It is “the first time that the pope, but also the church as an institution, has publicly admitted this abuse is taking place, and that's hugely important,” Lucetta Scaraffia, editor of the Vatican's womens' magazine, told AFP on Wednesday.
“There are some priests and also bishops who have done it,” the pontiff said in response to a journalist's question on the abuse of nuns, speaking on the return flight from his trip to the United Arab Emirates.
The pontiff on Tuesday said Catholic priests and bishops had been sexually abusing nuns, and that his predecessor Benedict XVI had had “the courage” to dissolve a religious order of women because of “sexual slavery on the part of priests and the founder”
He was referring to a scandal concerning a French congregation called “Soeurs Contemplatives de Saint Jean”.
That community admitted in 2013 that the priest who founded it had behaved “in ways that went against chastity” with several women in the order, according to French Catholic newspaper La Croix.
When pope Francis talked about “sexual slavery” he meant “manipulation, a type of abuse of power also present in sexual abuse”, said the Vatican on Tuesday.
Francis said the Church has “suspended several clerics” and the Vatican has been “working (on the issue) for a long time.”
The abuse was “still going on, because it's not something that just goes away like that. On the contrary,” he added.
Pope Francis in Rome. Photo: AFP
The Catholic church has had to contend with a wave of cases involving paedophile priests in countries worldwide, from Ireland and the United States to Australia.
Francis's comments followed a rare outcry last week from the Vatican's women's magazine, “Women Church World”, over the rape of nuns.
It said the victims felt forced to have abortions or raise children not recognised by their priest fathers.
“Many complaints have been filed with the Vatican and have not been followed up,” said Scaraffia, who raised the issue in the February issue of “Women Church World”, a supplement distributed with the Vatican's Osservatore Romano newspaper.
“I very much hope that a commission will be set up to investigate, and that nuns expert in the issue will be called to take part,” she told AFP.
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“They could move quickly with trials, and above all raise awareness because silence is what allows rapists to continue to rape,” she added.
Scaraffia said the clerical abuse of nuns was a global issue, but one particularly prevalent in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Reports of such abuse have been made from Chile to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Italy, India, Kenya, Peru, and Ukraine.
Those abused “do not find it easy to speak out. They fear retaliation against them and their congregations,” Scaraffia said.
She said the issue was abusive power relationships, with clerics controlling everything from nuns' vocations to their salaries.
“It's a very difficult situation which has its roots in the nuns' dependence within the church. They are not recognised as equals.”
Francis's admission of the problem was “the umpteenth blow to the church's image, but also an occasion to show that change really is under way,” Scaraffia said.
The key is “to strip priests of their air of power, which is what allows them to behave this way”.
She admitted there was “great resistance” to investigating abuse claims within the church and uncovering predator priests.
Yet she added that there had initially been reluctance to address the clerical paedophilia crisis, “but that was overcome”.