Facing the Media
Jane’s story was covered in the newspapers in Winnipeg and nationally. The reporters covered the fact that there was a lawsuit, and the core of Jane’s story. The stories were sympathetic to Jane and fair to Holy Cross and the Church generally. Many Catholics resent the media’s coverage of the American Church’s problem with sexual abuse. Many Catholics complain that the media sensationalize the issue or cover it in order to attack and discredit Catholicism. The reporters involved with this case addressed the story as a case of errant individuals engaged in unusual practices, contrary to Church teachings. They did not imply that the Jane’s story was typical of the experiences and activities of female religious. There was concern over the obligations of Religious institutes to members like Jane who were estranged from their Congregations because of their complaints about other Sisters in the Congregation.
These are copyrighted stories. I ask viewers not to copy them from this site.
Winnipeg Free Press, June 11, 2002
Leah Janzen, a journalist employed by the Free Press wrote a story published on June 11, 2002. She interviewed Jane in person and she had the Court material that had been filed at that time. I have not copied or reproduced this story.
Globe and Mail, June 25, 2002
This article by Krista Foss appeared The Toronta Globe and Mail, June 25, 2002. It was copied and reproduced on Rick Ross’s Cult awareness web site – a site that has gone dark and been cybersquatted. Krista Foss interviewed Jane in person, and she had the Court material that had been filed at that time.
The novice nun, the holy retreat and the barefoot apostle of love
Winnipeg — When Jane McDonald first met Superior Jeanne Wilfort, she was a charismatic innovator from the Canadian wild West who never wore a habit, gave presentations in her bare feet and represented the antithesis of a dour and conservative servant of God.
As an impressionable novice from New Hampshire, Sister McDonald was so taken by the funky nun’s blending of psychology and spirituality that she eventually got herself assigned to the experimental retreat called Maisons de Croissance (Homes for Growth) that Sister Wilfort founded in Manitoba in 1977.
For the next 20 years, Sister McDonald struggled with what she says she experienced there.
In a recent sworn affidavit filed in Winnipeg courts, she alleges that Sister Wilfort’s unorthodox therapy included hugging and affection between female community members and even lying down with each other in order “to be surrounded by love.”
On several occasions, according to Sister McDonald’s affidavit, the senior nun climbed into Sister McDonald’s bed where she took her own clothes off, ordered the younger woman to undress and performed an escalating variety of sexual acts which she said were “sacred” and “God’s healing” and part of a “special and secret” relationship they shared.
It was these actions which led Sister McDonald to believe the elder nun was leading “a sort of cult, operating within the Congregation,” her affidavit states. Sister McDonald left Homes for Growth in 1980.
Rocky Pollack, the lawyer representing Homes for Growth, warns that none of these allegations have been tested in court.
“My client treats it very seriously, and we will deal with the matter in court,” he said. “These allegations are at a very preliminary stage.”
The Superior-General of the Sisters of the Holy Cross, to which Sister Wilfort belongs, did not respond to phone calls; neither did the order’s Montreal-based lawyer.
Sister McDonald’s application to remove the six-year time limit on lawsuits alleging breaches of fiduciary duty was filed in early April and her affidavit in late May, and neither has had any legal response from the named parties.
Today, three years after disclosing her allegations to Holy Cross superiors, Sister McDonald says she finds herself isolated in her own congregation and is considering leaving the order altogether.
Her lawyer, Anthony Dalmyn, says Sister McDonald may have been the victim of a psychotherapy cult and what is known in some legal circles as cult abuse.
Homes for Growth was a product of the seventies and the Roman Catholic Church’s shift from education to other less institutional forms of ministry. Sister Wilfort was trained in Personality and Human Relations (PRH), a brand of humanist psychology founded by French educator André Rochais in 1970.
Sister Wilfort founded Homes for Growth along with a member of the Winnipeg-based Oblate Fathers, Raymond Beauregard, who is now dead. The centre was supported financially by Oblate Fathers and the Sisters of the Holy Cross.
A spokesman for the Oblate Fathers said yesterday he did not know much about Homes for Growth other than it was a “place where people went to journey with their personal lives” and that some Oblate members were involved.
When Homes for Growth was established, Sister Wilfort was the provincial superior in Western Canada for the Sisters of the Holy Cross, whose headquarters are in St. Laurent, Que. Later she was regional superior in Manitoba.
Homes for Growth would expand to include seven houses in and around Winnipeg during the 1980s.
The Homes for Growth house in Lorette, Man., about 20 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg, was Sister’s Wilfort personal domain. It was there that she took sole responsibility for the religious formation of Sister McDonald, who was then 28.
Private counselling sessions were held in her bedroom, Sister McDonald alleges.
“She said that I had an evil mother and that I had to suck her spiritual goodness,” according to Sister McDonald’s affidavit. “For the first few episodes, I would not remove my underpants. After the first few episodes, I agreed. She pulled me on top of her and said that now we could be really close and this was much better.”
Sister McDonald said she did not realize then that what she alleges happened to her was sexual violation because it was presented “within the context of religious formation and personal counselling.”
She alleges that when she finally stopped complying, Sister Wilfort flew into a rage and physically struck her. After that, she says, she was systematically cut off from opportunities and advancements in Western Canada within the order.
Sister McDonald says in the affidavit that, three years ago, she disclosed the allegations to her Holy Cross superiors. She says she was told that Sister Wilfort’s conduct was intended to be therapeutic and had beneficial effects.
In the spring of 2001, there was a Vatican-ordered investigation by a member of the Grey Nuns. But Sister McDonald has never been told what was discovered or whether anything would be done.
“The whole thing in religious life is about forgiving and forgetting,” the soft-spoken Sister McDonald said in a recent interview. “And I don’t know how to communicate to people that forgiving and forgetting happens only when you really remember and speak about it.”
Sister McDonald, now 50, is recovering from a recent battle with breast cancer. The isolation she felt left her fighting depression and unable to trust others, especially those in authority.
But her faith has never been shaken, she said.
She wants to see Homes for Growth disbanded and the nearly 70-year old Sister Wilfort, who left Manitoba this past fall, removed from the order.
“I felt like I’ve been betrayed by the congregation . . . she is a very powerful leader, and she has been for 30 years. It is easier to dispose of me than to deal with her,” she said.
Catholic New Times
This story was published in the Catholic New Times, May 18, 2003. A copy can be found online at the FindArticles service. It was written by Kevin Spurgaitis. He interviewed Jane by telephone from Toronto, and he had the Court material filed at that time. The story was criticized in a letter to the editor, by the Communications Co-coordinator of the Canadian Religious Conference. The Catholic New Times responded to the letter. I have included the letter and the response.
The Catholic New Times is a liberal publication. It tends to criticize the hierarchy and to promote unorthodox and eclectic ideas and practices. Some parts of the story appear, typically, to bait the ecclesiastical authorities. The irony is that CNT, as a liberal paper, would probably have been supportive of Sister Wilfort’s ideas about spirituality and relatively tolerant of any departures from Church rules relating to sexual morality by any consenting adults involved in this affair. The letter to the editor by the Canadian Religious Conference picks at a few flaws in the reporter’s presentation of Canon Law issues but does not come to terms with the issues of substance. Notably, the reporter had accurately quoted the text of the Indult in this article. The CRC did not address the questions of whether the Sisters of Holy Cross were justified in treating Jane as being out of the Order when she had not signed the document accepting the Indult, and whether the Sisters of Holy Cross were demonstrating “equity and evangelical charity towards the member who is separated from it.” I give the Catholic New Times credit for addressing the complex issue of support for a member of a Religious Institute who has expressed a desire to leave her Congregration, but has not accepted an Indult or been expelled from the Congregation in accordance with the norms of Canon law.
I have one comment on the story itself. The reporter said Jane’s suite looked down on “garbage” – he used the quotation marks in the story. In fact Jane had a view of garbage bins in the alley behind her building from her window.
“… Sincerely, Sister Jane.”
Sister Jane McDonald was only 28 when she uprooted herself from New Hampshire in the late 1970s, to head out West. The wide-eyed novice was assigned to the experimental retreat called Maisons de Croissance or Homes for Growth, in Lorette, Man., southeast of Winnipeg. The sanctuary, created by Sister Jeanne Wilfort, was a product of the Roman Catholic Church’s 70s shift from education to other less institutional forms of ministry. However, McDonald still tussles with what she says she experienced there.
“I was a city girl who just loved the spirit of the West and the people of Winnipeg,” she remembers.
A soft-spoken McDonald remains faithful even in desolation. Disillusioned with ecclesiastical livelihood, the would-be excommunicated oblate must now start life over at 51. No stipend, no income, no sick benefits, no insurance–just depression, a debilitating illness and isolation from her order.
Illness and isolation
The sister’s sullied narrative does not begin with her breast cancer, originally diagnosed in January 2000 and again in December the same year. However, it has been compounded by the illness that has now spread to her lung. Like most patients under the intense treatment, McDonald is hit hard with the physical and emotional side effects of weekly chemotherapy sessions. Chemotherapy not only targets cancerous cells, but healthy ones as well, harming the gastrointestinal tract, reproductive system and hair follicles The consequences are often unpleasant and severe–hair loss, nausea, as well as infection leading to fever, chills, throat irritation, shortness of breath, chronic pain and lethargy.
Susceptible to chemo-related infection, she is now imprisoned by simple routines, such as the habitual washing of hands and peeling of uncooked fruits and vegetables. In this antiseptic lifestyle, she must spend the majority of her time in virtual isolation, limiting the number of people to whom she exposes herself. “I’ve been pretty much plagued with infection all the way through,” says McDonald. “It’s been a real long haul.”
Cancer is also a financial burden. Chemotherapy drugs are generally paid for by the Manitoba government The province’s Health Services Insurance Fund provides payments to hospitals, community health centres, personal care homes, insured services, and individuals claiming reimbursement of therapy expenditures. However doctors often prescribe ‘supportive care’ medications not covered under a provincial plan. And although private insurance policies, with employers, take care of prescription drugs, McDonald is officially unemployed. Additional over-the-counter medicines such as pain relievers, anti-infection mouthwashes, anti-depressants and anti-diaretic pills, remain an out-of-pocket expense.
With only $106 sitting in the bank, money–for the first time–has become an issue for the disenfranchised oblate.
She is only bolstered by the personal charity of friends in Winnipeg. Her ‘digs’ are humble, up two flights of stairs, with a bedroom window view of “garbage” in her inner-city neighbourhood. With no other tenants around, there’s no one to call out for help. With no taxi service out of the ‘high-risk’ part of town, getting to and from her therapy sessions is hard. The sister now finds herself ‘needy’ after swearing to a life of servitude.
“It’s difficult dealing with solitude; although it has been a part of my ministry, this is a very different kind of poverty.”
Vicky Frankel, a Winnipeg psychotherapist, social worker and an advocate of McDonald, looks in on her during those difficult days. “She is emotionally up and down, day-to-day, like lots of people dealing with cancer and physical abuse,” she says. “Her faith is very helpful to her in these times because she doesn’t have much of a life now. She has dreams of a life.”
In her present condition, McDonald is relegated to doing household chores –the biggest feat: fixing supper. Resolved not to compromise her service to the poor, though, she continues her pet-creation of Our Place/ Chez Nous, which provides refuge to more than 5,000 of the city’s marginalized peoples–the drug users, the alcoholics, the prostitutes, the mentally iii and now herself. “I give Our Place whatever energy I can now.” Not a “showy project,” the drop-in centre, run from a main street storefront, has earned McDonald an award by the Lieutenant Governor. The West Winnipeg ministry, which started in 1987, has always existed on the periphery of the Holy Cross order. It has survived on little more than a blessing from the congregation.
“I really took it to heart; it’s something I wanted to do all my life, but people did not embrace it.”
Wilfort was Mother. Nuns and laypeople were her children, it is alleged. On several occasions at Homes for Growth, according to McDonald’s signed affidavit, Sister Jeanne Wilfort allegedly climbed into McDonald’s bed where she took her own clothes off, ordered her to do the same and performed shared, sordid sexual acts. The senior nun practised her own made-up model of regression psychology at a retreat that resembled a stringent “cult.” Because it was allegedly presented “within the context of religious formation and personal counselling” or “God’s healing,” McDonald says her recognition of the sexual violation was initially foggy. And whenever the sisters and laity rejected their superior’s unorthodox therapy, she says Wilfort quickly became erratic, kicking and slapping them in the washroom during impromptu “repossessions.” McDonald’s personal experience lasted over a six-month period, according to the sister. And then one day it stopped.
“She was love personified, but would have tantrums and become physically abusive if she felt people weren’t receiving her love.”
Meanwhile, members of her congregation, she alleges, stood by idly. McDonald repeatedly pleaded her case to Holy Cross superiors and the Archbishop of Winnipeg, but she was told that Wilfort’s conduct was strictly therapeutic and had beneficial effects. Eventually, the Vatican ordered a special investigation into her claims by a former superior of Quebec’s’ Grey Nuns, but the report has yet to surface.
McDonald, on the other hand, was young, enthusiastic and idealistic. Giving the “best years” of her life, she set out for a life in the Holy Cross community–one teeming with Gospel and prayer. “She did such profound damage to my belief in self. It’s the worst kind of abuse to deal with,” she says. “This has been a nightmare … I’ve given four years of my life, to the detriment of my health to get any sort of response.”
Homes for Growth still operates in the province, although Wilfort, who was once the order’s superior in Western Canada, is rumored to have left her duties there. Her whereabouts now are undisclosed. Neither the Sisters of Holy Cross, nor their lawyers, could be reached for comment despite repeated phone calls and e-mails from CNT.
“They need to acknowledge my endeavors, apologize for this abuse.”
Black sheep of the order:
The sister has been allegedly ostracized by the pack ever since she ceased to follow Wilfort, who is billed as a beloved, charismatic leader. She says she was systematically cut off from opportunities and advancements in Western Canada within her order. Forced to live on the fringes of her order, McDonald resided in a private, one-bedroom apartment for many years before seeking sanctuary above Our Place.
A personal life within the congregation is non-existent, she says. Friendships with other sisters are absent. Opposing the order at every turn, she used to attend clergy meetings, but was never really welcomed into the fold.
“I refuse to officially leave the congregation because I truly believe God called me to Winnipeg. My ministry to the poor is a real gift and I wasn’t meant to give it up.”
Rejecting indult, receiving dues:
Priests and nuns in this process of dispensation are stripped of their status and downgraded to membership in the laity. An indult, an exemption from religious obligation, is presented to and granted by a bishop, only after a lengthy probationary period.
It is reported that 90 per cent of North American dioceses initially deny pension benefits to priests who resign, no matter how long they have served. The number of priests applying for dispensation skyrocketed after Vatican II. Although it was once a relatively simple procedure, lasting no longer than three years, it is now granted sparingly, with restrictions that are interpreted and enforced differently by each diocese. Dispensation from clerical status, what used to be called “laicization,” has been described as a canonical mystery.
Signing the indult, however, means severing any chance of financial benefits along with McDonald’s 30-year-old ties to her order. The indult granted to the sister upon request, references the original document signed upon one’s final vows, which stipulates no payment for services rendered to the congregation, even when one begins a new life outside the church.
According to Canon Law, article 702, “whoever lawfully leaves a religious institute or is lawfully dismissed from one, cannot claim anything from the institute for any work done in it.” However, the institute is to “show equity and evangelical charity towards the member who is separated from it.”
McDonald maintains she has not habitually neglected the obligations of consecrated life; obstinately disobeyed lawful orders of Superiors in grave, matters; diffused teachings condemned by the church or publicly adhered to materialistic or atheistic ideologies–any of the reasonable grounds for dismissal. She just wants help starting over.
“Religious congregations will provide for pedophiles for the rest of their lives. They are responsible for some kind of remuneration (to the dispensed). I have no social security; I’ve never paid into it.”
Seismic scandals within the church have opened the floodgates to sexual abuse claims. McDonald’s story is not rare. Abuse by the hands of female figures is a scenario that has been played out at convents, Catholic schools, churches and orphanages. And during the last decade, at least a dozen lawsuits against nuns have been filed in the U.S. alone. These cases make up less than five per cent of all abusers.
Although female clergy are not conventional predators, their misconduct has been reported, according to A.W. Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk and psychotherapist who has scrutinized church sex abuse for more than 30 years. The author of Sex, Priests, and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis says society’s comfort with intimacy between women and children enables female abusers to “initiate contact far more easily without suspicion.” Experts report that most abusive nuns tend to be “severely disturbed.” Some are even paranoid schizophrenics, suffering from hallucinations and delusions.
Despite McDonald’s confidence betrayed, her vows of chastity broken over the knee, she has been vilified by members of her order, sources allege. “The Sisters of Holy Cross see Jeanne Wilfort as leader and visionary, and Jane as a nut,” says Anthony Dalmyn, a Winnipeg-based lawyer who originally filed McDonald’s case.
In April 2002, McDonald filed an application to remove the six-year statute of limitations on lawsuits, alleging breaches of fiduciary duty. Her affidavit was signed in late May. However, the civil suit has been held, “bogged down at the extension stage.” A judge is still to determine the credibility of the case. And a cancer-stricken McDonald is not physically fit to sit down and submit herself to the interrogation of Holy Cross’s lawyers at this time, according to Dalmyn.
McDonald’s objective is mere compensation, the removal of Wilfort from monastic life altogether–and an apology, only then will she sign the indult. She says this public airing of grievances is her only recourse after years of whistle blowing within the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. If not for the order’s veneer of secrecy surrounding the affair, the sister says she would perish thoughts of dispensation and litigation.
Dalmyn insists McDonald’s vocation–her calling to a dedicated religious life–has been severely undermined. He says: “She did choose a life of poverty, but she has been marginalized by sisters in the order because of her claims of abuse. She didn’t receive the educational opportunities that allowed her to make her way through life both inside and outside the clergy.”
Sincerely, Sister Jane
Survivors of church sex abuse have been described as “martyrs of this age.” McDonald may have lost her religion, but not her faith.
“I don’t know a whole lot, but I do know God is love, that’s all, that’s everything.”
And although members of Holy Cross now address her as Miss McDonald in sparse correspondence she remains defiant, signing, “… Sincerely, Sister Jane.”
Letter to the Editor – published June 15, 2003
As an organization working to bring about the Kingdom of God, the Canadian Religious Conference (CRC) appreciates CNT’s commitment to reporting on issues of justice and peace.
However, we are very disappointed by the article “Desolation Angel,” published on page 13 of the May 18, 2003 edition. While we support the freedom of the press to publish articles on any topic it sees fit, journalists must make every effort to be accurate and fair in their reporting.
The story of Sister Jane McDonald is certainly sad and unfortunate. The reporter seems to have very little knowledge of religious life. The article would have been less confusing and disturbing if it would have had good editing. We find it shocking that a Catholic newspaper would publish such misinformation about religious life.
It would take too much space to address each one of the errors in the article, so we will point out some of the major ones.
Religious and priests should not be lumped together. The situation of diocesan priests leaving the priesthood is quite different from religious leaving religious life. As a religious, McDonald is not a member of the clergy and at this time, there are no “female clergy.”
The statement “would-be excommunicated oblate” is unclear and misleading. Excommunication is very serious. If you are excommunicated, it means that you are not allowed to receive the Eucharist and are no longer considered a member of the Catholic Church. One cannot be excommunicated for leaving a religious community.
Departures from religious communities are sensitive issues. The reasons are often very complex. There is a defined process in place that facilitates departure and is clear about the rights of both the member and the congregation. Once an individual has signed the necessary documents, she is not “downgraded to membership in the laity,” she simply ceases to be a religious. A religious is not superior to a layperson. All baptized Christians share the common call to holiness.
The articles’ lack of clarity about Sister Jane’s situation raises many questions. Perhaps the main problem with the article is that it only uses one source: Sister Jane McDonald, a person who is in pain and suffering, her lawyer and an advocate. Her congregation is in the awkward position of not being able to respond due to ethical and legal reasons.
Some light could have been shed on the painful subject of leaving religious life if the reporter had also interviewed a neutral source, such as the Canadian Religious Conference or the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. This would have at least given some general information about the process of dispensation and maybe would have prevented some of these inaccuracies from being printed.
We pray for the healing of Sister McDonald and for all who are touched by this situation. In the future, we hope that you will make an effort to be more diligent in your editing and more accurate in your reporting.
Canadian Religious Conference
CNT Response to the letter
CNT apologizes for the inaccuracies printed in the above mentioned article and we are indebted for the sororal correction by the CRC. In retrospect we missed an opportunity to consult with a natural ally in this somewhat ambiguous minefield of ecclesiastical policy and governance. Time constraints and the sheer volume of material in our biggest issue of the year, while factors in our imprecision, are no excuses for our failures here.
As written in the article, attempts to contact Homes For Growth, the Sisters of Holy Cross and their legal representation over a one-month period were futile. Phone calls and e-mails were not returned. The whereabouts of Sister Jeanne Wilfort, remain “unknown.”
The process of dispensation was thoroughly researched, but various text sources cite its ambiguity. As written in the article, dispensation has been described as a “canonical mystery.” It is also stated in the article: “Although it was once a relatively simple procedure, lasting no longer than three years, it is now granted sparingly, with restrictions that are interpreted and enforced differently by each diocese.”
As for the article’s purported lack of clarity, the alleged abuse was not vividly depicted out of respect for the claimant, Sister Jane McDonald. The reporter chose to celebrate the nun’s ecclesiastical life, contrasting it with her current woes–“no stipend, no income, no sick benefits, no insurance –just depression, a debilitating illness and isolation from her order.”
COPYRIGHT 2003 Catholic New Times, Inc.
New Hampshire Union Leader
There were two stories about Jane in The New Hampshire Union Leader, both written by Kathryn Marchocki, a writer on the Union Leader Staff. She interviewed Jane by telephone and she had the Court material that had been filed at that time. Both articles are in a fee-for-service archive. They can be located by searching for the name Jeanne Wilfort, making sure to search the year 2003. The search engine brings up these excerpts and a message that advises that you can “Click for Full Story (x words), $2.50”.
The Union Leader has been covering the story of the sexual abuse litigation against Roman Catholic clergy and religious who were active in the diocese of Manchester. Some Manchester priests were criminally charged and convicted – as in Boston and elsewhere in the United States. Some priests and religious were in fact opportunistic pedophile predators. Some of the other cases are more controversial. For instance this story in Wall Street Journal cases doubt on the case of Father Gordon MacRae. BishopAccountability.org collects and collates information about claims against priest and religious across the United States. It has a page for the Manchester diocese. Jane’s story is not in that archive, and there are no stories about the Sisters of Holy Cross in that archive.
Catholics in New England have accused the Union Leader of anti-Catholic and anti-religious bias. They covered a story about sexual exploitation of youths by individuals acting under the cover of their clerical status, the reassignment of the offending priests, court cases, and the management of the situation by the Bishops.
To ex-nun, ‘therapy’ was abuse
Published on June 2, 2003, Page Number: B1
As a young nun, Jane McDonald was told she was special and her old wounds needed healing.
In private bedroom counseling sessions, the Manchester native said her charismatic religious superior presented herself as “pure goodness” whose caresses would banish the “evil mother” of McDonald’s youth and restore her to wholeness.
Today, McDonald calls it sexual abuse.
Sister Jane McDonald, 51; had filed sex assault lawsuit
Published on August 2, 2003, Page Number: A6
Sister Jane McDonald, C.S.C., died July 29 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, after a lengthy battle with breast cancer. She was 51.
McDonald, a Manchester native, joined the Roman Catholic religious congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Cross in 1972. She did her religious training in Franklin and other novitiates in New England and New York.
In the mid-1970s, she was one of several religious sisters who followed Sister Jeanne Wilfort, who was provincial superior of the Western …