Pope Francis says he is intent on tackling the sexual abuse of nuns by the clergy and says that a process to deal with the issue is underway.
Speaking on board the papal plane back from the United Arab Emirates, he argued the phenomenon was rooted in society’s mistreatment of women. He also stressed that religious congregations had been dissolved as a result of the sexual exploitation of nuns and that Benedict XVI had taken steps to tackle the issue.
“It’s true, it is a problem,” Francis told journalists when asked about the issue. “I dare to say that humanity has not yet matured. Women are [seen as] second class, and it starts from there. It is a cultural problem which eventually leads even to the killing of women."
The sexual abuse of sisters by priests and others in authority, particularly in Africa and Asia, has been bubbling under the surface of the Church for decades, but is becoming increasingly visible. An article on the topic was published last week in the monthly women’s magazine published by Vatican newspaper, "L’Osservatore Romano,” and has been raised by the Union of Superiors General, the organisation of superiors of female religious communities. It is also likely to be discussed at the forthcoming summit on abuse in the Vatican on 21-24 February.
“There have been priests and even bishops who have done what you say,” he told a journalist from the Associated Press who asked him the question. “I think it is still taking place because it's not as though the moment you become aware of something it goes away. The thing continues, and we've been working on this for some time.”
He added: “We have suspended a few clerics and sent some away over this. And also - and I don’t know whether the trial on this is over - dissolved a few female religious orders which were very much tied to this.”
Speaking to reporters after a two-day visit to Abu Dhabi, Francis stressed that it was Benedict XVI who took the first steps to address the matter.
According to Francis, Benedict had the “courage to dissolve a female congregation” where women had become the victims of “sexual slavery on the part of clerics or the founder,” although he did not give any indication over which order he was referring to. A Holy See spokesmen later said it concerned a French order of nuns.
The Pope claims that his predecessor had been thwarted in his attempts to handle the congregation saying there were “filters" inside the Church “that would block him”. One one occasion after calling a meeting, “Joseph Ratzinger went there with the folder and all the papers and when he came back he said to his secretary, put [the folder] in the archive, the other side won.”
Francis went on: “When he [Benedict XVI] became Pope, the first thing he did was [say] “bring me this from the archive,’ and he began…The folklore on Pope Benedict depicts him as being very good, because he is. A piece of bread is more evil than him. He is good, but he is not weak."
Although it was not confirmed officially by the Holy See, Francis’ story has echoes of reports about Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s attempts to take action against the Legionaries of Christ founder, Fr Marcial Maciel, who turned out to be serial sexual abuser of seminarians. Pope Benedict took action against Maciel soon after his election to the papacy.
The Pope added that the abuse of nuns was still a problem and that the Church was working on it. “Pray that we can go forward, I want to go forward,” he said.