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Long Island nuns welcome change in tone of Vatican's final report on U.S. religious sisters

Sister Mary Pat Neylon, the prioress at the

Sister Mary Pat Neylon, the prioress at the Domincan Sisters of Amityville, inside of the convent on Dec. 16, 2014. Credit: Johnny Milano

Long Island nuns Tuesday cheered the conclusion of a sweeping Vatican investigation into religious sisters in the United States that began with criticism that they had become secular and overly feminist but ended with praise.

The unprecedented six-year probe had deeply upset and even outraged many nuns and their supporters, but the Vatican's announcement Tuesday that it was over -- and with an almost opposite conclusion -- left many feeling vindicated.

Some said they felt Pope Francis and his attitude of openness played a major role in reversing the direction of the inquiry, which started in 2008 under Pope Benedict XVI.

"The whole initiation of this investigation just came out of the blue and was very hurtful," said Sister Helen Kearney, head of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood, the largest order of nuns on Long Island. "It was questioning was your life valid in the church."

She said the sisters are "very grateful for the acknowledgment of the contributions" nuns have made to the church.

Knowing the pope's tone, she added, "I think he might have had a fairly significant part to play" in redirecting the investigation.

The message from the Vatican Tuesday bore no resemblance to the stern papal broadsides sent six years ago. One of two investigations launched then resulted in the 2012 Vatican takeover of the Conference of Women Religious, the umbrella group overseeing 80 percent of U.S. sisters.

That investigation, still ongoing, charged that the U.S. conference "promoted radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."

At the Dominican Sisters of Amityville, the second-largest congregation on Long Island, sisters welcomed Tuesday's final report and its change in tone, said Sister Mary Patricia Neylon, the prioress, or head, of the order. "They thought it seemed good."

Neylon, who along with other sisters watched the live-streamed Vatican news conference announcing the results about 5:30 a.m., said that at the start of the investigation "there was . . . some feeling that we were not being trusted."

In the end, "I think we grew closer as a group as a result of it." An added and unexpected benefit, she said, "was the support of the laity around sisters across the country."

Tuesday's 12-page Vatican report thanked the nuns for their selfless work caring for the poor and promised to value their "feminine genius" more, while gently suggesting ways to survive amid a steep drop in their numbers. It noted their contributions to education and health care.

It praised the sisters for "selflessly tending to the spiritual, moral, educational, physical and social needs of countless individuals, especially the poor and marginalized."

The report offered little critique of the nuns, no demands that they shift their focus from social justice issues to emphasize Catholic teaching on abortion, no condemnation that a feminist, secular mentality had taken hold in their ranks.

Some 350 communities of religious sisters received questionnaires asking about everything from their numbers and mission to their prayer schedules and financial assets. Teams of investigators visited 90 communities of nuns, including the sisters in Amityville and Brentwood.

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