National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  September 5, 2003

South African priests issue apology to black nuns

Cape Town, South Africa

Cultural attitudes that resist celibacy may underlie the problem of “unhealthy relationships” between African priests and nuns, according to a spokesperson for a group of black priests in South Africa that recently apologized to black nuns for a history of oppression.

“If an African woman has not given life to children, she is not regarded as a full woman, and you are not regarded as a full man unless you have procreated,” said Fr. Dabula Mpako, secretary general of the African Catholic Priests Solidarity Movement. The independent group is made up of black priests concerned with transformation and the effects of racism in the South African Catholic church.

The group issued its apology after its annual meeting in March, and released the document to the public in June. The priests acknowledged that black nuns had been, and continue to be, given “a raw deal.”

Abuses listed include nuns being expected to serve priests as housemaids, being denied opportunities for intellectual development, financial disparities and unequal disciplinary treatment “in dealing with those who have fallen.”

It is the latter admission that attracted much attention, along with a reference to religious sisters being forced to leave their congregation after becoming pregnant from “unhealthy relationships between a priest and a nun,” while the priests are allowed to continue in their ministry.

Mpako said that the problem of sexual contacts between priests and nuns reflects, in part, the centrality in African culture of sexuality as a source of life.

“In African culture it is important that you are remembered through your children. This might cause suffering for some African priests who are just going to die and be forgotten about,” he said.

“If we talk about liaisons between priests and nuns, maybe that’s an indication that these priests want to marry. Those who are close to their African culture may have a sense of pain, a feeling that they are not fully men, because they have not given life through procreation,” he said.

National Catholic Reporter first reported on the phenomenon of sexual abuse of women religious by priests in Africa and elsewhere in March 2001. The South African statement is the first apology, albeit indirect, from a priests’ group in the wake of those reports.

However, Mpako downplayed the prominence of the sexual abuse issue.

“The apology was made in the context of the historically troubled relationship between black priests and black nuns,” he said in a telephone interview from Pretoria.

Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said from Durban that he had no comment on the apology.

Asked whether he perceived a problem of priests having “unhealthy relationships” with nuns, Napier said he did not know.

Napier, who heads the Durban archdiocese, acknowledged that there had been reports of allegations of nuns having been subject to coercive sexual advances by priests in the KwaZulu-Natal province.

“I don’t know what has happened to every other bishop,” he said, but the bishops of KwaZulu-Natal “have dealt with the matter together with the religious superiors.” He declined to elaborate.

Mpako acknowledged that some nuns in South Africa had experienced forms of sexual abuse by priests, but pointed out that this was “not just black priests, but also by black priests.”

“It’s not exclusively a black thing,” he said, “but as black priests we are sorry that we have had our fair share of failures in that respect.”

He also said that there had been “a significant number of nuns who left” religious life after becoming pregnant from liaisons with priests. “That is general knowledge,” he added.

The resolution to make the apology followed a series of workshops, held as part of the annual meeting of African Catholic Priests Solidarity Movement in which black priests and nuns discussed what they saw as a frequent lack of mutual respect.

While black priests complained that some nuns regard them as “being less than a white priest,” he said, black sisters in South Africa had “systematically experienced” the compound effects of racism and sexism.

“We acknowledged that we, as black priests, are the beneficiaries of a church system that disadvantages black sisters firstly as black nuns, secondly as women, and thirdly as nuns. They suffer the effects of racism that still exist, and they suffer as women because of sexism,” he said.

“For that we are sorry. We should have known better.”

Mpako said he had witnessed instances of black priests slapping black nuns as if they were children.

The African Catholic Priests Solidarity Movement was founded in 1999 with the aim of acting as an agent “of genuine transformation within the local Roman church and in the broader South African society,” according to a founding statement. Just as South Africa had not made a clean break with the racism of its apartheid past, so the South African church had not yet “broken ties with the effects of its past [as] a colonial and missionary church,” the 1999 statement said.

Mpako described the movement as a “prophetic campaign.” He said it does not enjoy “much of a relationship” with the bishops’ conference. Episcopal reactions have ranged mostly from “attempts to ignore us to discredit us,” with only a few bishops open to the organization’s agenda.

“The things we are saying are the things the bishops themselves have said,” Mpako said, referring to a pastoral letter issued by the Southern African bishops in June. The letter decried what the bishops called a lack of unity between race groups, and censured “white Catholics and people of other ethnic groups” for staying away from celebrations in black churches.

A well-placed church source, who asked not to be named, agreed that many bishops were wary of the black priests’ movement, attributing this to the fact that African Catholic Priests Solidarity Movement came into being outside the ambit of the bishops’ conference. The source said that Archbishop Buti Tlhagale, an Oblate of Mary Immaculate who heads the Johannesburg diocese, could be seen as a reference point between the bishops and the movement, but that Tlhagale is “not a driving force behind it.”

Napier said that there was no “formal link” between the conference and the movement.

Mpako said the mea culpa had elicited no formal responses from women’s religious congregations, the South African Council of Priests or the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference. However, he said individuals have informally lauded the apology in conversation with him and with other members of African Catholic Priests Solidarity Movement, including “one or two bishops” speaking in a private capacity.

In an August interview with Catholic News Service, the moderator-general of a black sisters’ congregation said the black priests’ apology was a “great sign of hope.”

Sr. Mary Modise, who heads the locally founded Companions of St. Angela in Johannesburg, told CNS that the apology “shows humility and openness, and we are grateful for their honesty.”

Modise, who has been a nun for 48 years, added that black nuns and priests “are the future of the local church, and we need to become strong.”

Gunther Simmermacher is the editor of The Southern Cross, the leading Catholic newspaper in South Africa.

National Catholic Reporter, September 5, 2003

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