I walked through the door next to a refrigerator in the kitchen and made my way down the stairs. I felt afraid and chills ran down my spine. A few seconds later I heard footsteps following me. Bibiana was suddenly standing right behind me in the dark.
TRIGGER WARNING: This story contains a detailed account of the sexual assault perpetrated upon Sandra Migliore by Sister Bibiana while in formation to become a nun, and may not be suitable for some readers.
CÓRDOBA, Argentina ꟷ As a teenager, I had a dream to become a nun. I wanted to devote my life to bridging the gap between God and others. It took some serious convincing, but my family eventually agreed to let me leave home. As I made the three-hour trip to Santa Fe to join the house of formation under the Franciscan Sisters of Christ, I felt a new world opening before me.
When my feet touched ground at the congregation, I felt eager to embrace my true calling and proud for making it that far. I took in the scenery and met some of the people, who appeared kind and respectful. My mind wandered excitedly to visions of what the next few years might look like.
The nuns took me to the dormitory and to my room, which I would share with another teenager in formation. Each of us had a single bed and we shared a small table in the middle of the room. Besides that, it lay completely empty. When darkness settled in and night arrived, something unusual and unexpected happened. Night after night, I listened to the cries of the other young women echoing through the air.
Time began to move very slowly, and the days turned monotonous. I held tight to a nugget of hope because I so desperately wanted to complete the program and dedicate my life to helping others. I pushed forward despite the profound solitude and abrupt changes, but little did I know this house of formation would become a place of nightmares.
A few months into the novitiate, one of the teachers Bibiana Fleitas ordered me to go downstairs to clean a small room that acted as a sub-basement. Bibiana worked as a novice mistress for nearly a decade and took charge over the new girls who came for formation. I would come to call this room the “basement of terror.”
I walked through the door next to a refrigerator in the kitchen and made my way down the stairs. I felt afraid and chills ran down my spine. A few seconds later I heard footsteps following me. Bibiana was suddenly standing right behind me in the dark. There, in the pitch black, the room lay eerily quiet. Bibiana began to whisper in my ear. “I love you very much,” she said, “and I want to protect you like a mother.”
I could not see anything and I stood perfectly still, too shocked to move a single muscle. Suddenly, Bibiana leaped on top of me, groping me forcefully and kissing me. She forcefully reached down and began touching my genitals. I pushed her away with all the strength I could muster and escaped her grip. Running back up the stairs, my heart pounded in my chest, and I felt a sense of utter disbelief.
The congregation tasked Bibiana with training us for religious life, teaching us to behave like nuns, and helping us learn to live in community. Yet, she abused many of the girls – some younger than me, and some older. No matter our age, we all had one thing in common: we feared Bibiana.
Sister Bibiana abused at least 30 novices in the 10 years she worked at San Lorenzo. My days became consumed with anxiety and dread. Bibiana told us her behavior was normal; that she cared for and wanted to help us. Many of the girls believed her lies. As a vulnerable teenager – still a child – Bibiana robbed me of my innocence.
Completely isolated from our families and the outside world, every day we spent hours in silence, unable to talk about what we were going through with one another. The sisters preferred to keep us separated. Years passed by and my life as a nun grew measurably more isolated. I desperately longed to return home.
One day, as I sat alone in the courtyard, Bibiana came to talk to me. “I am leaving,” she told me, followed by a stark warning. “You need to keep your mouth shut about what happened here if you want to remain in formation,” she said. Bibiana told me the abuse was my fault, and no one would believe me anyway.
I had arrived in Santa Fe in 1983 and in 1985 they transferred me to a convent in Lanús, Buenos Aires, run by the San Francisco de Asís Institute. I remained there for six years until I left the convent in 1991. During that time, I heard word that the order removed Sister Bibiana from her teaching post at the time and intended to return her to the convent to once again, teach young girls and boys.
Hearing the news left me horrified. I sprang into action and told my superiors what Bibiana did to me. They denied everything and accused me of lying. They covered for her, and for each other, going as far as forging signatures on fake documents to try and throw me out. Knowing such evil existed – and they were willing to sweep it under the rug – left me broken inside.
When I started a new job at a school in Lanús, I finally found someone to talk to. Another young woman named Valentina and I became friends and I soon learned Sister Bibiana abused her too. For a year and a half, Valentina endured horrors at the hands of Sister Bibiana. We cried together and for the first time in years, I felt understood.
Valentina looked me in the eyes and said, “The abuse was not your fault.” Her words and her story gave me the freedom I so desperately needed to start to heal, eight years after the attack in that dark basement. Around that time, some of the nuns in the convent began circulating anonymous emails denouncing abuses that occurred in the 1980s.
This groundswell of anonymous emails made the superiors take notice. One day, a superior approached me and asked if I knew anything about these claims. I froze, unable to speak a single word. After a few seconds passed, I breathed, and began to tell her my story. When the accusations finally went public, the Mother General – the highest global authority for the congregation – attempted to meet with Sister Bibiana, but she was nowhere to be found.
Rumor had it, Bibiana moved to Venezuela and continued working as a nun. The years flew by, and Valentina and I fell in love with each other. I never had closure, so I wrote a book called Raza de víboras [Memoir of a novice]. While in the process of publishing it, the institute where I worked dismissed me without pay. Infuriated, I refused to be silent again. I sued the school and published the book anyway.
In 2017, Valentina and I got married. The church never officially apologized for what happened to us. When Eliseo Subiela, director of the Cine Argentino, called to say she wanted to turn my book into a movie, it moved me deeply. Together with the famous Argentine film maker Alberto Lecchi, Eliseo produced Caminemos Valentina – released on September 14, 2023. The movie follows my and Valentina’s healing journey together, the abuse we endured, and the strength it took to speak out.
For months, we shared every detail of our lives with the lead actresses. The emotional process moved us deeply. Today, I am no longer a religious person. I experienced far too much hypocrisy at the hands of the Church. When we reported our abuse, they stayed silent; they called us liars. Their flawed idea of right and wrong and their lack of care or an apology made it impossible to stay.
Now I speak out – not only about this – but the Church’s defiance against the queer community and gay marriage. These days, I do my best to live in the present and I feel like a better person. The horrors we endured at the hands of the nuns will never dictate our future. While the wounds remain, they slowly turn into scars, and they diminish little by little every day.
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