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Pope Publicly Acknowledges for First Time Clergy Sexual Abuse of Nuns

February 6, 2019

Pope Francis on Feb. 5 publicly acknowledged for the first time the sexual abuse of nuns by priests and bishops, the latest admission in a crisis that is enveloping the Catholic Church.

Francis made the admission while speaking to reporters en route to Rome from the United Arab Emirates, as he vowed to do more to combat abuse of nuns. His acknowledgment comes just two weeks before he hosts a global gathering of bishops in response to the scandals surrounding child sex abuse by priests and the church’s decades-long coverup of it.

“It’s not that everyone does this, but there have been priests and bishops who have,” Francis told reporters. “And I think that it’s continuing because it’s not like once you realize it that it stops. It continues. And for some time, we’ve been working on it.”

The pope was responding to a question about clergymen who target adult nuns and what approach the Holy See is considering to eradicate it. He said they have already been trying to deal with the crisis.

Pope Francis (R) leads mass
Pope Francis (R) leads Mass for an estimated 170,000 Catholics at an Abu Dhabi sports stadium on Feb. 5, 2019. (Vicenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images)

“Should we do something more? Yes. Is there the will? Yes. But it’s a path that we have already begun,” Francis said.

The abuse of adult nuns—like the child abuse scandals rocking the church—has also been a global one. Over the past year, the Associated Press and other media outlets have reported cases of abused nuns in a number of countries around the world, such as India, Africa, Europe, and South America.

Francis also made reference to Pope Benedict XVI and how he took action against a France-based order that admitted their founding priest had sexually violated his female recruits. He said the sisters had been reduced to “sexual slavery” at the hands of the founder Rev. Marie-Dominique Philippe and other priests. Phillipe died in 2006.

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It comes as the United States is facing a growing reckoning of its own as nearly two dozen local, state, or federal investigations, either criminal or civil, have been launched into the Roman Catholic Church over child sexual abuse allegations. Over half of the 187 Roman Catholic dioceses across the country have also started investigating these claims or have announced plans to do so.

Francis implied at the Feb. 5 news conference that the abuse of nuns by clergymen was being handed on a case-by-case basis.

The new illumination with led lights of St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Peter’s square are pictured on Jan. 25, 2019 in the Vatican. (ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)

“There are cases, usually in new congregations and in some regions more than others,” he said. “We’re working on it.”

“Pray that this goes forward,” he said of the Vatican’s efforts to fight it. “I want it to go forward.”

In a statement in November, the International Union of Superiors General (UISG)—an organization that represents female Catholic religious orders around the world—said they stood by the women and men who have reported their abuse.

“We condemn those who support the culture of silence and secrecy, often under the guise of ‘protection’ of an institution’s reputation …” the statement said.

A group of nuns walk through St. Peter’s Square at dawn on Sept. 3, 2018 in Vatican City, Vatican. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The UISG asked for any woman who has suffered abuse to report it to the leader of her congregation. They said that if they receive a report of abuse they will help the person bring the complaint “to the appropriate organizations.”

One nun said last year that an Italian priest forced himself onto her when she was recounting her sins to him in a university classroom around 20 years ago. She said she only told 2 people of the incident at the time, her provincial superior and her spiritual director because she felt silenced by the Catholic Church’s culture of secrecy.

“It opened a great wound inside of me,” she told AP. “I pretended it didn’t happen.”

Because of this culture, it’s unclear how pervasive the abuse of nuns is. In one case, around half a dozen religious sisters in a small congregation in Chile publicly revealed on national television their stories of abuse by priests and other nuns. They emphasized how their church superiors failed to do anything to stop it.