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Issue Date:  August 15, 2003

South African priests' apology for abusing nuns offers hope, nun says

Catholic News Service

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- The apology by black South African priests for often treating black nuns as if they were children is "a great sign of hope," said the leader of a locally founded religious congregation.

"Their apology shows humility and openness, and we are grateful for their honesty," said Sister Mary Modise, moderator general of the Companions of St. Angela in the Johannesburg Diocese.

Black nuns and priests "are the future of the local church, and we need to become strong," Sister Modise said in a telephone interview.

Noting that "African nuns have been and continue to be given a raw deal in the church," the African Catholic Priests' Solidarity Movement said it was sorry for "the many wrongs that have been perpetrated against our African religious sisters and for the role that we African priests have played in this ill treatment."

The priests' apology "opens the way to building a relationship of mutual respect" and "helps to remove obstacles" that prevented this, Sister Modise said.

"We have treated our African sisters with some degree of contempt," Father Dabula Mpako, spokesman for the priests' solidarity movement and parish priest in Mabopane, said in a telephone interview from Pretoria.

"We should have known better," he said.

In their statement, the African priests said that a series of dialogue with African nuns compelled the priests "to acknowledge with great sorrow that we have often been oppressive in the way we related to our sisters."

"Often we have treated them as if they were children and not adults," the priests said in a statement.

"Historically, many African nuns were made to believe that their ministry consisted of being of service to the laboring priests by making sure that they had a comfortable life," the statement said.

Most hurt was inflicted on nuns who did priests' housework, including polishing their shoes, cleaning their homes and cooking for them, said Sister Modise, who has been a nun for 48 years.

"Some priests took them for granted," she said.

In its statement, the priests' solidarity movement noted that opportunities for advanced education had been available to priests but not nuns, especially those from locally founded congregations.

"African nuns have often been financially disadvantaged. Unlike the priests who have always had some kind of significant allowance, the private use of a vehicle, a private (often spacious) house and many other material privileges, many African nuns have had to live with very little, even when they have been involved in diocesan ministries very similar to those of the priests," the statement said.

The priests also noted that in many cases where a pregnancy resulted from "an unhealthy relationship between a priest and a nun," the nun had to leave religious life while the priest was allowed to continue.

"African nuns are discriminated against in terms of sex, race and class," Father Mpako said.

He said the apology was made after the priests spent much time reflecting on how they benefited from church and social structures.

"We admit that we, as African priests, are beneficiaries of the system," he said.

"The problem is embedded in the accepted system, and that must be changed," he said.

Sister Modise said: "The fault was not only that of the priests. In some ways, we allowed ourselves to be oppressed.

"I hope this new openness will also bring new relationships in the bigger body of the church, so that women can take their rightful place there," she said.

Noting the South African church's commitment to the "moral regeneration" in the country, Sister Modise said, "We need to start with ourselves so that we are strong when we work with others."

National Catholic Reporter, August 15, 2003

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