TSHOMBE (DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO)
July 15, 2022
By Chico Harlan and Alain Uaykani
Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo — The 14-year-old girl returned on the back of a motorbike to the convent where she lived and studied. Sobbing and in pain, she pulled aside a nun.
The girl said she’d just been raped by the priest who dropped her off.
The nun, Henriette Okitanunga, tried to comfort the girl. She said she then followed the new rule laid out by Pope Francis for handling such a report: She alerted her superior to a possible crime.
“Your Excellency,” the nun recalled texting to Nicolas Djomo, the local bishop.
After clerical abuse scandals that have rocked much of the Catholic world — generally in nations with the resources to pressure and expose the church — attention is turning to regions where the scale of abuse remains both a mystery and a cause for trepidation. The Vatican’s hope is that bishops in the developing world, trained in new guidelines, can avoid the mistakes that have so badly damaged the Roman Catholic Church elsewhere.
The text Okitanunga said she sent to Djomo’s phone in March 2020 raises a defining question for the church’s future: In places where Catholic leaders have fewer checks on their power, how are they responding?
Djomo’s response, unfolding over the past two years, provides one answer — and it shows the potential for the public crisis to proliferate in new parts of the world. For all the pope’s attempts at reform, a bishop such as Djomo still has significant authority in his diocese — and there remains little recourse for those who disagree with his handling of a claim.
A Washington Post investigation into the case — based on interviews and on a review of letters and emails sent to Djomo and other church officials — shows that the bishop failed to follow the Vatican’s guidelines. The nuns, priests and the alleged victim who pressed Djomo about the accusations say he orchestrated a coverup that upended the life of the victim, kept his own reputation intact and absolved the alleged abuser within the church’s own system.
Some of those involved say Djomo demanded they stay quiet. Those include the nun who first informed him and, later, the alleged victim, who says he beseeched her in a one-on-one meeting to forgive the priest, an encounter that made her feel “sick.”
The girl’s uncle alleges that after the family pressed ahead with a court case, Djomo offered him $15,000 — an enormous sum in a nation where most people live on less than $2 a day — to persuade his relatives to resolve the matter. The uncle, a priest who worked for Djomo, said the bishop eliminated his job after he refused.
Separately, when the nuns supported the girl, their founder says, Djomo retaliated by disbanding their association.
After the girl’s family took the case to police, Djomo did take at least one disciplinary measure, barring the accused priest, the Rev.André Olongo, from ministry and from having unsupervised contact with minors. But that sanction, implemented eight months after the alleged rape, proved to be short-lived. This year, Djomo sent his findings on the case to the Vatican, after a diocese-run investigation that did not include an interview with the alleged victim. The Vatican weeks ago determined there were insufficient grounds to show wrongdoing, Djomo said.
“He has been acquitted. It was absolutely false,” Djomo said in a brief interview.
Djomo cut short an initial conversation with The Post, saying he had to prepare for Mass, and declined further questions, referring them to the Vatican. He did not respond to a list of questions about his handling of the rape accusation.
The Vatican said its Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith had “been able to deal with this case based on the evidence that was provided to it” and had determined it could not “proceed any further.”
“Should further, certain evidence be supplied by civil authorities, by the accusers, or by other witnesses, it would unfailingly be taken into due consideration,” the Vatican’s statement said.
Olongo, the priest who was accused, declined to speak with Post reporters. Faustin Abedi, a lawyer who has helped to represent Olongo during the case, said the priest says he is innocent.
The Post does not publish the names of alleged victims of sexual violence. The girl, now 17, is an aspiring nun still living with the disbanded association — the Sisters Servants of Mary, Comforter of the Afflicted — whose remaining members have fled rural Tshumbe and Djomo’s diocese for Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, where they pray and study in a small concrete building in a slum near the airport.
The girl says she feels recurring stomach pain and panics because she fears she’ll be prevented from becoming a nun since she is not a virgin. “She feels like she is no longer like the others,” said one of her aunts, Marie Walo, 26. One nun, Louise Ekoko, said the girl “lost the joy” that came naturally to her before the alleged rape. She struggles to sleep and eat.
The Vatican announced in June that Francis had accepted Djomo’s resignation. Bishops are required to submit letters of resignation to the pope at age 75, but the Vatican often extends their time. Djomo, who turned 78 on July 3, had been permitted to stay on for nearly three additional years. The Vatican, as is its custom, did not provide an explanation for why the pope eventually accepted Djomo’s resignation and allowed him to retire.
During his brief interview with The Post, which occurred hours afterhis resignation was announced, Djomo said the accusations of acoverup were false, and he accused the founder of the nuns’ association, Charlotte Ekumu, of fabricating a story.
“I have documentation. You have nothing,” he said. “Don’t trust Sister Charlotte. Trust the bishop.”
Catholic bishops are the governors of the church, answering only to the pope, and Djomo’s 25 years in Tshumbe show just how far a bishop’s powers can stretch. He operated in the middle of the vast Congolese backcountry, leading a West Virginia-size diocese with fleeting electricity and scarcely a paved road, one of the poorest places in a nation still reeling from a century of colonialist plundering and despotic rule. With the government absent in much of the country, the church functions as the de facto state. Djomo’s diocese teaches the students and funds the medical clinic and even helps build roads. When Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi visited the region this year, he stayed at Djomo’s house, according to several familiar with the trip.
On the issue of clerical abuse, much of the Vatican’s messaging has been aimed at bishops in regions like this.
When Francis convened a first-of-its-kind summit on abuse in 2019, it was born in part from the idea that the global church — not just in the United States and Europe, but also in Africa and Asia, where Catholicism is growing — was at risk. Speakers tried to puncture the theory, held by a minority of bishops, that abuse was just a Western problem. One Indian cardinal said no church leader should believe that “things are different in my part of the world.”
The new church rules that Francis drew up merely modeled practices already well established in countries seared by scandal. But they were groundbreaking in places like Congo.
Those rules, the most substantial effort by any pope to address the abuse crisis, have aimed to create a global system in which all church figures are more responsive and accountable. Nuns and priests are required to report accusations to higher-ranking religious authorities. Dioceses are supposed to establish special offices for receiving claims. Whistleblowers are to be protected. One of the Congolese summit attendees, the Rev. Georges Kalenga, led training workshops with the country’s bishops upon returning from Rome.
“The sin doesn’t have a color or a continent,” Kisangani Archbishop Marcel Utembi, the president of the Congolese conference of bishops, told The Post. “The church cannot hide any cases.”
But there are reasons for concern. Clerical abuse has proved to be widespread in country after country, when someone looks for it. And in much of Africa, few have been looking for it — not the government, not lawyers, not the media. Even the Vatican, which doesn’t publish data on abuse cases, has far from a full picture.
“We do not know enough,” said the Rev. Hans Zollner, a German priest who helped organize Francis’s summit.
In much of sub-Saharan Africa, the continent’s Catholic stronghold, a taboo against discussing abuse has a chilling effect on victims. Those who do come forward must contend with weak justice systems and corruption. Innocent Prosper, the executive director of Lizadeel, a Congolese nongovernmental organization that works with victims of sexual violence, said he knows of clerical abuse cases but they rarely go far, often being settled with payoffs, which people in dire poverty find difficult to reject.
“Money is playing a big role,” said Prosper, whose group also is supporting the aspiring nun. “One day you have a case, and the next day you wake up and the family is saying the case is over.”
How a case is handled depends disproportionately on one figure: the bishop. Because of the bishop’s place in the hierarchy, the church has struggled for years to construct a system of checks and balances that will boost the likelihood that a prelate accused of a coverup can be investigated and potentially disciplined. Francis’s attempt at a solution, drawn up after the summit, calls on bishops to police one another: If a bishop is accused of covering up abuse, a metropolitan bishop — generally a figure heading an important urban archdiocese — can look into the case with the backing of the Holy See.
Three years in, Bishop-Accountability.org, an independent clearinghouse for abuse data, has found 28 instances in which this process has been used — with a majority of the examples occurring in Poland, which has been convulsed by recent revelations of clerical abuse. The clearinghouse found no such examples in Africa.
The Post sent emails, in English and French, to 27 national-level bishops conferences in Africa seeking data on abuse cases and asking whether any bishops had been investigated or sanctioned. Only the Burundi conference responded, saying that a national-level office that was set up to receive abuse claims had not received a single accusation and that no bishop had been investigated.
In the alleged rape in Tshumbe, people supporting the girl say they tried to alert others outside the diocese. The girl’s uncle — the Rev. Alphonse Okongo — sent three letters in February and March 2022 to the Vatican ambassador to Congo and church higher-ups in Rome. Ekumu, who founded the nuns’ association, said she met in person in 2021 with one of the leaders of the Vatican body that handles abuse files, the Rev. John Joseph Kennedy, describing to him Djomo’s alleged coverup.
But the uncle, Okongo, says he never received a response. And Ekumu says she never receiveda follow-up despite sending emails subsequently. Kennedy did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Even the Congolese national conference of bishops, where Kalenga has become the anti-abuse czar, says it has never heard about the 14-year-old girl’s case. Kalenga cited a “weakness in the system” — in which the investigation into an abuse case typically amounts to a closed conversation between the relevant bishop and the Vatican.
“Each bishop is the boss of his area,” Kalenga said. “Unfortunately, it’s like that.
* * *
Before the alleged rape and its aftermath, the nuns lived in a simple convent just minutes by car from the bishop’s house. The Servants of Mary made house visits to the elderly and sick, and many taught in Tshumbe’s schools.
Sometime around 2019, a new priest was assigned to oversee the nuns’ spiritual lives.
The Rev. André Olongo, a priest with a brawny build, developed a reputation in the convent for being aggressive and behaving inappropriately, according to the nuns. Several nuns say he began having consensual sex with one member of their association and made unwanted passes at others. But to the extent that those might have been warning signs, Ekumu said it was difficult to avoid a priest appointed and trusted by the bishop. Sometimes the 14-year-old girl was sent to run errands for Olongo.
The alleged victim says she believes, in retrospect, that Olongo was grooming her for abuse.
In one instance, she says, Olongo told her that all priests take nuns as partners, implying that sexual relations were the norm. On a separate occasion, she says, he fondled her breasts as she fetched some water. She says the pattern escalated on March 28, 2020, when he asked her into his room to make the bed. She says Olongo lifted her, dropped her on the bed and raped her.
“He removed my clothes by force,” she said.
The alleged victim’s father, Michel Tadiongo, described his daughter as a bright, shy girl who had gravitated to the idea of a religious life because she so admired one of her teachers, a nun. The family sent her off to the association in 2019. It wasn’t until months after the alleged rape that she found the strength to tell her parents, she says. Tadiongo remembered thinking that the family “couldn’t allow this to be hidden.” One family member, with legal training, helped Tadiongo take the case to police. (The alleged victim’s surname is different from that of her uncle or her father.)
From that point, the case traveled on two tracks, one in the slow gears of the Congolese justice system and the other in the hands of the bishop.
Those familiar with the case say Djomo took several steps to weaken or dismiss the case on both tracks. He dissolved the Servants of Mary, turning potential witnesses into de facto nuns in exile. In April 2020, Djomo had called the association a “beacon of hope.” But in announcing the suspension in July 2021, he said the group was founded on “lies” and “duplicity” and was involved with the practice of witchcraft. He accused Ekumu, the founder, of spending “more than half the year” in the United States, where she has family, and of “obstinate disobedience” to the bishop.
The nuns say the alleged victim has convinced herself that the turmoil is her own fault.
“I don’t sleep when I think about this,” the girl said in an interview.
Djomo is accused by the alleged victim’s family of trying to pay them to drop the court case. Okongo, the girl’s uncle, who served as a priest under Djomo, said the bishop invited him to a meeting in September 2021 at a church. Okongo says Djomo remarked on the family’s difficult financial situation and said he could help to ameliorate it.
“A way to buy silence,” Okongo called it.
Djomo, Okongo says, offered him $15,000 — as much as the priest, the family’s breadwinner, would make in five years.
Okongo says he rejected it: “It’s dirty money.”
Okongo does not have documentation of the alleged offer and says Djomo made it orally. He says he immediately notified his siblings, including the alleged victim’s father, who confirmed that account. Two months later, when Djomo issued his priests their duties for the coming year, Okongo’s name was nowhere on the list — an effective job removal. The diocese stopped paying his salary. Okongo described it as an act of retaliation. He has moved to Kinshasa, where he is unemployed and sleeping at his younger sister’s house.
Djomo did not respond to a question about the alleged offer.
Months after the rape allegations against Olongo came to light, he was listed in a church document as holding a management position in the diocese. But then the family took the case to court, and Djomo instituted the sanction that prohibited him from ministry and from unsupervised contact with minors.
With those prohibitions in place, Olongo retreated to Kinshasa, taking refuge in a compound used by the diocese to house clerics who are either studying in the capital or visiting. One recent afternoon, two Post reporters buzzed at the compound entrance, announced their identities, asked for Olongo and were ushered into a central room.
The priest appeared minutes later, shaking hands. But after the reporters explained the reason for the visit, he broke off the conversation, saying he would call his lawyer. Other priests entered the room and threatened to call the police. “It’s unthinkable you would come to humiliate him,” one said. Olongo said that “if anything happens — if I see my name in the article — you’ll be responsible.”
The priests ushered the Post journalists toward the door.
But two days later, one priest staying at the compound made contact with The Post. He wanted to meet.
In that meeting, two Tshumbe priests said the diocese has dealt in recent years with at least a half-dozen instances of alleged sexual abuse or misconduct by priests. In at least three cases, the priests said, Djomo moved to discipline those who were accused. (The Post obtained three decrees — from 2018, 2019 and 2020 — ordering the defrocking of priests facing abuse allegations.) But in other cases, the priests said, Djomo worked to protect accused clerics from consequences.
“It depended on his personal preference for the priest,” one of them said.
Olongo was one of Djomo’s favorites, the priests said, and was viewed by the bishop as a potential successor. And he was among the protected ones, the priests said.
The alleged victim’s uncle said he knew of an earlier rape accusation against Olongo because he had been transferred to the village of Djalo to replace him after that allegation. One of the priests who met with The Post said, independently of the uncle, that he knew about the existence of that allegation.
Abedi, the lawyer who has represented Olongo, said that he did not know of any earlier accusations against the priest and that he knew little about Olongo’s life beyond the matter of this case.
Boniface Okitapambi, the lawyer representing the aspiring nun of the Servants of Mary, said he has been involved in two cases in the past several years in which Tshumbe priests were accused of impregnating minors. In one case, in which he defended the priest, the cleric was sentenced to a period of house arrest, Okitapambi said. The other case is ongoing.
Okitapambi said the case of the aspiring nun has gained more traction than any other, in part because of the family’s persistence.
Tadiongo said his family is Catholic but is willing to challenge the church as a way to preserve his daughter’s “career and faith.”
“We don’t care if the church is strong,” he said.
In Congo, justice can be hard to come by. Okitapambi, who mostly handles divorces and property disputes, and says he can’t afford his own car, has been “disappointed many times” by the Congolese system. The U.S. Department of State, in its annual human rights report, says the Congolese judiciary is “corrupt and subject to influence and intimidation.” Okitapambi says relying on that system is his only choice.
“With all the ups and downs, it’s still better to try,” he said.
The family filed charges more than 18 months ago but has seen no resolution. The family is seeking the arrest of Olongo and $40,000 in damages from the priest, as well as $70,000 from the diocese for “harm suffered.” The sides have jostled over where the case should be heard, and jurisdiction was eventually transferred to Kinshasa.
Olongo has filed a counterclaim against the alleged victim, one family member and two nuns, alleging that he is being defamed.
The court case has become more critical because the church’s own internal procedure has effectively ended.
Several months ago, the alleged victim’s uncle and father and a handful of nuns received letters from Djomo’s diocese asking them to present themselves in person to provide their testimony. By that point — so long after the alleged rape — many of the people invited had moved elsewhere. Kinshasa is 600 miles from Tshumbe. And they’d lost faith in Djomo to lead a fair investigation. Many of the nuns refused to participate. So did Okongo, the uncle, who wrote to the bishop that the inquiry appeared “suspicious.” The alleged victim, who does not have a cellphone, was never contacted.
The Rev. Marcel Kilombo, the Tshumbe priest who was deputized by Djomo to lead the investigation, said the bishop delayed launching his own inquiry because he was “waiting for the justice process to conclude.” Kilombo said Djomo reversed course after the Vatican applied pressure. Kilombo said he “could not blame” many of the invitees for declining to testify, but some people did show up to speak.
Kilombo said that on the basis of the information he collected, he was “personally convinced” that there had been a rape.
But he said it was up to Djomo to compile the information and make a report to the Vatican.
“The bishop is the only one who knows the content of the report and what he sent to Rome,” Kilombo said.
Djomo referred questions about his handling of the case to the Vatican.
The Post approached other priests in the diocese about the case. The Rev. Jules Omokonge, who has served as head of clergy in the diocese, said that after Rome’s decision of insufficient grounds to find wrongdoing, many clerics were “convinced that this case was a fake accusation.” But Omokonge said that he had no proof to support such a belief and that it was “very difficult” for priests to get information on abuse cases in the diocese. Such cases, he said, were “handled by the bishop himself.”
Priests say Djomo, during a recent visit to Kinshasa, went to the compound where Olongo was staying and notified the priests there of the Vatican’s finding. The news soon trickled out on WhatsApp groups — a setback so disappointing to the alleged victim’s supporters that they decided not to tell her.
The announcement ended up being one of Djomo’s last moves as bishop of Tshumbe. Days later, he returned to his diocese and began his retirement. Olongo, meanwhile, no longer faces restrictions; he can resume ministry and have contact with minors.
“He is free now,” Djomo said in his brief conversation with The Post. “He can say Mass. I am so glad.”
An aspiring Roman Catholic nun, 17, who says she was raped by a priest when she was 14, recites the rosary in Kinshasa. (Arlette Bashizi for The Washington Post)
Sister Henriette Okitanunga, 25, center, prepares to serve a lunch she will share with fellow nuns and aspirants at her association in Kinshasa. (Arlette Bashizi/For The Washington Post)
Members of the Sisters Servants of Mary, Comforter of the Afflicted, in Kinshasa, where they took refuge from their diocese in Tshumbe. (Arlette Bashizi/For The Washington Post)
Notre Dame du Congo Cathedral in Kinshasa. (Arlette Bashizi/For The Washington Post)
Bishop Nicolas Djomo, center front, with other Catholic prelates and a lay auditor at the Vatican for a 2014 synod on the family. (Paul Haring/CNS/Paul Haring)
The Rev. Georges Kalenga walks to his office after morning prayers at his church in Kinshasa in June. (Arlette Bashizi/For The Washington Post)
The 17-year-old aspiring nun who says she was raped by a parish priest is seen in June in a Kinshasa apartment she shares with other aspirants and nuns. (Arlette Bashizi/For The Washington Post)
Members of the Servants of Mary make tablecloths in the courtyard of their home in Kinshasa in June. (Arlette Bashizi/For The Washington Post)
Aunts of the aspiring nun, her lawyer and her uncle, the Rev. Alphonse Okongo, have breakfast in Kinshasa in June. (Arlette Bashizi/For The Washington Post)
By Chico Harlan Chico Harlan is The Washington Post’s Rome bureau chief. Previously, he was The Post’s East Asia bureau chief, covering the natural and nuclear disasters in Japan and a leadership change in North Korea. He has also been a member of The Post’s financial and national enterprise teams. Twitter