Pope Francis says priests and bishops have sexually abused nuns

Nuns have accused clerics of sexual abuse in in India, Africa, Latin America and in Italy

Pope Francis:  Roman Catholic Church has faced a persistent problem of sexual abuse of nuns by priests and even bishops. Photograph: Ali Haidar/EPA

Pope Francis: Roman Catholic Church has faced a persistent problem of sexual abuse of nuns by priests and even bishops. Photograph: Ali Haidar/EPA

 

Pope Francis has said the Roman Catholic Church has faced a persistent problem of sexual abuse of nuns by priests and even bishops.

This is the first time he has publicly acknowledged the issue.

Catholic nuns have accused clerics of sexual abuse in recent years in India, Africa, Latin America and in Italy, and a Vatican magazine last week mentioned nuns having abortions or giving birth to the children of priests.

But Francis has never raised the issue until he was asked to comment during a news conference aboard the papal plane returning to Rome from his trip to the United Arab Emirates.

“It’s true,” Francis said on Tuesday. “There are priests and bishops who have done that.” The pope’s admission opens a new front in the long-running scandal of sexual abuse by priests, recognising nuns who have tried for years to call attention to their plight. With the #MeToo movement going strong, and Francis under pressure for neglecting the victims of child abuse, the nuns’ pleas have gained traction.

In November, the organisation representing the world’s Catholic women’s religious orders, the International Union of Superiors General, publicly denounced the “culture of silence and secrecy” that contributed to abuse, and urged nuns to report abuse to law enforcement.

A top official in the Vatican office that handles sexual abuse allegations resigned last month after a former nun accused him of making sexual advances during confession. The official, the Rev. Hermann Geissler, chief of staff in the Vatican’s doctrinal office, denied the allegation, the Vatican said.

An article last week in Women Church World, the women’s magazine of Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, blamed the abuse on the outsize power of priests. “The abuse of women results in procreation and so is at the origin of the scandal of imposed abortions and children not recognized by priests,” wrote the article’s author, Lucetta Scaraffia, a feminist intellectual and editor-in-chief of Women Church World.

Asked about these developments Tuesday, Francis said that it was a continuing problem and that the Vatican was working on the issue. Some priests, he said, have been suspended. “Should more be done? Yes,” Francis said. “Do we have the will? Yes. But it is a path that we have already begun.”

Francis recalled that his predecessor, Benedict XVI, had been “a strong man” who he said had sought to remove priests who committed sexual abuse and even “sexual slavery.” Francis spoke about a case in which Benedict dissolved an order of nuns “because a certain slavery of women had crept in, slavery to the point of sexual slavery on the part of clergy or the founder.”

A Vatican spokesman, Alessandro Gisotti, said later that Francis was referring to the Contemplative Sisters of Saint-Jean, a small group in France that confronted a variety of problems. Even though the abuse of nuns gets less attention than the abuse of children and young men, it is not new.

Pope Francis at the end of his three-day visit to the United Arab Emirates. Photograph: EPA
Pope Francis at the end of his three-day visit to the United Arab Emirates. Photograph: EPA

In the 1990s, as the child sex abuse crisis was starting to emerge in the United States, leaders of women’s religious orders wrote several reports calling attention to cases of priests abusing nuns.

Many examples came from Africa, where priests were said to have turned to nuns for sex during the spread of Aids. One sister at the time, Maura O’Donohue, wrote of a case in Malawi where priests impregnated nearly 30 sisters in one congregation. When they complained to the archbishop, she wrote, they were replaced.

Last year, a nun in India accused a bishop of repeatedly raping her between 2014 and 2016. The bishop was arrested after she reported him to police, a decision that divided the local Catholic community. Many priests celebrated when the bishop, who faces trial this year, was released on bail.

In a high-profile case in Chile, the Vatican is investigating reports that priests abused nuns. Current and former nuns said the women had been removed from the order when they reported the abuse.

Last summer, an investigation by The Associated Press found cases of abuse of nuns in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America, and reported that the Vatican had not adequately punished offenders or supported victims.

Last year, Mary Dispenza, a former nun who works with the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a victims’ advocacy group, helped popularise the hashtag #nunstoo on Twitter. She intended to gather stories of people abused by nuns, but started to hear from nuns about abuse by priests.

“I’m really angered by the words of the pope just now,” Dispenza said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “I am angered by the pope not standing up and really speaking out about the tragedy, and actions he will take.” The majority of the pope’s visit to the United Arab Emirates was focused on interreligious dialogue with the Muslim world, and it culminated with the signing of a sort of manifesto for brotherhood with Ahmed al-Tayeb, grand imam of Egypt’s influential Al Azhar mosque.

Asked on the plane home about conservative criticism that he had been Pollyannaish in his approach to the Middle East and been taken advantage of by the Muslim sheikhs, Francis joked, “Not only the Muslims,” and noted that his critics felt he had been manipulated by just about everyone.

But he said the document he signed was on strong theological footing. “I want to say this clearly, from a Catholic point of view, the document has not moved a millimeter” from church teaching codified in the Second Vatican Council. He said he took the extra step of having the document vetted by a tough Dominican theologian, who approved it. “It’s not a step backward,” he said. “It is a step forward.” – New York Times