Pope Francis for the first time publicly acknowledged that nuns have also been the victims of sexual abuse at the hands of predator priests and bishops.
Vowing to do more to protect vulnerable nuns, the pontiff also credited his predecessor, Pope Benedict, with taking action against a French-based order after some of its nuns were subjected to "sexual slavery.”
“Should we do something more? Yes," Francis told reporters during a press conference on the papal flight back to Rome from his historic two-day visit to the United Arab Emirates. "Is there the will? Yes. But it’s a path that we have already begun.”
"It’s not something that everyone does, but there have been priests and even bishops who have done what you say,” Francis added. “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.”
Francis said some clerics have been suspended for abusing nuns. But he said the mistreatment of women is not limited to the church because in many parts of the world, they are still considered “second-class citizens.”
“It’s a cultural problem," he said. "I dare say that humanity hasn’t matured.”
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The French order Francis was referring to is The Community of St. Jean, which admitted in 2013 that several nuns had been preyed upon by the Rev. Marie-Dominique Philippe and other priests.
Long an open secret in the Catholic Church, the issue of sexual abuse of nuns was dragged into the open by the #MeToo movement and the reporting of the Associated Press and other news organizations that found cases of nuns being abused in Europe, Africa, South America and Asia.
In November, the International Union of Superiors General, which represents all the world's female Catholic religious orders, publicly denounced the "culture of silence and secrecy" that prevented nuns from speaking out. It also urged nuns to report abuse to both the police and their superiors.
Just last week, the women's magazine of the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, pointed blame toward the all-powerful and all-male clergy.
Meanwhile, the magazine, "Women Church World," reported allegations that some nuns who were impregnated by priests were forced to have abortions, which the Roman Catholic church considers a major sin.
Attorney Mitchell Garabedian, whose efforts to bring down pedophile priests were dramatized in the Oscar-winning movie “Spotlight,” said he hopes Francis will "provide the public with all documents concerning the sexual slavery of nuns and children for the sake of healing and morality."
"Given the extensive sexual slavery of minor children which has existed in the Catholic church for decades upon decades, it should come as no surprise that nuns are also sex slaves of priests," he said in a statement. "The sexual slavery of nuns and of children are crimes against humanity."
How big the problem of sexual abuse of nuns is remains unclear.
Victims are reluctant to report abuse because of fears they won’t be believed, the AP reported. And church leaders have been reluctant to admit that some priests and bishops have ignored their vows of celibacy.
Francis suggested that the problem of nun abuse is being dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
“There are cases, usually in new congregations and in some regions more than others,” he said. “We’re working on it.”
“Pray that this goes forward,” he added. “I want it to go forward.”
Claudio Lavanga is Rome-based producer and correspondent for NBC News.
Corky Siemaszko is a senior writer at NBC News Digital.