Former nun details abuse she endured, confronts Pope Francis in Disney documentary

The encounter left me with a lingering feeling of sadness, confirming my perception that, over the years, the church has not truly embodied an institution of care and love as it should, but rather the opposite. After we finished filming, I felt as though a wave crashed into me.

  • 10 months ago
  • July 19, 2023
10 min read
Lucía took part in a documentary where 10 young people asked Pope Francis questions and voiced their concerns on subjects like abortion, homophobia, abuse, and sex. Lucía took part in a documentary where 10 young people asked Pope Francis questions and voiced their concerns on subjects like abortion, homophobia, abuse, and sex. | Photo courtesy of the "Amen, Francisco Responds" documentary production team
Lucía Zegarra Ballon is a former nun who spoke with the Pope about the mistreatment she suffered within the Church. She is a former nun who spoke with the Pope about the mistreatment she suffered within the Church. She is currently a clinical psychologist, focusing on trauma and decolonial feminism. She also partakes in helping her community whenever she can.
Fewer and fewer young people consider themselves believers. A study by the Center for Sociological Research (CIS) showed that the age group between 18 and 24 years declared themselves mostly atheist or agnostic. Perhaps that is why Pope Francis agreed to star in the documentary “Amen, Francisco Responds” to answer the questions of ten young people about the Church and topics such as abortion, abuse, and homophobia. The documentary released on Disney+ on April 5, 2023, and is available to stream there and on Hulu.

LIMA, Perú ꟷ At 16 years old, I decided to become a nun.  When I entered the house of formation, they forbade me from seeing my family. I had no communication with the outside world, living in complete isolation. They screamed at us, inflicting guilt and shame. For years, I suffered abuse. In psychological turmoil, severe anxiety, depression, and insomnia took over my body. After receiving a critical medical diagnosis, I managed to leave. 

Now, at 26, my life feels completely different. I work as a psychologist. I have a girlfriend I love, and I no longer practice any religion. However, I still carry the pain I endured around with me. It sickens me to think that a practice meant to bring love and compassion could make someone feel so alienated and despised. One day, I heard about a documentary in production, called  Amén, Francisco Responde (The Pope Answers), featured on Disney+ and Hulu.

In this documentary,  Pope Francis responds to ten young people’s questions covering child abuse, abortion, homosexuality, gender identity, and the role of women in the church. I decided to partake, so I could ask my own questions and find some sort of closure. 

Read more stories from Peru at Orato World Media 

Meeting Pope Francis, coming to terms with my past 

When I first heard about the documentary, I hoped it would be something truly helpful and genuine, a way to offer clarity. I leapt at the opportunity to take part in it. When I received a call telling me I was approved, I felt both excited and anxious. This would be the first time I ever spoke about my story openly. During the session, as I prepared to ask my question, my heart felt heavy in my chest. When my turn came, I raised issues not often discussed, such as patriarchal violence. 

The Pope did not really answer any of my questions. To me, it seemed like a waste of time. He heard questions about abortion, sexual abuse, and immigration, without actually adding to the discourse. I wanted to tell the Pope why I no longer believed in God, and to talk about the psychological abuse I suffered at the hands of the Church. I also wanted to discuss the humiliation and fear members of the congregation instill in other members. However, due to limited time, I was not able to elaborate much. The Pope barely acknowledged my concerns.

The encounter left me with a lingering feeling of sadness, confirming my perception that, over the years, the church has not truly embodied an institution of care and love as it should, but rather the opposite. After we finished filming, I felt as though a wave crashed into me. Part of me just wanted to disappear. However, I also realized that despite all the abuse I endured, I rebuilt myself entirely and finally embraced my true identity. Sitting alone, observing the others trying to catch the Pope’s attention, I experienced a tremendous sense of relief. I felt free.

Finally, telling my story

I was born in Arequipa, Peru. At 15, I became acquainted with an ultra-conservative religious group at my school. During that time, I lost someone very dear to me. His death affected me deeply. In an effort to heal, I spent less time focused on my usual activities and embarked on a journey of self-discovery. The Catholic group at school invited me to participate in social aid events. Together, we visited nearby towns to offer assistance. The following year, I underwent a confirmation process and joined a year-long congregation program. I did everything by the book: I attended mass, prayed whenever I could, and focused on expanding my faith. 

Then came a three day retreat our program required. From the moment we arrived, they insisted we could not share any details about the retreat with anyone. They assigned us to rooms before being taken to an auditorium where they asked for our phones. They warned us that by not surrendering our phones, we would miss out on the opportunity to establish a direct connection with God. From that moment, we were completely cut off from any communication. 

They required absolute silence, and any conversation remained forbidden. At night, they led us to a chapel adorned with religious paintings. The room was dimly lit by candles, and in front of us lay a coffin. They began to talk to us about death, emphasizing its unpredictability. To further intensify our feelings of anxiety and fear, they instructed us to write our epitaphs. They wanted us to express guilt for our shortcomings and detail our unfulfilled desires. Everyone looked uncomfortable. Afterwards, we went off to bed, but the feelings persisted until the morning. 

Drowned in guilt and shame, I decided to become a nun

The next two days, they spoke to us about sins and how to be absolved. One of the instructors grabbed a flower and plucked its leaves, exclaiming “This is your mother when you lie to her!” Then they threw the flower, along with old cigarettes and other garbage, at us to drown us in guilt. Afterwards, they demanded we confess our sins. The entire weekend, they forced us to adhere to their way of thinking, leaving no room for our independent thoughts. Everyone looked miserable and scared. The entire retreat felt strange and inflicted so much emotional turmoil on all of us. 

Once we returned home, I expressed my desire to be even closer with God and focus on my faith.  At that point, a nun I had never seen before approached me. She was 23 years old, and I was 15 at the time. Her attention made me feel special. She offered to be my spiritual guide, which entailed sharing my entire life with her. I often went to her house for breakfast and occasionally accompanied her to events with other nuns. My mother had no idea about any of this. We spent a lot of time together and developed a strong friendship.

She often held an authoritarian position in my life, sometimes even humiliating me. Somehow, I believed her to be God’s representative on Earth, and allowed it to go on. By that point, I distanced myself from all my friends and social obligations, focusing solely on her and her guidance. After a while, I decided to consecrate myself and shared the news with her. She told me she would help me and instructed me not to disclose anything to my parents.

They controlled every aspect of my life

In addition to receiving spiritual guidance once a week, going to confession, and striving to attend Mass daily, I had to undergo weekly introductions to the documents of the congregation, most of which were kept secret. They subjected me to various psychological tests, harassing me about the physical aspects of my body, all without my parents’ knowledge or consent.

By that time, I already stopped drinking, smoking, and participating in athletics. I left everything behind to dedicate myself entirely to God. Though I felt closer to my faith, I also felt deeply depressed and isolated. People in my environment began to notice my increasing alienation and grew concerned. I paid little attention to their concerns as I focused on my plan to eventually join the convent.

Each morning, I woke up with a deep, overwhelming sadness. When I shared my mental state with the nuns, they simply advised me to pray harder. Eventually, my eighteenth birthday arrived, and I felt ready to embark on this new chapter. From the moment I arrived with my suitcase, they took away most of my belongings, only allowing me to keep the bare essentials. Everything seemed so strict, and they required silence at all times. 

Communication with my family became limited to once a month. We could only have lunch in the presence of a nun. Every two weeks, I had a 20-minute phone call to speak with them, and all emails were monitored. We had no access to any kind of information and newspapers were prohibited. The doors remained locked at all times. They also censored the books I could read. Even going to the bathroom required permission, leaving no room for personal autonomy. 

The doctor told me I needed to leave right away, or I would end up dead

Although my memory of that time feels somewhat fragmented due to the trauma I experienced, I recall waking up with an immense heaviness in my chest. I started to feel more and more suicidal. However, when I mentioned these feelings to the superior, she attributed my sadness to the influence of the devil. I remember one instance when I felt so incredibly low that I sat in the chapel for six hours, unable to stop crying. Throughout that time, despite being on the verge of a breakdown, no one approached me or offered any form of comfort. 

I began to feel unwell every morning, lacking the energy to get out of bed. My physical symptoms escalated to the point where I experienced nosebleeds, intense headaches, and insomnia. I endured two weeks of waiting before finally being able to see a doctor. During this time, there was an event I was forced to attend called fraternal correction. It was one of the most extreme experiences I’ve ever been through. They made us throw ourselves on the floor in a cross position while each person yelled at you about the sins you committed. They screamed at me, citing all my flaws and criticizing everything I was. 

 After this, we had a silent retreat to reflect on everything that happened. Eventually, my deteriorating condition became apparent to my mother. Desperate to help, she took me to the doctor’s office. After he conducted a few tests, he urged me to leave the convent immediately. He told me that If I continued in that state, I risked dying. A nun from the convent accompanied us to the visit and denied everything he was saying. 

Returning home and finding myself again 

When I returned from the appointment, the nuns scolded me, urging me to make a decision. I told them I wished to leave and said my goodbyes. My parents had relocated from Arequipa to Lima. I found myself in a new home without a room, as my parents had not anticipated my return. I had no clothes and no possessions. It felt as if I was starting over from scratch. 

Focused on rebuilding myself physically and mentally, I went on a trip for a while. I wanted to rediscover myself and the world around me. When I returned, I enrolled to study psychology. It felt like a fresh, new chapter of my life. With time, I was able to self-reflect on all that happened. I severed all ties with that congregation and felt like a completely different person.

The new perspective I gained during my trip allowed me to realize that my connection with God was found in the bonds I created with people, and that everything else had been distorted and unhealthy. Today, I work with individuals who, like me, have experienced various forms of violence or trauma. Through this work, I have found the opportunity to bring about change and alleviate others’ suffering. There is no more room in my life for the emptiness I once felt. I am finally happy.

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