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Pope Francis publicly acknowledges clergy’s sexual abuse of nuns

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 2/8/2019, 6 a.m.
Pope Francis publicly acknowledged the scandal of priests and bishops sexually abusing nuns and vowed to do more to fight ...
Pope Francis

ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE

Pope Francis publicly acknowledged the scandal of priests and bishops sexually abusing nuns and vowed to do more to fight the problem, the latest sign that there is no end in sight to the Catholic Church’s abuse crisis — and that it now has a reckoning from the #MeToo movement.

The pope admitted to the problem for the first time in public during a news conference Tuesday while returning to Rome from the United Arab Emirates.

The acknowledgment comes just two weeks before he hosts an unprecedented gathering of bishops to craft a global response to the scandal of priestly predators who target children and the superiors who covered up the crimes.

Pope Francis was asked about priests who target adult women — the religious sisters who are the backbone of the Catholic Church’s education, health care and social service ministries around the globe — and whether the Holy See might consider a similar universal approach to combat that issue.

“It’s not that everyone does this, but there have been priests and bishops who have,” Pope 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.

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

The issue has come to the fore amid the Catholic Church’s overall reckoning with the sexual abuse of minors and the #MeToo-inspired acknowledgement that adults can be victims of abuse whenever there is an imbalance of power in a relationship. In the past year, the media have reported on cases of abused nuns in India, Africa, Europe and South America — evidence that the problem is by no means limited to a certain geographic area.

In November, the organization representing all the world’s female Catholic religious orders, the International Union of Superiors General, publicly denounced the “culture of silence and secrecy” that prevented nuns from speaking out and urged sisters to report abuse to their superiors and police. And just last week, the women’s magazine of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano identified the clerical culture of the all-powerful clergy as the culprit.

The magazine, “Women Church World,” noted that the scandal involves a corollary: Nuns being forced to abort the priests’ children or bear children that the priests refuse to recognize.

Pope Francis’ acknowledgement of the problem comes as he prepares to decide the fate of the disgraced American ex-cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, who is accused of abusing minors as well as adult seminarians. That case also cast a spotlight on the issue of abusive power relationships, and whether the Catholic Church ought to consider seminarians and sisters as “vulnerable adults” when compared to the priests and bishops who control everything from their vocations to their studies and salaries.

Pope Francis noted that Pope Benedict XVI had taken action against a France-based order that admitted the priest who founded it had violated his chastity vows with his female recruits. Pope Francis said the sisters had been reduced to “sexual slavery” at the hands of the Rev. Marie-Dominique Philippe and other priests.