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It was in 1836 that a book was published in New York that seemed tailor-made to touch off a moral panic. Titled The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk or The Hidden Secrets of a Nun's Life in a Convent Exposed, the purported author of the book, an ex-nun named Maria Monk provided lurid descriptions of her life in a Montreal convent and the sexual exploitation that she faced there.
According to the book, she and other nuns of the Sisters of Charity of the Hotel-Dieu (also known as "the Black Nuns"), were routinely sexually abused by the priests at a seminary next door. Using a secret tunnel that linked the convent to the seminary, priests would enter to have sex with the nuns on a regular basis. If children resulted from the sexual acts, the babies would be baptized and then "smothered or secretly buried in the cellar". Nuns who refused the sexual advances of priests would be murdered. Maria said that she had stayed in the convent for seven years before becoming pregnant by a priest. It was fear for her child's life that finally caused her to flee Canada and go to the United States for safety and to give birth to her child.
Certainly the time was right for such a book to be widely accepted. Due to the influx of Irish immigrants, there was considerable anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States during that period and dark rumours about Catholic clergy and their hidden vices were widespread. Two years before the Monk book came out, another "tell all" book about life in a convent published by ex-nun Rebecca Reed was filled with allegations of forced conversions and abuse. At the same time, a convent in Massachusetts had been burned to the ground by a mob following rumours of a former nun being held against her will there. The publication of Maria Monk's book fed into the hysteria nicely and generated a tremendous outcry with calls for the investigation of the convent by leading Protestants in New York and Montreal. An investigation launched by the Bishop of Montreal turned up nothing but was quickly dismissed as a cover-up. It would take a full-scale investigation by a New York newspaper named William Leete Stone leading a team of Protestants to the convent to determine that, not only was there no secret tunnel, but it was unlikely that Maria had ever been there at all
This opened the floodgates to claims and counterclaims. Maria's supporters accused the Church and the convent of secretly destroying all evidence that might have confirmed Maria's story. Her critics (and there were an increasing number of them), used the inconsistencies in her account to discredit her. According to later sources (including her mother), Maria had sustained brain damage at the age of seven after "ramming a slate pencil into her head". As a result, she was given to telling "whoppers" thereafter. Not only was she never a nun, she was not even Catholic and had a history of telling colourful tales of abuse to anyone who would listen.
Apparently, during the period when she had supposedly been in the convent, she had actually been incarcerated in a Magdelene asylum following an arrest for prostitution. As it turned out, it was her legal guardian (and lover), William Hoyt who had come up with most of the details that found their way into print (not to mention pocketing most of the profits from the book). Maria had actually contributed little to the book itself as it had been largely ghost-written by a local publisher. Despite the revelations, Maria would publish a sequel titled Further Disclosures which also sold well. She had left Hoyt by that time and had taken up with another "protector" who soon left her after pocketing most of the sequel's profits.
Following the birth of a second illegitimate child in 1838, her few remaining supporters abandoned her and Maria lived the last years of her life in alcoholic poverty. She died in a New York debtor's prison in 1849 after being arrested for picking the pocket of a man with whom she had been cohabiting. Despite her sad end, her book has gone in and out of print and many anti-Catholic sources still cite her revelations as true.
What to make of Maria Monk? While there is evidence that her childhood brain damage had left her with a case of pseudologia fantastica, she was also clearly exploited by the men in her life who cashed in on her tales and abandoned her when she stopped being of use to them. Does that make her a victim or not? You be the judge.
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