e-mail us

Abused nuns: Reaction

Africans say continent is ‘easy prey’


The front page article in the March 16 issue of NCR attracted a lot of interest among the African religious and priests in the United States. The following reflects the reaction of African Jesuits at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley and some in Wisconsin and the Boston area.

Included also are sentiments expressed by the executive of the Zambian Association of Sisterhoods, two African Jesuits in England, two Nigerian sisters and some priests in Rome and Spokane. There was unanticipated unanimity in responses received.

The article has brought to light some serious issues confronting the worldwide church. We do realize and appreciate that when some problems become endemic and border on exploitation and abuse, the church has the moral duty to address such maladies in its own self-examination so that it stands as a credible witness to the world. The sexual abuses cited in the report seem to indicate an alarming situation in need of corrective intervention by the church. Indeed, if such issues exist in the proportions and magnitude described, it is incumbent upon the African church to devise ways of addressing the issue in an open and healing fashion.

However, we need to note that the church is greater than individual persons, and that’s why the church continues to stand even amidst scandal. We hope the scathing attack of NCR on the African Catholic clergy and sisters will inspire them to reach higher heights as they minister to the people of the continent.

The article gives the picture of an assault on the integrity and dignity of the African religious and clergy. NCR must have been prowling around and found an easy prey -- Africa -- that can be smeared with garbage to push forward its own agenda of promoting married priesthood, ordination of women and attacks on the establishment. We find this unfortunate and unjust.

The article sets African men and women in the church in such bad light that one who believes the article would have no faith in African clergy and religious. Yet there exists a hoard of African religious men and women of integrity, living saintly lives and giving witness to the church in remarkable ways. This article attacks all. One cannot exonerate those who live lives unworthy of their calling. Their acts wound the body of the church, and healing is necessary. But you cannot throw away the baby together with the bathwater.

The writers labored to paint the picture of the problem of sexual abuse as being acute among African religious and priests. It further links this with the gravity of the AIDS pandemic devastating Africa. To support their assertions, Pamela Schaeffer and John L. Allen Jr. attack African culture(s) as being so sexually permissive that wholesale sex goes unabated. Anyone should stop and ask whether this is really true. Are all African priests sex maniacs who go plundering the convents in search of sexual satisfaction? Are the sisters so deprived of resources and personal integrity that they willingly and blindly submit to the abuse of priests? This is an insult to the person of every African priest and nun and one that borders on blatant racism. The wholesale categorization of Africans in this way is an arrogant way of pushing the colonial anthropology that subjugates Africans to a state below other humans.

The article quotes some missionaries. One asks why those missionaries should speak for Africans. Are Africans devoid of brains and mouths to speak for themselves? Any journalist knows that when building up a contentious story, the parties involved have to be interviewed and their point of view included. There is an apparent absence of any African voice even if the reports could have in part initially come from some Africans. This in itself makes the work of the paper unethical and bad journalism (unbalanced in source and detail). Those sisters and priests quoted do not even live in Africa. Time has come in Africa when missionaries are no longer the spokespersons for the continent. Let us be given the platform to articulate our own visions, aspirations, problems and challenges.

Moreover, the data given is old. We wonder why the editor was brooding over the news and had been uneasy to publish it earlier. What new facts did they get when the latest citation is from 1999? If a source refuses to be interviewed over the matter, then there should be a question on the credibility of the source. Moreover, highlighting Africa seems to unduly burden it with all other observations in other continents. The story is so built that one puts all the problems on Africa even when the end of the story mentions other continents.

The moral condemnation of African cultures as promoters of casual sex should be dismissed with the contempt it deserves. When one weighs African cultures against other cultures and especially the cultures of the authors of the article, it will be apparently clear that African cultures stand out as more prohibitive in sexual matters. Yet again the “research” of NCR demeans African cultures.

Africa is not one small country and neither is it a small village. It is a big continent with 55 countries. It is a big flaw to generalize what is observed in some small corners of some countries in the eyes of some “Africa-loving missionary” to the whole continent.

We Africans have been branded as incapable of understanding religious life. If religious life can be understood and lived in the West, Asia and Latin America, why is it that we can’t understand and live it? Are you claiming that those of us living the consecrated life are pseudo-religious? The cases of pedophilia, homosexuality, pregnancies and AIDS amongst Western religious and priests have not made this paper reach the conclusion about the Western church that it has drawn about the African church.

The African nuns have been depicted being naïve, stupid, poor and miserable victims. Even if we were to admit that some sisters may have been made pregnant by some priests, it is unforgivable to submit to the sin of silence in the face of such callous attacks on women of dignity and honor striving to serve their people in sacrifice and commitment. Local congregations are doing well and producing sisters of quality. If the article intended to be an advocate for the African woman, it has erred: It actually has dragged the dignity of an African woman into the mud. Advocacy for the empowerment of African women cannot be achieved by insulting them.

The media in the West has repeatedly painted a bleak picture of Africa. This campaign of misinformation and negative reporting has persisted, and NCR follows hot on the heels of recent sad pictures of Africa portrayed in Time, Newsweek and The New York Times. Sensationalization of news, with few facts mixed with many prejudiced lies, cannot help the continent that is still bleeding from media abuse.

The missionary sisters whose congregations no longer command power in dioceses due to the increase in vocations of local congregations should appreciate that they have done a great job and set a stage for locals to continue. Superiority complexes and claims of moral authority abound in missionaries who have a hangover from the past.

The bishops of Africa in the African Synod (1994) did touch on the priority of formation. We believe that our religious formation and the church organization should undergo renewal and be attuned to the signs of the times. Women increasingly play a leadership role in the church and should be recognized as such and be remunerated well to effectively undertake their mission.

Luke 6:37-42 gives us good advice. Significantly he says: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye and do not notice the log in your own eye?” Please have some measure of respect for us Africans.

Charles Muchinshi Chilinda is a Jesuit deacon from Zambia studying at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, Calif.

National Catholic Reporter, April 6, 2001