Just two weeks before the Vatican hosts a summit to address abuses in the Catholic church, Pope Francis has admitted sexual abuse of nuns by the clergy is an ongoing problem.
Speaking to reporters on his flight back to Rome from Abu Dhabi, Pope Francis said the Church was addressing the widespread problem, but that it was still going on.
“It is true… there have been priests and even bishops who have done this. I think it is still going on because something does not stop just because you have become aware of it,” he told reporters.
Although the church has been embroiled in child abuse scandals carried out by the clergy, the widespread problem of abuse within the church has been less publicised.
Between February 21 and 24, the presidents of the episcopal conferences from over 100 countries will gather at the Vatican to discuss how to tackle abuse.
While many hoped it would lead to a church-wide procedure for handing members of the Church who fail to act on reports of wrongdoing, Pope Francis himself has sought to taper aspirations.
“The expectations need to be deflated,” Pope Francis said as he was flying back from Panama in late January.
On January 1, Pope Francis sent a letter to the US Catholic Church in which he spoke plainly about the issue.
As well as causing untold pain to the victims and their families, he said “the Church’s credibility has been seriously undercut and diminished by these sins and crimes, but even more by the efforts made to deny or conceal them.
“The mentality that would cover things up, far from helping to resolve conflicts, enabled them to fester and cause even greater harm to the network of relationships that today we are called to heal and restore,” he added.
He said that combatting the “culture of abuse … urgently demands of us a renewed and decisive approach to resolving conflicts”.
In 2018 cases of abuse against nuns were reported in South America, Europe, Africa and Asia. At the time, the Vatican declined to comment. Women were reportedly forced to bear children that their assaulters, usually priests, refused to recognise.
While the pontiff was visibly taken aback by the question, he was candid about the church’s failings.
Years of inertia regarding this issue are being replaced by people coming forward.
Last November, the organisation representing women’s Catholic orders around the world denounced the “culture of silence and secrecy” that helped cover up and perpetuate abuse. The International Union of Superiors General urged nuns to come forward and report incidents to the police.
In 2018, a nun who had been assaulted by a priest during confession said for years she pretended the violent incident hadn’t taken place. For two decades she remained quiet.
“It opened a great wound,” she told the Associated Press.
Last week, Lucetta Scaraffia, editor in chief of Women Church World – the women's magazine of the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano – wrote: "The abuse of women results in procreation and so is at the origin of the scandal of imposed abortions and children not recognised by priests."
Encouraged by the growing #MeToo movement, more nuns have spoken out against the abuses.
“Should more be done? Yes,” the Pope said. “Do we have the will? Yes. But it is a path that we have already begun.”