Pope Francis said Wednesday that it may be "morally necessary" for some families to split up, marking a change of tone in the Catholic Church's attitude to troubled marriages.
"There are cases in which separation is inevitable," he said during his weekly general audience, with a message hoping to encourage greater compassion in the Church ahead of a highly anticipated global meeting on family life in October.
"Sometimes, it can even be morally necessary, when it's about shielding the weaker spouse or young children from the more serious wounds caused by intimidation and violence, humiliation and exploitation," he said.
Francis said there were many families in "irregular situations" and the question should be how to best help them, and "how to accompany them so that the child does not become daddy or mummy's hostage".
The issue is likely to be addressed during the upcoming synod -- a gathering of bishops -- on the family, which Francis hopes will help reconcile Catholic thinking with the realities of believers' lives in the early 21st century.
A first synod on the issues last year saw riled conservative bishops mobilise to block the approval of language heralding an unprecedented opening to the gay community and greater flexibility on the treatment of divorced Catholics.