It could probably take the catholic church another decade to recover from decades of scandals over clerical sexual abuse.

The pontiff Pope Francis has set the ball rolling by purging the clergy and the church’s hierarchy of abusive priests, but it appears the extent of abuse may never be completely known.

On Tuesday, the pope made a shocking admission that Catholic priests and bishops had sexually abused nuns.

This is the latest in a series of scandals that has rocked the church in recent years.

"There are some priests and also bishops who have done it," the pontiff said in response to a journalist's question on the abuse of nuns, speaking on the return flight from his trip to the United Arab Emirates.

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The papal admission followed a rare outcry last week from the Vatican's women's magazine over the sexual abuse of nuns, leaving them feeling forced to have abortions or raise children not recognised by their priest fathers.

The issue hit the headlines last year after a nun accused an Indian bishop of repeatedly raping her in a case that triggered rare dissent within the country's Catholic Church.

Francis said the problem could be found "anywhere" but was prevalent in "some new congregations and in some regions".

"I think it's still going on, because it's not something that just goes away like that. On the contrary," he added.

He said the Church has "suspended several clerics" and the Vatican has been "working (on the issue) for a long time".

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