A celebration of Mass at the Vatican has been marred by an apparent sexual assault that occurred during the procession, a Vatican statement said.
The pontiff said at midday Sunday that he was “deeply saddened” by the incident.
It comes after a Vatican newspaper reported that two female pilgrims in the procession were raped and molested during the week-long celebration of the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The Vatican statement did not say who the two women were.
It did not elaborate on the nature of the alleged sexual assault or whether the victim has been identified.
The first woman, identified by the newspaper as Sister Simone Maria Speranza, a member of the Vatican University’s clergy, said she was in the same group as the other two women.
The two women had not been identified by any other media outlet, she said.
Sister Simone Maria, an Italian priest, said in an interview with Italian daily La Repubblica that she had not told anyone about the alleged incident, but she was afraid for her safety.
“I was afraid that I would be accused of being in the group that did this,” she said, adding that the incident took place “in a group of pilgrims that was not related to us.
I didn’t tell anyone because I am a woman.”
A Vatican spokesman told the BBC that Sister Simone was among those who participated in the mass, but did not offer details about her alleged assault.
He said that the two nuns in question had been questioned by the Vatican police and the Vatican is conducting an investigation.
The news agency AFP reported that the Vatican had launched an internal investigation into the incident, which took place while the Holy See was celebrating the life and ministry of Mary.
“It is our hope that these women will not be harmed or offended by this event,” the Vatican statement added.
The Holy See has been criticized in recent weeks for its handling of sexual abuse cases, including one of Pope Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, who was convicted of child sex abuse in 2015.
In recent months, Pope Francis has also been embroiled in a scandal over the Vatican’s handling of the death of a nun accused of sexually abusing children, Sister Teresa Giudice, in 2007.
She died of cancer in 2009.
Sisters Simone and Sondra Speraza had been in Rome for Mass on Wednesday, but the Pope had not yet called for them to attend.
“The Holy Father has sent out an invitation to all the faithful, not only to those who were present in the holy procession but also to those on other roads,” said the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi.
“We will be there to receive them and will work as hard as we can to give them the comfort and the joy of their journey.”