminism."

The leadership group, which represents 80 percent of the 57,000 nuns in the United States, had remained silent about the report for six weeks. Then on June 1, it released a statement saying the Vatican report "was based on unsubstantiated accusations" and "a flawed process," and "has caused scandal and pain" throughout the Roman Catholic Church.

Bishop William Murphy of the Diocese of Rockville Centre has also found himself in the middle of the dispute. He said he is close friends with Hughes, Sartain and Cardinal William Levada, head of the Vatican office that conducted the investigation.

In a column in this week's Long Island Catholic, Murphy wrote that the Vatican report "raised issues that needed and do need clarification." But he also said the report was met "with surprise and some dismay" by the nuns. He called on the parties to seek a dialogue, and asked Catholics to pray for resolution.


Meeting scheduled

Levada has invited the leadership group back to Rome Tuesday to discuss the report, Hughes said. She won't be going -- two other top leaders will -- but she sees the meeting as promising.

"I'm hopeful this meeting continues to open the door to further dialogue that really I think probably has been needed for a long time," she said.

In its report, the Vatican praised the U.S. sisters' work in schools, hospitals and with the poor, but also said there is "a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes" in some of the leadership group's work.

It said the group was "silent" on the abortion issue, and does not fully back the church's stance against homosexuality.

Hughes denied that, saying, "We very much do support official church positions." She said nuns fight abortion not just by political lobbying, but through programs such as Birthright that help pregnant women seek alternatives to abortion.

She said it was possible some of group's members might endorse "radical feminism," though for some that might mean espousing equality between men and women. Some may question certain church doctrines such as the all-male priesthood, she added, but "to raise a question is not the same thing as defiance."

She said the report's allegation that the nuns do not have the Eucharist at the center of their lives was "very hurtful, because we have Eucharist with the celebration of the liturgy at every single day of our assemblies."

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