La Croix International [France]
February 21, 2022
By Lucie Sarr
How Catholics on the African continent are coming to grips with sexual abuse in the Church three years after a major summit that the pope held in Rome
It has been three years since Pope Francis summoned the presidents of all the world’s episcopal conferences to Rome for an unprecedented summit on the sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church.
The aim of the meeting – which took place February 21-24, 2019 – was to make the bishops understand the urgency of dealing with a crisis that is undermining the Church’s credibility.
At the time, some of the African Church leaders and their clergy did not do much about it, with some believing that this scourge was primarily a Western reality.
The very notion of sexual abuse did not seem to be understood by everyone.
A priest in Burkina Faso, for example, described sexual relations between a 15-year-old girl and a priest, a chaplain to the scouts and guides, as “a love affair” which resulted in an unwanted pregnancy.
A seminarian in Togo recounted a situation he witnessed in which “the parents of a victim of sexual abuse went to apologize to the allegedly abusive priest because they felt that their daughter had sullied his reputation!”
What has changed on the ground
But three years later, the conversation has changed, assures Notre Dame Sister Solange Sia.
She’s director of the Center for the Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Persons in Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoir).
“Now, fewer and fewer people still think sexual abuse in the Church is not a problem in Africa,” she explains.
But what has actually changed on the ground?
Many national bishops’ conferences on the African continent already had protocols for the protection of minors before the sex abuse summit took place in Rome.
Others adopted them or strengthened theirs following the meeting.
Such was the case in May 2019, for example, for the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa (Malawi, Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan, Zambia, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda).
It was also the situation in 2020 for the Association of Episcopal Conferences of Central Africa (ACEAC), which brings together the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Burundi and Rwanda.
Diocesan offices for reporting abuse
In another notable development, since the second half of 2019, the vast majority of African dioceses have worked to sensitize priests and pastoral workers on the issue of sexual abuse.
Some 70% of the 47 dioceses of the DRC and more than 50% of the Ivorian dioceses have organized awareness and abuse prevention sessions for clerics and pastoral agents.
These awareness-raising sessions are progressively contributing to a change in mentality.
In addition to the protocols, the vast majority of African dioceses have opened offices for reporting sexual abuse, as required by the “motu proprio” Vos estis lux mundi (“You are the light of the world”), which was published by Pope Francis three months after the 2019 summit.
In the DRC, for example, all dioceses have such structures. But these offices are very rarely used.
At least, this is what Father Hubert Kedowide, diocesan director of communications in Cotonou, observes.
“People have kept their old habits, which are to contact one of the vicars general or the archbishop himself to report cases of abuse,” he explains.
The situation is the same in the DRC.
“Ninety-eight percent of complaints of clerical sexual abuse of minors still reach bishops through channels other than the diocesan reporting office,” acknowledges Father Georges Kalenga, one of the deputy secretaries general of the National Episcopal Conference of the Congo (CENCO).
A culture of silence and other constraints
How can this lack of enthusiasm for reporting offices be explained?
As soon as the “motu proprio” on the protection of minors was published, the Cameroonian Jesuit and psychotherapist Jean Messingué pointed out that, due to socio-cultural constraints, reporting offices could be created without leading to the reporting of abuse.
St. Andrew’s Sister Josée Ngalula, a Congolese theologian who provides pastoral care to abuse victims, says there are a number of obstacles that feed the culture of silence.
“Denouncing and accusing implies telling what happened, and this blocks the majority of victims,” she explained in an interview with La Croix Africa in November 2021.
Moreover, “in Africa, we are taught to give priority to the honor of the community, of the group; victims are afraid that by speaking out they will sully the honor of the Church”.
Finally, it is often believed that “a leader is always right”.
But the cultural factor is not the only explanation.
Communication on these issues and on the opening of sexual abuse reporting offices throughout the African continent remains limited.
Despite all these factors, Sister Sia is convinced that “awareness is gradually growing”.