YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – As the Vatican hosts a Feb. 21-24 summit on the clerical sexual abuse crisis, one South African archbishop has described the sexual abuse of minors as an issue being “kept secret” in Africa.
“The abuse of minors can’t be easily dismissed as a ‘Western thing’,” said Archbishop Abel Gabuza of Durban. “To do so will be to deceive oneself.”
He told Crux the fact that sexual abuse is taking place in African families is “one of the best kept secrets” and not talked about.
“We know of instances where minors have been abused by their own fathers, uncles and other close relatives. We know that some families have been reluctant to report these not only because of the shame or scandal but also because the perpetrators are bread winners and for them to be arrested will mean no income for the family,” Gabuza said.
And while people close to kids may abuse them, Gabuza said the South African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SABC) is especially concerned about the clerical abuse of minors in “our Church here in Africa.”
“In fact, this matter weighs heavily on our hearts because children are to be protected, cared for and loved by us. When one hears the story of abuse one is filled with shame. It is a grave matter, a scandal that anyone who is a priest or religious could commit such a horrendous act,” the archbishop said.
According to Sister Hermenegild Makoro, the secretary-general of the SACBC, 35 cases of clerical abuse of minors have been reported in South Africa since 2003, but only seven were being investigated by the police.
“There is one priest serving a life sentence for the crime he committed. There are three priests who have been defrocked over abuse,” Gabuza told Crux.
He admitted that it was hard to determine the exact figures but insisted the SABC has put in place protocols to punish priests guilty of abusing minors.
“We have the protocol that deals with cases of sexual abuse of minors by the clergy, and we also have the 2015 document of safeguarding children in schools, parishes or any other institutions related to the Church. These efforts are indicative of the efforts we have taken regarding the protection of minors and making certain that perpetrators face justice for the crimes they have committed against children,” the archbishop said.
Gabuza said the bishops have always acted on reported cases, which involves the diocese subjecting the perpetrator to some disciplinary process that begins “with giving the perpetrator an administrative leave from active ministry until the matter has been resolved.”
Covering up abuse
When it comes to the cover-up of abuse, Gabuza admitted that it is not easy “for a bishop to denounce one’s priest who engages in such behavior.”
He warned against taking action on the basis of rumor in order to avoid destroying the image of a priest who might not be guilty.
“Relying on hearsay evidence can be dangerous. In the case of evidence presented to me, I would not hesitate to denounce such a priest. I would take the responsibility of reporting the priest to the police,” the archbishop said.
“The trick in all this delicate matter is that one should not be in a hurry to approach and report to the police … No one should be condemned unless proven guilty and one must avoid the situation of trying to help the victim and destroy the life of someone innocent at the same time,” he said.
Gabuza also dismissed claims that clerical sexual abuse was related to priestly celibacy.
“Sexual abuse of minors is an example of a horrendous crime and a serious sin. If pastors who are married can also commit the crime of sexual abuse of children, then it stands to reason that being married does not prevent people committing this crime and sin.”
Expectations from Vatican summit
The archbishop said he didn’t expect Pope Francis’s summit “to do everything and come out with great results.”
Rather, the conference should be a forum for information and policy exchanges in different bishops’ conferences throughout the world.
“There is a need to do some serious cleaning up on the issue of abuse of minors,” he said.
Gabuza told Crux the conference should spur bishops’ conferences “to move into another gear regarding this matter.”
“There should be a willingness to do away with cover-ups, we should let go of the silence, we must be willing to confront perpetrators and take serious steps of making certain that such people do not belong to the noble vocation of priesthood,” he said.