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"The secret not yet told": Women describe alleged abuse by nuns

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Catholic bishops from across the U.S. are gathering Wednesday for a weeklong retreat on the clergy sex abuse crisis at a seminary near Chicago. Organizers said the retreat, which was requested by Pope Francis, will focus on prayer and spiritual reflection and not policy-making.

The gathering comes as CBS News has also learned of several cases involving nuns accused of sexual misconduct. The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests – or SNAP – said it doesn't keep count of sexual abuse allegations, but CBS News' Nikki Battiste has spoken with several women who recently reported misconduct, ranging from forceful kissing to molestation, all carried out by nuns. 

When Trish Cahill was 15 years old she said she confided in Sister Eileen Shaw at a convent in New Jersey. Cahill said she told Shaw things she'd never revealed to anyone about her now-deceased uncle – a priest – whom she claims sexually abused her, starting at age five. "I would have done anything for her. I would have died for her," Cahill said. "She gave me everything that was lacking that I didn't even know I was lacking. I was so broken. She filled in all those pieces."

She now describes that process as "grooming," saying Shaw plied her with drugs and alcohol while teaching her how to have sex with a woman.             "I'm with my friends during the day. And I'm with this pedophile nun on the evenings and on the weekends, and in the summer," Cahill said.

The Catholic Church has been plagued with high-profile abuse scandals but "pedophile nun" is a phrase many people have probably never heard before.

"That's really a shame. Because there's a lot of them out there … it's the secret not yet told," Cahill said.

a hand holding a piece of paper: Sister Eileen Shaw, the women Trish Cahill says abused her.  © Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. Sister Eileen Shaw, the women Trish Cahill says abused her. 

Mary Dispenza is trying to change that. "The demands of chastity and celibacy are unrealistic demands for many of us," Dispenza said. Dispenza, a former nun from another congregation, remembers what happened when a superior summoned her to her room.

"I knelt down right next to her and she kissed me all over softly, my face … and I want to say, 'Oh but it wasn't bad,' but it was. And I've carried it with me until today," Dispenza said.  

Through her work with SNAP she said she would occasionally hear about abuse or cover-ups by nuns but since the publication of a grand jury report identified hundreds of pedophile priests in Pennsylvania, at least 18 people have contacted her to share stories of abuse by religious sisters.

Asked why we haven't heard much about abuse by nuns until recently, Dispenza said, "A lot has to do with the culture of nuns which are, they are very, very private by nature." 

Cahill reported her abuse to the sisters of charity of St. Elizabeth in 1994. The congregation paid her a $70,000 out-of-court settlement.

"They had canon lawyers on retainer just for people like me. Shut her up, pacify her, tell her you love her and you'll pray for her, and send her on her way," Cahill said. In a statement, the congregation told CBS News, "The case was investigated immediately when it was reported in 1994 and a settlement was reached that was mutually agreed on by all parties. We believe that the Sisters of Charity acted in a responsible manner."

We reached out to Sister Eileen Shaw who Cahill said she continued to see for years as an adult. She hung up on Battiste. 

The Sisters of Charity removed her from her role as a grade school principal but reports she remains a nun. They're providing her with food and housing while restricting her from outside ministry. In the meantime, Cahill said the settlement she signed wasn't enough to help her deal with a lifetime of trauma. But she hopes that her voice can help prevent this from happening again. 

"That this is the beginning of many, many times more that I get to speak and I get to educate, and I get to, possibly, prevent this from happening to anyone ever again," Cahill said.

Cahill said she believes other nuns had to have known what was going on with her. She's struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, along with alcohol and drug addiction that she said began with her abuse. The Sisters of Charity said they're willing to meet with her to address her continuing concerns.

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