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SEXUAL ABUSE OF NUNS BY PRIESTS IN AFRICA
An additional African voice

By Fuanya Andrew NKEA

It may take many people and many centuries to build a city, but it may take only one person, in one day, with a flame to destroy it”. It is within the background of this African saying that I situated the article in the National Catholic Reporter of America, about the alleged sexual abuse of nuns by African Priests both in Africa and elsewhere (Rome, mentioned specially). Many Churches in Africa have been celebrating within the past years the centenary of the advent of Catholicism to their various countries, especially the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Most of these celebrations saw the recognition and praise of the heroic work of evangelisation done by many early missionaries and for many Africans, it was the birth of another phase of evangelisation. The article in the National Catholic Reporter has come as fire, ignited by Sr. Marie McDonald, Missionary of Our Lady of Africa and Sr. Maura O’Donohue, Medical Missionary of Mary, to burn down and destroy the young Church in Africa, with the complicity of John L. Allen and Pamela Schaeffer, both Journalists of the National Catholic Reporter.

When I first read the article of Allen and Schaeffer, I was asking like many others, what could have been at the back of the minds of both the Sisters who wrote the secret documents to the Vatican and of the reporters who blew up the story like scattering feather in the wind. What effect did they want such an article to have on African clergy, African religious and the world at large? It did not take long before I discovered the effect. A few days after the article, public reaction in Rome was clear. But to feel the effect I am talking about, you need to be an African clergy, dressed in a clergyman’s collar and go down town Rome.

How would anyone feel, when you climb into the bus dressed as a clergyman, occupy the only empty seat beside a European nun who in turn looks at you with scorn and abandons her seat? How would anyone feel, when you walk in the streets proudly dressed as a cleric and your eye catches people gazing at you in bewilderment, and holding the News Paper carrying the article about African priests sexually abusing nuns? How would anyone feel, when in a Church where African priests are concelebrating, a European religious prays during the Prayers of the Faithful, “thanking the ‘Pope’ for bringing to light the horrendous crimes of the African priests and asking God to protect the African nuns from this terrible calamity”? Or else, European friends phone you and ask you if it is true that priests who are on further studies are here because they have fathered children with nuns back in Africa? Or worse still when a fellow European priest tells you that they had heard about these things and did not believe until now? The effect of such questions and comments are clear; the feeling of being belittled, treated with scorn, racial discrimination, hate-generating, psychological torture, inequality and malicious rejection, sowing seeds of division, the feeling of being unwanted and the need for a fight-back instinct. If these feelings were in any way intended by Sisters McDonald and O’Donohue, I wish to let them know that they have succeeded tremendously. If they did not intend it, let them know that they have put a knife in the hearts of many African priests and religious, the repair of which is still to be sought.

Without going into who is right and who is wrong, or whether Western Missionaries are doing worse things than Africans, I wish to state that I find the actions and Reports of the two sisters and the publication of the NCR as a calculated attempt to provoke a revolution within the Church and a target at the unity that has existed in the church until now. Their points go deeper than what is seen at face value and their targets reaching far more than just the Church in Africa or the male clergy in Africa.

Against the African Culture: Going through the articles that have been published by the western media and the excerpts from the writings of the Sisters, it is clear that the African culture is still considered as one lump of savage practice and uncivilised way of life. When O’Donohue talks about “celibacy in the African context” and summarises it in the view of a certain Vicar General in one diocese, she, in spite of her claims of wide travelling, reduces Africa into a small village in which all patterns of behaviour and cultures are the same. We understand the use of the word Africa to refer to the entire continent starting from Algiers in the extreme North to Port Elizabeth in the far South, or as it is usually put, from Cape to Cairo. Africa is noted for its diversity of cultures and rich traditions. How could there be an African problem when it comes to sexual behavioural patterns? How could we accuse African culture when Africans from some parts of the continent know the strict observance of abstinence from sexual activities before the performance of certain traditional rites by local traditional priests? This problem of blaming lapses in celibacy to culture is put in stronger and even more provocative terms in the Editorial of The Tablet of 24th March 2001 when it says “Celibacy is not accepted in African culture as having sign value. Young priests, often without more senior mentors or spiritual directors, have to try to cope in a society which has become promiscuous as the old clan and tribal structures have broken down and people have flooded from the land into the towns.” In the article by a special correspondent in the same issue, the Tablet reports that “celibacy in Africa has to be seen in a different light from celibacy in the west”. This creates a sharp distinction between the concepts of Africa and those of the west and in a sense exonerates the west from the sins against celibacy. There is no need to add an extra comment on this. More profound research has been made on various aspects of the African culture and even today there is the talk of inculturation to see how much of these beneficial cultural values can help the Christian worship according to his culture. To make generalisations on particular issues and blame them on the culture of a whole continent is to undermine the cultural values of a people and treat the whole continent scornfully.

Against the dignity of the African Woman: In her report, McDonald wrote about the African nun and why she is a victim of sexual harassment; She blames this to “The inferior position of women in society and the church. In some circumstances a sister has been educated to regard herself as an inferior, to be subservient and to obey…… It is understandable then, that a sister finds it impossible to refuse a cleric who asks for sexual favours. These men are seen as authority figures who must be obeyed”. Sister McDonald does not stop at this but goes further to explain that “Moreover, they (the men) are usually more highly educated and they have received a much more advanced theological formation than the sisters. They may use false theological arguments to justify their requests and behaviour. The sisters are easily impressed by the arguments. One of which goes as follows: ‘we are both consecrated celibates. That means that we have promised not to marry. However, we can have sex together without breaking our vows”. If these sisters had intended to defend and protect the women, their articles portray instead their view about the African women and if African women were lying on the ground, their western sisters have pushed them further into a hole. What does McDonald think of the African women? Beings without intellect or the will, who have no reason and cannot master and determine their own actions? We canquote African nuns who are professors in Universities, both Catholic and lay, those who are medical doctors, nurses and hold other very high positions of responsibility in their societies. I am referring to sisters from Diocesan Congregations. In the eyes of our western sisters, they have placed themselves far above the African woman whose representation in the article is void of all respect and just falls short of their being referred to as animals. With all their education, they have been lumped and dumped into a limitless fold of African nuns whose culture makes it impossible for them to say NO. In which case, all African nuns are incapable of personal responsibility for any of their acts, and as such, even their own very decision to embrace the religious life is questionable. They could have entered just to obey their parents or obey some parish priest to whom they could not say no. In which case, does McDonald and O’Donohue not see that they have put themselves on the pedestal and are standing on the African women and blaming African men? It is now clear, that women are their own worst enemies. There would be African religious with whom these two sisters would not compare academically and otherwise, but to cover up themselves, they put all African nuns into a cultural pot in which they are nonentities. It is a shame for women to have this view of their fellow women and then point fingers at another gender.

We all know that some of the Diocesan Congregations were founded by Missionaries and missionary sisters assisted in laying the foundations for some of these. In some of these situations, the African nun was seen as a subordinate in the religious life and got into the life more in need for crude labour force than as a fellow religious along side the westerners. In some of the diocesan congregations which we know, the missionary sisters who helped to establish them did nothing to foster the education of their own very sisters for fear that they could be their equals. Now it is being said by the very religious from the west that sexual abuse of nuns is due to “a poor understanding of consecrated life, both by the sisters and also by bishops, priests and lay people”. This statement is nothing other than an abuse to the entire African Church. If the African church, including the nuns who are in the religious life, do not understand consecrated life, then we begin to wonder whether the whole institution of consecrated life in Africa by Africans is worth the trouble.

McDonald says of her fellow women and fellow nuns; “I do not wish to imply that only priests and bishops are to blame and that the sisters are simply their victims. … No, sisters can sometimes be only too willing and can also be naive.” This implies some kind of foolishness and tactlessness that flows from the lack of experience. This comments are very uncharitable for the African nuns, some of whom have celebrated their diamond, golden and silver Jubilees in the religious life. It is a shame to see how women who claim to be fighting for the liberation of other women look on these women themselves. Are African women still so naive to believe that “contraceptives prevent the transmission of the HIV”? Are African nuns so unprincipled as to be forced to commit abortions just by the dictates of any priest? Are African women so ignorant of the implications of the evangelical counsels as to believe any priest who tells them that sex between two consecrated persons is not breaking their vows? McDonald and O’Donohue owe an apology to the African women and when they say it is time for the African nun to stand up for her rights against the priests and bishops, I would rather think it is high time for the African religious to stand for her rights against the domination and superiority complex exerted over them by the some of the western nuns.

Against the African Priests: First and foremost, in the article of the NRC and the report of the sisters, the African priest has been debased, his image tarnished, his credibility destroyed, his foundation shaken, his vocation put to question, his leadership role doubted, his spirituality shown as void, and his whole ministry dragged into mud. Does any European or American who has read the article believe the African priest when he says Mass, preaches, hears confession or gives spiritual direction? With such an article coming from such sources and put into the African society, what sort of image is left of the African priest among his parishioners? At this point, we may ask the question, whether there is any worth left in the African priest in the church and in society. When it touches on priests, then an American priest Moral Theologian is quoted as if to say this is a priest now talking about priests so as to gain more credibility. Fr. Vitillo says “I myself have heard of the tragic stories of religious women who were forced to have sex with the local priest or with the spiritual counselor who insisted that this activity was ‘good’ for both of them” Does Vitillo expect any African priest to act credibly as a spiritual director to any women at all? Vitillo makes a statement against African priests which he will have to answer in this world or the next when he says “Religious women have also been targeted by such men, and especially by clergy who may have previously frequented prostitutes”. If African priests had become such sex maniacs that they were frequenting prostitutes, then the very institution of the Church in Africa is worth questioning. What does the church stand for? If the gospel is void of morality, then what are the priests preaching? Without exonerating all African priests from such accusations, I think it is very un-priestly to make such allegations against clergy of a continent. If African priests are presented as harassing muslim converts, sexually abusing those who come to parish offices for certificates, harassing penitents in confessions, violating sisters when called to preach retreats, forcing medical staff to procure abortions for sisters, then it can be deduced that Sisters McDonald and O’Donohue want to prove to the Vatican and to the world that the priesthood was not meant for Africans.

Sr. McDonald turns her accusations at this point against priests who are studying in Rome for the manoeuvres against African religious who are weak in intelligence and need male assistance in the Italian language and in writing dissertations. A great percentage of the Bishops in Africa studied in one or other Pontifical University in Rome. If the Africans who are in Rome are being prepared to be leaders of the Church of tomorrow in Africa, then it is a sad tale to come. Firstly, many of them are sent abroad for studies, according to our experts on African celibacy, because they made sisters pregnant. According to the Special Correspondent in the Tablet of 24th March, it is even stated that “some religious have suggested that clergy have been known to use this as an avenue to overseas studies”. Presumably, these priests are still sexually abusing sisters in Rome and other places in the pretext of helping them do dissertations and helping them in the language. The same priests will surely continue this same attitude after their studies back in Africa as Bishops, professors in Seminaries, parish priests, or whatever apostolate they are assigned to. So therefore, there is no hope for the future of the Church in Africa.

Now that some of the women are fighting for ordination of women, I wonder if McDonald with her superior mentality would think that the African women could be admitted into the priesthood if it was open to women. If there were vocations still coming from the west, I am sure these two sisters would propose a take over of leadership of the African church by westerners and the African Bishops and priests reduced to local catechists to serve them. The whole struggle is that of Western domination and the projection of the idea that white is angelic and black is satanic.

Against the African Bishops: We have known that Bishops are successors of the Apostles and in spite of their being men like all others, are put over local churches to govern, to sanctify and to teach in the name of Christ. This function does not transform them into angels, yet beyond their human weaknesses, like the rest of us, we see them as shepherd’s of God’s people. Sisters McDonald and O’Donohue accuse African Bishops of poor governance, sexual immorality, complicity in the sexual crimes of priests and molestation, victimisation and abuse of African nuns. As if they must go all the way with the drive of the sword into the heart, the sisters quote a situation in Malawi which the Tablet magnifies as follows; “There is a well documented case in Malawi of a mother general protesting to the archbishop about the abuse of her sisters, 29 of whom had become pregnant by priests of the archdiocese. For her trouble, she and her councillors were a short time later dismissed at a public function by the archbishop who (quite unconstitutionally) nominated an alternative group of sisters to administer the congregation”. What the sisters failed to let us know in their article is whether the dismissed mother general was an African or a westerner. Secondly, they failed to give us the details of the case as they make it look so simple and the bishop made to be such a villain. Is it normally so simple?

When the African Bishops gathered in Rome for the Synod of Bishops for Africa in May 1994, they elaborated on the theme “You shall be my witnesses”. McDonald and O’Donohue wish to prove to the world that the African synod in both its preparatory, deliberative and celebratory phases were just a show and a hypocritical display on the part of the African bishops. Again, if there is some particular case, it must be handled particularly than making general statement about African bishops molesting sisters. In the eyes of the authors of the articles, African Bishops therefore are not real bishops as their moral authority and credibility has been destroyed by their own lack of personal discipline. In this case, can Africans really be authentic Bishops who represent the universal Church in their local churches? Should the criteria for the choice of African Bishops not be put to serious questioning? Does any black African Bishop have any value in the eyes of these western sisters?

It is worth noting that the attack is mostly against Diocesan priests and Diocesan Congregations as these are void of western supervision. International congregations are exempted because their superiors are most often westerners with whom there is always order, discipline and ‘fullness of redemption”. It could thus be deduced that according to the sisters in question, it would be better to get bishops in Africa from International Congregations and may be this evil will be reduced. I wonder if the sisters thought that all these insights would go unnoticed. When you attack the head, you equally destroy the body and this is what the sisters have done by their article. They have gone for the bishops and the priests, and they think that is the final nail on the church in Africa. At least there is God and the salvation brought by Christ was not limited to certain continents.

Against the Universal Church: The NCR blew up the story of the allegations of sexual abuse by priests in Africa as a calculated attempt to sow division in the universal church. We know that no organ or organisation can carry the name Catholic without the approval of the competent ecclesiastical authority (Canon 216). We therefore presume that the National Catholic Reporter is a truly catholic paper by origin, although we doubt if it is truly catholic in aims and goals.

The Church is the people of God into which is incorporated all the baptised. It has its system of laws as a visible society ordered as such, and it has a code of conduct and discipline for all its members, both clerics and laity. The article of the two sisters and the NCR is an open attack on the disciplinary structures of the universal Church.

Canon 1395 1 states that “…A cleric living in concubinage, and a cleric who continues in some other external sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue which causes scandal, is to be punished with suspension. To this, other penalties can progressively be added if after a warning he persists in the offence, until eventually he can be dismissed from the clerical state.” Paragraph 2 of the same canon states that “A cleric who has offended in other ways against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue, if the crime was committed by force, or by threats, or in public, or with a minor under the age of sixteen years, is to be punished with just penalties, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state if the case so warrants”. Although the code of canon law states all these, Sr. McDonald says when African priests involve in these sexual atrocities, they are instead rewarded with further studies or moved to another parish, while the sister is dismissed from the religious life. Does it mean that the legal system of the church has failed, or that it can be ignored without check?

The Tablet pushes forth this point by stressing that about the Malawi case of the dismissal of the superior by the archbishop, “An appeal was made to the Nuncio with no apparent effect. The case was taken to the Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes in Rome in 1994. Years later, there had been no response, much less redress”. This in itself is a slap in the face of the Vatican in general and the Decastery concerned. It is an attempt to prove that while the church is preaching justice and peace, within its circles it is practising injustice of the highest order, especially against women. Yet McDonald is not ashamed to write that “it is precisely because of our love for the church in Africa that we feel so distressed about the problem”.

The Church is not for particular people and the Africans should feel at home in it like all other human beings no matter the continent from which they come. The Church does not belong to a civilised group and we realise that Christ came to die for us when we were still sinners. Africans want to feel at home in the church and they also want to be part of the church in all dimensions. But this two European sisters with the complicity of the American journalists want the Africans out of the church. On the first Sunday in the Jubilee Year 2000, the Holy Father John Paul II knelt in front of the Pieta and asked for pardon for the sins of the church in history. The kind of injustice, racial discrimination and segregation which is masterminded by McDonald, O’Donohue and the NCR, is creating a situation where one day another Pope may kneel on African soil to beg for forgiveness from the Africans for the sins of the West against her. Africa would rather get justice now than be asked for forgiveness in the future. In which case, the two sisters in question are an embarrassment to the universal church.

It is clear that the sisters want to use their chance to slot in their cry for more leadership positions in the church for women and probably the ordination of women so that they can be spiritual directors to themselves, hear their own confessions and keep off wolves in priests’ clothing. Secondly, we see in the report of the sisters, their questioning of the very value and discipline of obligatory celibacy, not only for Africans, but within the church, and Africa is used as a scapegoat. We notice their dissatisfaction of the progress being made by Africans within the Church in Africa and in the west. May be this progress annoys some of the westerners. If all these problems and others are problems worrying McDonald and O’Donohue, they should come out and make their grievances clear, but it would be very unfair for them to stand on Africa to be able to make their voice heard in the Vatican.

Africa is a continent that has suffered a lot from history, starting from slavery of yesteryears to colonisation, exploitation, perpetual wars, poverty, hunger, disease, multinational economic exploitations, dictatorial regimes which are actually puppets to western governments, and now the ravaging AIDS epidemic and Ebola which is wiping out the continent in alarming proportions. If we cannot find solace in the Church, then to whom shall we go? Yet in all these, the African is consoled by the words of St. Paul;

“But we hold this treasure in pots of earthenware, so that the immensity of the power is God’s and not our own. We are subjected to every kind of hardship, but never distressed; we see no way out but we never despair; we are pursued but never cut off; knocked down, but still have some life in us;”. (2Cor.4:7-9

Procura Generale di Mill Hill
Via Innocenzo X, 16,
00152 Rome.
Email: nkea@onmida.it.

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