VATICAN CITY – The largest association of religious sisters in the United States called Thursday for an overhaul of the male-led leadership structure of the Catholic Church, after Pope Francis publicly acknowledged the problem of priests and bishops sexually abusing nuns.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious also appealed in a statement for reporting guidelines to be established so abused nuns "are met with compassion and are offered safety."
The conference's statement followed Francis' acknowledgement this week that clergy abuse of nuns was a problem. The pope said the Vatican was working on it but more needed to be done.
His comments, given in response to a reporter's question during an in-flight press conference, were the first public acknowledgement by a pope of a long-simmering scandal. Reporting by The Associated Press and other news media, as well as the reckoning demanded by the #MeToo movement, has brought the issue to the fore.
The LCWR, which represents about 80 percent of Catholic sisters in the U.S., said it was grateful Francis had "shed light on a reality that has been largely hidden from the public and we believe his honesty is an important and significant step forward."
The group also said some religious congregations had been part of the problem and didn't support sisters in coming forward to report abuse.
"We regret that when we did know of instances of abuse, we did not speak out more forcefully for an end to the culture of secrecy and cover-ups within the Catholic Church that have discouraged victims from coming forward," the association based in Silver Spring, Maryland, said.
It made two recommendations: the creation of reporting mechanisms and what it called a "refashioning" of the church's overall leadership structure to involve laity and to reform the clerical culture that affords all power to the clergy.
"The revelations of the extent of abuse indicate clearly that the current structures must change if the church is to regain its moral credibility and have a viable future," the group said.