ROME — A Togolese nun has successfully defended a first-ever dissertation at a Vatican-sanctioned university on the sexual abuse of nuns by priests in the latest evidence of a problem confronting the Catholic Church in the #MeToo era.

Sister Makamatine Lembo was awarded summa cum laude at her defense Thursday at the Pontifical Gregorian University, and was praised by her examiners for her courage in taking on such a taboo subject.

Lembo’s dissertation explores the relational dynamics behind the sexual abuse of nuns by priests, focusing on nine victims in five sub-Saharan countries. It found that the abuses involved entrenched power imbalances that made consent impossible, a years-long grooming process and often money given to poor sisters in exchange for sex.

Examiner Sister Brenda Dolphin thanked Lembo “on behalf of consecrated women all over the world,” particularly for delving into issues of consent and the often complicit role played by religious superiors who fail to help sisters when they report abuse.

Noting the culture of silence in the Church surrounding the issue, she said: “That wasn’t an easy thing to do.”

The Vatican has been forced to confront the abuse of nuns after its own women’s magazine denounced the problem and religious sisters, emboldened by the #MeToo reckoning that adults can be victims of sexual abuse, began speaking out and demanding justice.

Earlier this year, Pope Francis himself publicly vowed to do more to fight the problem, though examiner Karlijn Demasure noted during Lembo’s defense that the Vatican has had two major reports in its hands since the 1990s and yet “very little” has been done to address the issue.

Demasure, who is leaving the Gregorian to launch a new center for safeguarding minors and vulnerable people at St. Paul University in Ottawa, said Lembo’s research was novel in that it represented a “bottom up” approach that was “an important step for prevention.”

Lembo, for her part, told The Associated Press that she was inspired to research the topic after fellow sisters told her of their illicit relationships with priests that they couldn’t escape. She said she realized they were abusive in nature, not consensual, and caused them great spiritual and personal suffering — as if the light that kept them alive had been extinguished.

“After these experiences, they live, but they don’t live,” she said of the sisters who participated in her research.

“I said ‘Why, we have to do something to free these women,'” Lembo said. “We have to help her have the courage to say ‘no.'”

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