By Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — When the superior of a religious community does not live his or her authority as a form of service, the result is an abuse of power that harms individuals and can destroy a vocation, Pope Francis said.

Meeting members of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life Dec. 11, the pope said such abuse is illustrated in a recent Italian book, “Il Velo del Silenzio” (“Veil of Silence”), by Salvatore Cernuzio.

The book features interviews with 11 women, most of whom had been in cloistered religious communities, many of them orders founded in the past 50 years. One of the women was sexually assaulted by a priest but was told by her superiors that she must have led him on. The others recount abuses of power and psychological or emotional abuse, mainly through acts of cruelty, humiliation and a denial of medical or psychological assistance.

The women told Cernuzio those repeated acts of cruelty took place under the pretext of teaching the women obedience.

Pope Francis told members of the Vatican dicastery that their task is to “discern and accompany. Accompany especially the communities of recent foundation, which are also more exposed to the risk of being self-referential.”

The founders of new communities, he said, “sometimes tend to be self-referential, to feel that they are the sole custodians or interpreters of the charism, as if they were above the church.”

But every authentic charism inspiring the foundation of a new community, the pope said, “is born in the church, it grows and can bear evangelical fruit only in the church, in the living communion of the faithful people of God.”

When a local bishop and the members of the Vatican congregation are approached with a suggestion for a new community, the pope said, an essential question to ask is: “Is this institute capable of integrating itself into the life of the holy faithful people of God or not?”

A vocation to religious life is a precious but often fragile thing that must be supported with great care, the pope said, and that care for vocations obviously includes being very careful about how authority over the candidate is exercised.

The other issue with authority, he said, is “the duration of mandates and the accumulation of powers, and attention to abuses of authority and power.”

In discerning whether a new institute or new form of consecrated life or new community is truly inspired by the Holy Spirit for the good of the entire church, local bishops and Vatican staff must work together, the pope said.

“This collaboration, this synergy between the dicastery and the bishops also makes it possible to avoid — as the (Second Vatican) Council asks — the inappropriate creation of institutes lacking sufficient motivation or adequate vigor, perhaps with good will, but something is missing,” he said.