Of Silence and Secrecy

By John Mccann
Mail & Guardian
April 12, 2009

A cleric sexually abused me in the 1960s after a children's Christmas party in the Rosebank parish hall in Johannesburg. It was a party for children of the Knights of Da Gama. My older brother, who saw the cleric hovering around just before the cleric attacked me in the toilet, identified him as a Brother from the De La Salle order, which had a school nearby in Victory Park.

My uncle, Owen Cardinal McCann, then archbishop of Cape Town, was president of the South African Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC) at the time as well as head of the Catholic Church in South Africa. My father discovered the incident, so surely there must be a church record of it somewhere even if there was a cover-up.

The Mail & Guardian published my account of the abuse in 2007 and, after contacting the church in May 2008, I was interviewed by Sister Shelagh Mary at a convent in Coronationville. Dressed casually in slacks, she seemed friendly and intelligent and said she had participated in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

I related the Rosebank incident and other incidents of abuse that took place at about the same time. She took copious notes. A statement was compiled and brought to me at work but it was littered with errors of detail. I insisted it be corrected before I signed it; the mistakes would have compromised the statement's credibility. The newly corrected statement was signed the following day. To her credit, Sister Shelagh recommended that the case proceed.

Not long after, I was contacted by attorney Allan Schwarer, who heads the church panel that deals specifically with cases of sexual abuse. We met in September of 2008 with two more members of the panel at a high-powered law firm in Sandton. I was told that "under no circumstances" would I be allowed to make a recording. The panellists were a director of the law firm and a clinical psychologist associated with the Reginald Orsmond Counselling Services. They took an oath of secrecy and my brother and I were interviewed separately about the incidents. There was a recorder on the table; I objected to being denied the same privilege. The director agreed with me and Schwarer backed down; and a recording was later delivered to me.

In December Schwarer phoned me at work to inform me something had been found in the archives in London. He said "it's complicated" but "everyone is away" and a meeting with me would be arranged "when everyone is back". This never happened. In fact, all written inquiries to members of the panel have met with silence ever since.

Emailing Father Chris Townsend of the SACBC elicited no reply either, despite his earlier letter which read: "If you feel that your complaint is not being treated with sufficient care, please do not hesitate to contact me." Their sole contact with me this year was a mysteriously forwarded email from Schwarer a few weeks ago that arrived without any explanation. It's an internal email between the panel lawyers explaining that the investigation can be conducted only part-time and that the prognosis for identifying a likely culprit isn't good.

Last year, when berated by Schwarer for not being able to give a name, I pointed out that few people, children especially, stop to ask for names while being raped.

I don't know if Schwarer or his panel have found out the name of my abuser, but certainly they have learned something they seem to be unwilling to share. But perhaps oaths of silence as well as secrecy have been taken.


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