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South African bishops denounce abuse


In response to news reports that abuse of nuns, including rape, is a serious problem, especially in Africa, Catholic bishops in South Africa have released guidelines for dealing with clergy involved in sexual abuse.

Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban, president of the South African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, expressed “shock, disappointment and condemnation” of the reported abuse, saying church authorities have “difficulties” dealing with such cases.

“By their nature these cases are shielded by a culture of silence, which makes it extremely difficult to uncover or process them. This is the reason for our two-pronged approach involving a code of conduct and two protocols,” he said in a statement.

The guidelines, published April 25, come on the heels of a statement by the Conference of Major Superiors of Nigeria, expressing disappointment with the news reports, which were circulated worldwide after NCR, in its March 16 issue, gave public airing to the problem, which has long been known by church officials.

The NCR article cited four reports by senior members of women’s religious orders between 1994 and 1998 asserting that sexual abuse of nuns by priests, including rape, was a serious problem, especially in Africa. It said some Catholic clergy have exploited their financial and spiritual authority to gain sexual favors from religious women, a situation facilitated by cultural subservience of women in some regions.

The Vatican issued a statement March 20 acknowledging the problem. “The Holy See is dealing with the question in collaboration with the bishops, with the Union of Superiors General and with the International Union of Superiors General,” the Vatican said.

Auxiliary Bishop Reginald Cawcutt of Cape Town, spokesman for the Southern African bishops’ conference, said the code of conduct “must be issued to every candidate priest and religious in Southern Africa from the very outset” and should form a key aspect of candidates’ training. His remarks were reported in an April 25 report in the Catholic newspaper The Southern Cross.

A draft protocol for dealing with cases of sexual abuse or misconduct by priests, religious and other church personnel has been accepted by bishops and religious in the Durban archdiocese and will be finalized after all clergy there have submitted further comments. It will then be referred to the bishops’ conference and other Catholic leadership conferences in southern Africa.

“These steps have been taken in response to reports of cases of abuse and misconduct,” said Napier, the cardinal who heads South African Bishops’ Conference.

In Nigeria, a statement by the conference of major superiors, released in late April, said, “We are concerned because the integrity, generosity and fidelity of all African consecrated religious are led into question” by the news reports.

“The reports recognized that this phenomenon (of sexual abuse of nuns by clergy) existed worldwide yet they concentrated their stories exclusively on Africa thus continuing the racial bastardization of the so-called ‘Dark Continent.’ This is all the more painful when we recognize that their sources are missionaries who were supposed to bring the Good News to Africans.”

The statement was signed by Sister of St. Louis Patricia Ebegbulem and Vincentian Fr. Urban Osuji.

NCR was unable to reach either of the signers before press deadline.

The Durban protocol follows two other documents produced by the South African church that deal with sexual abuse. Along with the “Protocol for Church Personnel in Regard to the Sexual Abuse of Children,” and “Integrity in Ministry,” this document “sets out what the church expects and demands of those it accepts into the priesthood, religious life and pastoral ministry,” Napier said.

“These are urgently needed not simply to deal with such cases but to counteract modern society’s culture of permissiveness, ultraliberal attitude to sexual and other moral questions,” Napier said. He noted that “such a culture has apparently crept into the thinking and behavior of some in church ministry as well.”

The documents are “aimed at confronting this problem effectively,” he said.

Catholic News Service contributed to this report.

National Catholic Reporter, May 4, 2001