Indictment against nun in abuse case from 1960s

The Chicago Tribune/December 6, 2006
By Manya A. Brachear

A Sister of Mercy who taught in Chicago-area Catholic schools for more than three decades has been indicted in Wisconsin over allegations that she abused pupils at a Milwaukee school nearly 40 years ago.

Sister Norma Giannini is accused of having sexual intercourse with two boys--ages 12 and 13--when they were students at St. Patrick Elementary School in the 1960s. According to a criminal complaint, more than 100 sexual encounters took place in the church's convent, school office and one victim's home.

Charges are allowable against Giannini, 78, because in Wisconsin the statute of limitations halts if the alleged offender leaves the state. Giannini, who was serving as an 8th-grade teacher and principal at St. Patrick's at the time of the alleged assaults, moved to Illinois in 1969.

The Sisters of Mercy removed Giannini from service in December 1992 when the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee notified them of allegations against her, according to Sister Betty Smith, president of the order's Chicago region.

After treatment at a facility in St. Louis, Giannini returned to do clerical work for the order and was never allowed to work with minors again, Smith said, adding that Giannini now lives in a retirement center in the western suburbs.

The archdiocese apparently did not report the allegations to civil authorities. The accusers recently began working with Milwaukee law enforcement, and prosecutors filed charges Monday.

Giannini was principal of Most Holy Redeemer School in Evergreen Park when she was removed. Smith said parents at the time were not told why Giannini's contract had been terminated in the middle of the school year.

"We are much wiser about this now," Smith said. "Our sense of duty has changed as the years have evolved. I think we tried to respond the best we could with justice, with compassion and with what we thought was sensitivity to all parties involved. As these years have unfolded with the whole onslaught of clergy abuse, we've [learned] there is responsibility to report any abuse."

Giannini is not the only Sister of Mercy facing abuse allegations. Smith said two other nuns--one of them dead--also have been accused. Citing confidentiality, she would not name the nuns and said she could not say if the order has reported the allegations to civil authorities.

"There are instances where there have been other individuals who have come forward," Smith said. "Those situations have been handled separately. There are no criminal charges of any sort."

According to the criminal complaint, Giannini admitted to an archdiocesan review board in August 1996 that she had sexual intercourse and oral sex with the two boys. The sexual encounters allegedly occurred during music lessons after school and while one boy delivered newspapers to the convent on his paper route.

"She told the panel that she took vows at the age of 18 and she had lived a sheltered life and did not know anything about sex," the complaint says. "She told the panel that it was infatuation, and she was lonely. ... She stated during the interview that the sexual act was not as strong as the emotional need for intimacy."

"Once I left Milwaukee nothing ever happened," she reportedly told the panel. "I never intended to hurt a child. ... I thought I was in love with both of them."

Like many dioceses, the Milwaukee archdiocese opened its investigations of abuse allegations to law enforcement in 2002, said communications director Kathleen Hohl. This week's criminal charges came as a surprise, she said.

Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said that since 2002 the group has fielded more than 2,000 allegations against Roman Catholic clergy and 300 against nuns nationwide.

Jan Hindman, a clinical therapist and author in Oregon who has studied more than 1,000 sexual abuse cases, said emotional damage can be especially severe when women are the abusers.

"It's about betrayal," said Hindman. "The greater the expectation, the greater the trauma when they betray. We have great expectations for women. ... Add to that a powerful position as a nun, that makes it even more difficult."

A Chicago native, Giannini began teaching in 1949 and served at parish schools including St. Paul of the Cross in Park Ridge, St. Catherine in West Dundee, St. Ita in Chicago, St. Catherine in Oak Park and the now-closed St. Finbarr in Chicago until 1964.

After her stint in Milwaukee she returned to Illinois in 1969 and served at Christ the King in Chicago until 1972. She then worked at Mother McAuley High School until 1977, finishing there as one of four deans before becoming principal of Little Flower on the South Side.

After a brief return to Mother McAuley, she moved to St. Clare of Montefalco in Chicago, then became principal of Holy Redeemer in 1989.

Because each nun takes a vow of poverty, Smith said, the religious order would finance her legal defense.

In February, a Wisconsin jury convicted Rev. Donald McGuire, a renowned Jesuit priest, of molesting two Loyola Academy students during retreats in the Lake Geneva area in 1967 and 1968.

Prosecutors chose to try McGuire in Wisconsin because he, too, was not shielded by the state's statute of limitations.

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