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Pope Francis has publicly acknowledged for the first time that priests and bishops have sexually abused nuns, including one case where sisters were reduced to “sexual slavery”.

The pontiff added that he believes the abuse is still going on.

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In a news conference on board his plane while returning to Rome from the UAE, he told reporters: “It’s not that everyone does this, but there have been priests and bishops who have.

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“And I think that it’s continuing because it’s not like once you realise it that it stops. It continues. And for some time we’ve been working on it.

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“Should we do something more? Yes. Is there the will? Yes. But it’s a path that we have already begun.”

However when asked if there was a universal approach being formulated to deal with abuse of women in the church by priests, he implied that at the moment incidents were being dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

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“There are cases, usually in new congregations and in some regions more than others,” he said. “We’re working on it.”

The Pope’s acknowledgement of the problem comes as he prepares to decide the fate of the disgraced US ex-cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, who is accused of abusing minors as well as adult seminarians.

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