We’ll have to see what emerges from the eventual prosecution, but this story (reported in the Daily Telegraph, with my emphasis added) from Argentina may be interesting for the light it casts on the Christian fascination with suffering (discussed here the other day) and also by the claim that the church should be above the law, a claim that also runs through the arguments sometimes made for the absolutist version of ‘religious liberty’ now being peddled in the US.
A Carmelite mother superior in Argentina faces prosecution for alleged torture after one of her former charges told a TV show that she had gone through “hell” before managing to escape from a convent. The 34-year-old nun, whose face was blacked out during the interview on the channel El Trece, claimed she had endured “physical and psychological” torture during her 10-year period of reclusion in the convent, including enforced self-flagellation, the wearing of a wire garter, being gagged for up to a week and locked up in isolation. “With Mother Superior Isabel I was subjected to the gag. Then there was a whip called discipline which was dipped in molten wax to make it harsher. We performed self-flagellation, beating ourselves on the buttocks, every week as a rule,” the former nun from the Barefoot (or Discalced) Carmelite convent in Nogoyá, northern Argentina said.
The woman, who said she had entered the order at the age of 18, also said they were forced to wear a cilice, a “crown of wires strapped around the leg that draws blood”, three times a week during Lent. But she said the worst torture she endured was psychological, being locked up alone in a cell and hearing voices telling her that others nuns’ illnesses, such as one sister’s tumour, were curses wrought upon the monastery due to her sinful nature.
Two nuns have reported the mother superior, identified by the authorities only as María Isabel, claiming she kept them against their will in the gated convent grounds. In late August police raided the convent, forcing the door open after the mother superior allegedly refused to allow them to enter.
The officers seized instruments of the alleged torture, including whips, cilices and gags. Prosecutors have recommended charges with a penalty of 15 years in prison for the mother superior, who was to face an investigating judge on Wednesday. Church leaders have justified the use of such instruments as penitential aids. “It’s not punishment, but rather discipline,” said Ignacio Patat, spokesman for the Archbishopric of Paraná, which oversees the convent.
“Let’s not forget that monasteries have different rules. This is the law of Saint Teresa, shall we say the old way of life that the Carmelite sisters follow”, Mr Patat told a radio station.
The austere order of the Barefoot Carmelites was founded in 1593 following the teachings of two Spanish saints, Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross. Mortification and penance are considered useful as aids to deep prayer.
“The Church has the right to rule itself,” read a statement by Argentina’s Society of Canon Law. “The state should enforce respect for religious freedom and not compromise it because some things seem incomprehensible.”
Crux magazine appears to disapprove of the raid, taking time to defend the use of the cilice:
Although the practice to use the cilice is not as widespread as it once was, some of history’s greatest saints wore them, either in the most common modern form of a spiked chain which irritates the skin or as an undergarment made of hair as it was customary in the past. For instance, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Therese of Lisieux are known to have used them, as well as soon to be declared saint Mother Teresa, St. Padre Pio, and Pope Paul VI….
The sisters have remained silent, yet the local Catholic hierarchy has expressed its concern over the way the situation was handled. Archbishop Juan Alberto Piuggari of Entre Rios, the diocese where the convent is located, said the papal representative in the country and the bishops conference considered the raid to be disproportionate…Piuggari also denied that the Mother Superior had refused to let them in: “She told them to give her a minute to call the bishop and they broke down the door. Is that refusing [to let them in]?”
The prelate also said that the procedure should have been “different,” and that Archbishop Emil Paul Tscherrig, the papal representative in the country, should have been informed beforehand since the monastery reports directly to the Vatican.