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 that 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 that is erupting at the same time that the Catholic hierarchy is under siege for its decades-long cover-up of the sexual abuse of minors.
Reporting by The Associated Press and other news media, as well as the reckoning demanded by the #MeToo movement, has brought the issue of sexual violence against nuns to the fore, such that #Nunstoo has been trending in recent days.
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 acknowledged some religious congregations had been part of the problem and didn't support sisters in coming forward to report abuse in the past.
"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," said the association based in Silver Spring, Maryland.
The comment was a reflection of the church's overreaching concern with protecting its reputation from scandal, as well as the well-founded fear of reprisals internally for speaking out.
Small religious orders, before they become recognized by the Vatican, are completely dependent on the diocesan bishop who gives them initial approval to form. Experts say that dependency has dissuaded mother superiors from taking accusations from their sisters up the chain of command, since the bishop could retaliate against the congregation if he has a greater interest in protecting his priest.
The Vatican, for example, launched an investigation last year into a small religious order in Chile after sisters reported some of their fellow nuns had been thrown out of the congregation after they brought their complaints of abuse by priests to their mother superior.
In India, a nun's decision to file a police complaint accusing her bishop of raping her has divided her congregation, with some sisters siding with her and others with the bishop.
The LCWR made two recommendations in its statement: 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.
The scandal over the abuse of nuns has come to the fore just two weeks before Francis convenes presidents of all the bishops conferences around the world for a three-day summit on addressing the abuse of minors.