‘That she may dance again’
“To become an interruption, perhaps a prophet to the Church hierarchy that for so long has denied women of equal dignity and full humanity.”
This is the opening lines of the foreword of the book “That She May Dance Again: Rising from pain of violence against women in the Philippine Catholic Church” (2011) authored by Sr. Nila Bermisa, a Maryknoll Sister, and published by the Women and Gender Commission (WGC) of the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines (AMRSP).
The book should be read especially by both the men and women who serve in the Church so that their eyes may be opened to painful realities and they will understand the root, the history, the dynamics of the experiences that many women have suffered in secret.
It takes a Catholic woman to write openly and bravely in a book about a subject long held in secret, even often denied. But now that the dark secrets are coming out from many parts of the world, the Philippines included, these realities might as well be laid bare in an honest and compassionate way. No less than the Pope himself has apologized on behalf of the powerful Roman Catholic Church for the sins of the past that had long been swept under the altar.
But indeed, it takes a woman, with supportive women around her, to do the spade work so that what are buried may be unearthed. So that those concerned may act and prevent more abuses against women, and more importantly, so that justice may be served. So that women themselves, in knowing and understanding the roots and dynamics of these realities, may become empowered to curb and prevent more of these.
Sister Nila delves into the individual experiences of those who have suffered sexual abuse in the hands of priests and Church officials. At the core of the book are some true-to-life cases of sexual abuse and violence. But the book is not a case book. She does not serve up case after case in order to shock or cater to voyeurs and readers’ curiosity. She treads calmly and uses the women’s stories to show in a phenomenological way what the women had gone through, the circumstances surrounding the abusive encounters, the whys and the wherefores.
It all began with a letter of concern from the WGC that was sent to the bishops. The reaction was negative. Sister Nila recalls: “As I drove away from the CBCP compound I kept asking myself, why can’t they take our word? Are these men blind or deaf to what is happening around them? WGC was asked to substantiate its claim that there are sexual abuses in the Catholic Church in the Philippines. We had to provide raw data…” And so more spade work was done.
I had known about the research on sexual abuse conducted by WGC. I wrote a two-part series on their findings in the Inquirer in 2003. I knew that the findings were also presented to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).
Recalls Sister Nila: “The media managed to obtain parts of the report and published these in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a national newspaper. Meanwhile other women’s groups also started to release information about other cases of abuse and misconduct by the clergy. The publicity created confusion among the people when they started hearing and seeing in the news that their parish priests or bishops (whom they knew and respected) had been involved in sexual abuses. Although the bishops could no longer ignore the reports, still they tried to minimize the existence of these abuses by saying that these were not representative of the clergy in general.”
The book goes beyond the reactions that attended the presentation and release of the findings. While she writes in the first person, she carries with her historical, biblical, theological, psychological, spiritual and feminist perspectives that enrich her narrative. Hers is a scholarly piece of work.
And it was not enough that she and the WGC researchers listened to and recorded the women’s tales of woe. They created a haven (Talitha Cum) for the women in distress and helped them find healing.
Sister Nila holds a doctor of ministry degree with specialization in International Feminist Theologies from San Francisco Theological Seminary, USA. She also has an MA in religious studies from the Institute of Formation and Religious Studies in Quezon City where she was dean from 2001-2005. She is a member of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians.
Here is what noted theologian Fr. Percy Bacani, MJ said of Sister Nila’s opus. “Sr. Nila unlocks the web of sexual violence in the Church…she narrates the psycho-social and spiritual impact of abuse committed by the clergy and how traditional theology, ecclesiology, and spirituality legitimate the past and current behavior of Church authorities. The only way out is to allow women to name their experiences and become part of the on-going rethinking of Church’s teaching on women and men. ‘That She May Dance Again’ is an attempt to see women’s experiences and wisdom as integral part of the total renewal in the Church. Without their voices, we shall remain impoverished in living the subversive memory of Jesus who calls us to be friends and disciples and never as lording over others.”
There is a lot of rebuilding to be done, Sister Nila concludes. She quotes the prophet Isaiah: “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”
“As a people of faith,” she writes, “we are called to rebuild God’s temple. It is rebuilding the kin*dom of Jesus where women and men can enjoy life in abundance and wholeness.”
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