(CBS/AP) The leadership group of U.S. Catholic nuns charged by the Vatican with promoting radical feminism and being out of touch with church teachings rejected those charges Friday, asserting the Vatican had its facts wrong.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the LCWR, which represents 57,000 U.S. Catholics nuns said the charges were "based on unsubstantiated accusations and ... a flawed process." The nuns also charge that the Vatican campaign against them has "created greater polarization" in the U.S. church.
CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andews reports that this is not the most dramatic step the nuns could have taken. There had been internal calls for the LCWR to disband as a Vatican-chartered organization and to regroup later as a Catholic nonprofit organization. At the same time, this is not quite the prayerful discussion the Vatican had ordered the nuns to begin with a group of U.S. Bishops. The nuns propose instead to discuss the charges in Rome June 12 with the cardinal who wrote the charging letter earlier this year.
In April, the Vatican agency concluded an investigation of more than two years by concluding the group has "serious doctrinal problems," including taking positions that undermined Catholic teaching on the all-male priesthood, marriage and homosexuality.
The national board of the nuns' group issued the statement, its first since the Holy See ordered the overhaul, after a three-day private meeting.
"Board members concluded that the assessment was based on unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency," the statement said. "Moreover, the sanctions imposed were disproportionate to the concerns raised and could compromise their ability to fulfill their mission."
The Vatican reprimand prompted an outpouring of support for nuns by Catholics and non-Catholics. Vigils, protests and prayer services defending the sisters have been held nationwide, including outside the U.S. embassy of the Holy See in Washington.
"The report has furthermore caused scandal and pain throughout the church community, and created greater polarization," the board said.
In an interview before the group's formal response, Sister Pat Farrell characterized the mood at the board meeting as "one of deep, deep sadness about this document that has come from the Vatican, but there was also a spirit of deep prayer and reflection and sincere searching together," Farrell said. "It is a concern of ours that we would be faulted for what we don't say. I don't think we're talking about a matter of orthodoxy but a matter of emphasis."
The meeting in Rome is planned with Cardinal William Levada, an American who leads the congregation, and Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain, appointed by the Vatican to take authority over the group.
Sartain will oversee rewriting the group's statutes, reviewing all its plans and programs - including approving speakers - and ensuring the organization properly follows Catholic prayer and ritual.
Farrell has been a sister for 47 years. She said she was "stunned at the severity" of the reprimand.
"I didn't think I would ever see anything like this," Farrell said. "Truthfully, I'm glad my mother is not alive to see this unfolding. She would be heartbroken."