ROME — The sexual abuse of nuns and religious women by Catholic priests and bishops — and the abortions that have sometimes resulted — has for years been overshadowed by other scandals in the Roman Catholic Church.

That seemed to change this week when Pope Francispublicly acknowledged the problem for the first time.

“I was so happy,” said Lucetta Scaraffia, the author of an article denouncing the abuse of nuns and religious lay women by priests that was published this month in a magazine, Women Church World, which is distributed alongside the Vatican’s newspaper.

Speaking from her Rome apartment, which she said had essentially been converted into a television studio full of international reporters, Ms. Scaraffia said, “Finally, now many women will have the courage to come forward and denounce their abusers.”

Karlijn Demasure, the former executive director of the church’s Center for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University, where she is a professor and expert in the sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults, said there is no data on how widespread the problem is. But, she added, anecdotal evidence suggests “it’s not exceptional.”

Many members of the church, experts said, suffer from a medieval mind-set and consider the priests who commit abuse against nuns to be the victims of seductive temptresses. Since the victims in these cases are adults, the experts say, there is also a reflexive tendency to blame them. The reductive public image of the nun as existing to serve the priest and to pray quietly also undercuts those who speak up.

Often, the abuse occurs in a relationship of spiritual guidance, Professor Demasure said, with the priest grooming the victim over time, as is often the case in cases of child sexual abuse.

The apparent preponderance of such abuse in Africa and India has led some in the church to chalk the abuse up to cultural differences.

In many cases, sexual favors have been required of nuns who are financially dependent on priests, and traditions of subservience by women make them vulnerable to abuse.

Ms. Scaraffia said she subscribed to the pope’s critique of abuse, that it is rooted in a rot in clerical culture that leads priests to believe they are a higher authority, and thus entitled to do what they want with their parishioners. In developing countries, where the abuse of nuns seems more prevalent, priests tend to be put on even higher pedestals.

Professor Demasure said there is also the delicate issue that female superiors have covered up the abuse of their nuns to protect the reputation of the church, just as bishops have done with pedophile priests.

In India, Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar currently faces charges for repeatedly raping a former mother superior of a congregation. While he has denied the charges, more than 80 nuns signed a July letter urging that he be removed from pastoral work.

Ms. Scaraffia said the abuse of nuns occurs “not only in the third world.’’

‘‘It’s all over,’’ she said. ‘‘It’s in Europe.”

An investigation this summer by Nicole Winfield, the Associated Press reporter who asked the pope the question about abuse on the papal plane, documented abuse on at least four different continents.

In November, the International Union of Superiors General, or U.I.S.G., the organization representing the world’s female Catholic religious orders, published an extraordinary statement that called on women religious who have suffered abuse to come forward and report it to church and state authorities.

“If the U.I.S.G. receives a report of abuse, we will be a listening presence,” the statement said.

“We condemn those who support the culture of silence and secrecy, often under the guise of ‘protection’ of an institution’s reputation or naming it ‘part of one’s culture,’ ” it added.

In December, the Vatican began investigating the Institute of the Good Samaritan, a small Chilean religious order of nuns, after Chilean national television revealed that some sisters had been thrown out after reporting sexual abuse by priests and maltreatment by their superior.

Ms. Scaraffia, getting ready for her next interview in Rome, said she sensed momentum and was confident now that “the pope understands the problem.” She added, “This is surely the first step.”