La Croix International [France]
July 6, 2023
By Lucie Sarr
The Order of the Pious Schools, commonly known as the “Piarists”, admit that one of its Spanish priests abused “a significant number” of Senegalese youths between 1980-2005
The Holy See dismissed Manel Sales Castellà, a former member of the Order of the Pious Schools, from the clerical state in 2019.
But leaders of the 17th century Catholic teaching order known as the “Piarists” waited until this past June to acknowledge that, for the past 18 years, they have been covering up acts of sexual abuse that Sales committed against “a signiﬁcant number” of youths in Senegal. The assaults took place while the Spaniard was working in the West African country between 1980 and 2005, when the ﬁrst cases were reported to Piarist ofﬁcials.
In a statement issued last June with the Commission for the Defense of Minors Sexually Abused in the Church in Senegal – made up, among others, Spaniards from Catalonia close to the Piarists and who had spent time in Senegal – the religious order said it acknowledges “publicly and takes responsibility for everything he [Manel Sales] has done wrong in the past and denounces actions that are totally unacceptable”.
The Piarists also admitted that the religious congregation, which was founded in 1617 to educate poor children, had been aware of Sale’s abusive behavior since 2005. They said the provincial superior at the time took no action “either civilly or ecclesiastically” because he wanted to “protect the institution”. Sales was called back to Spain (Catalonia) where he was prohibited from any activities with minors and underwent psychiatric treatment. However, he continued to play an active role in the Order of the Pious Schools as rector, provincial secretary and even as a member of the presbyteral council of the Archdiocese of Barcelona.
It wasn’t until 2018, after a French woman ﬁled a complaint that “the order asked Sales for explanations, and he acknowledged the facts and mentioned some of the people who had suffered abuse”, according to the joint statement from the Piarists and the Commission for the Defense of Sexually Abused Minors in Senegal. A canonical procedure to expel Sales from the order and the priesthood was then initiated. It culminated in his deﬁnitive dismissal from the clerical state in March 2019.
The Commission for the Defense of Minors Sexually Abused in the Church in Senegal began an investigation this year that brought it into contact with several direct and indirect witnesses. The commission concluded that Sales abused “a signiﬁcant number” of youngsters. But in a culture where sex is taboo and homosexuality is punishable by law, very few risked making a public denunciation.
“This has favored impunity and silence around the abuse committed by Mr. Sales,” the Piarists said.
A Spanish priest in southern Senegal who spoke to La Croix Africa agreed with that assessment.
An open secret
Manel Sales worked for 25 years in Senegal, particularly in the south where he was on mission in Oussouye and Mlomp for many years. There, he ran a school for the congregation where hundreds of children from underprivileged families received schooling thanks to the help of Western sponsors.
“The abuse committed by this priest was an open secret,” said a former member of a Catholic movement in southern Senegal.
“I’m sure the victims number in the hundreds,” he claimed. “I knew a number of people who were victims. But nobody wanted to denounce it. At the time, it was taboo to talk about sex, even more so about a priest who abuses boys,” the man, a Senegalese, said.
“I met him around 2004-2005,” said a journalist from southern Senegal. “At the time, he was chaplain to the scouts and guides. It was whispered that he touched boys to whom they offered money, sweets or paid for their school supplies.”
Scouts and juveniles
The testimony given by Romain (not his real name), a former member of the scouts, sums up the facts revealed by the Catalan Commission’s investigation. Romain met Manel Sales in 1986. He had just founded a scout group in the village of Mlomp, in the Casamance region of southern Senegal.
“I was 13 at the time. In the evenings, during scout camps, he would enter the tents and abuse the cubs. I was a victim,” Romains said. “Later, when it was time to take the pledge exam, he would bring the candidates into his ofﬁce and abuse them. When I entered his ofﬁce and saw his posture, I left. I never took the pledge and was banned from the group,” he told us.
Guy (also not his real name) was a juvenile with the Piarists in Oussouye, 9 km from his home village of Mlomp, where Manel was on mission.
“Every weekend, we were transported by Father Manel Sales in his vehicle,” Guy recalled. “But, faced with our opposition to what he was doing, he turned us away. And we were forced to walk to get to the village,” he said.
“All those who had sexual relations with this priest enjoyed many privileges,” Guy added. “These included, in particular, aid and sponsorship to pay for schooling, clothing, his availability to drive them around in his vehicle.”
He also lured his prey with cookies sent from abroad by donors.
“He abused many young people who are perhaps ashamed to testify today,” Guy concluded.
In their joint statement with the Commission for the Defense of Minors Sexually Abused in the Church in Senegal, the Piarists asked for “forgiveness from all the victims, their families … for the harm caused by this former member of the community and by Piarist leaders who did not denounce the abuses in Senegal and Catalonia”.
The order’s provincial superiors, accompanied by a representative of the order’s headquarters in Rome, went to Senegal this past June 5-16 to meet the victims.
The Order of the Pious Schools was founded by Saint Joseph de Calasanz. Put under the motto “piety and letters”, it is the Catholic Church’s oldest religious congregation dedicated exclusively to education.
Senegal was the ﬁrst African country to welcome the Piarists in 1963. The order has built many schools there.
(Additional reporting by Charles Senghor in Dakar)