ROME – An African nun who recently graduated from a course at a prestigious Roman university on safeguarding minors says that ready or not, her culture must face up to the fact that clerical sexual abuse is a problem, and that bishops must start listening to victims.
In comments to Crux, Sister Bernardine Pemii, a member of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul who’s from Nigeria but works in Ghana, said that while these cultures might not be ready to face the issue, “it’s time for them to take another view of life, because cultural prejudices are still accepted,” such as bullying and beating children.
When it comes to the sexual abuse of a child, she said, the problem is often still “taboo.”
“People are aware that something is happening, but they’re not talking about it,” she said.
Pemii said that in Ghana, where she works as a teacher and supervises Catholic schools in her diocese, she’s met young girls who have come forward about abuse only to retract their allegations after facing pressure from their families.
Families, Pemii said, are often aware that abuse is happening and that it’s harmful, “but they don’t want to talk about it,” and so “the child is retraumatized, because I know something is happening to me, it’s hurting me, and they’re telling me not to say it.”
This also goes for the Church, she said, charging that the hierarchy is generally dismissive of victims.
“Most of them don’t want to do it,” she said. “The bishops are scared of listening to the victims because they know the consequences – they may be forced to do something.”
Speaking about an upcoming Feb. 21-24 Vatican anti-abuse summit, Pemii voiced hope that bishops would take the matter seriously and walk away with a willingness to hear what victims have to say.
“I am hoping this summit will encourage bishops to listen to victims and not just a little, [to] be willing to help the victims and not to defend the Church, not to give excuses, but to accompany victims so that they will be able to get healing,” she said.
As for herself, Pemii said she will seek to incorporate what she learned in the safeguarding course into training programs for teachers and staff at her schools.
“I’m also going to target the priests and the religious in the diocese, so that where they are, the children will be safe,” she said.
Pemii is one of 16 students who graduated Feb. 13 from a safeguarding course offered by the Pontifical Gregorian University’s Center for Child Protection, headed by German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, who is part of the organizing committee for the pope’s anti-abuse summit. Students come from 15 countries on four continents, mostly from Africa and Asia.
In addition to the 16 who obtained their diplomas Wednesday, six other students will move on to a graduate program which will extend over the next three years.
According to Zollner, the course is targeted at “areas where there’s little expertise, personnel and knowledge acquired” in safeguarding.
Many of those areas are located in Africa and in Asia, and as such, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples offers scholarships to students on the condition that when they return to their diocese, they will work in a safeguarding capacity. To date, Zollner said, some 12 countries have benefited from the scholarship, most of which are in Africa, and Asia will likely be the recipient of more in the future.
Zollner also spoke of the rising attention to the abuse of nuns and women religious by clergy and Church hierarchy, saying that the Center for Child Protection, while focused primarily on minors, will likely include that topic as part of the licentiate course dedicated to safeguarding in general.
Speaking at the graduation ceremony, U.N. Special Representative on Violence against Children, Marta Santos Pais, stressed the importance of collaboration and pushing a “zero-tolerance” approach to violence against children in all its forms.
Santos Pais told graduates that while they work in different fields, they share “the same ambition and the same humility, because we are not yet where we would like to be.”
Recounting gruesome stories of abuse, including the serial rape of a 12-year-old girl who became pregnant and whose baby was killed by her abuser, Santos Pais cited various statistics.
One study found that 50 percent of children are affected by some sort of violence, and that half of homicides in Latin America affect people under the age of 30.
Online abuse is also on the rise. According to a 2017 study by Internet Watch, there was a 37 percent increase that year, 55 percent of victims were 10 or younger, and 33 percent of cases included the rape and sexual torture of children.
“There is a lot to do, as you can imagine,” Santos Pais said, adding that while a 1990 U.N. convention on the rights of the child is a good tool, it has not yet been fully or adopted, in part because abuse is often concealed.
On the flip side, while many things “are not yet happening,” there has been progress, she said, citing a 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda goal “to end all forms of violence against children, upholding the right of every child to live free from fear, neglect, abuse and exploitation” as an example.
Money can also be a motivator, she said, noting that $7 trillion is spent every year on coping with child abuse, from court costs, police fees and helping children recover.
“We live in a very money-driven society,” she said. And were that money to be invested in preventative measures, “do you know how much we would save?”
Santos Pais also stressed the importance of empowering individuals in every sphere – parents, teachers, coaches and religious leaders – to join forces to break taboos surrounding the issue and implementing a global zero-tolerance policy on child abuse.
“We can make zero tolerance of abuse of children a shared value throughout the world,” she said, “(but) we need to move speedily.”
“If we do not point out what is happening in the life of young people, we are incapable of listening (and) we are burying the risks and we are burying the reality, and we cannot accept that,” she said.
When it comes to the Catholic Church, Santos Pais, who met Pope Francis in 2018, said the commitment “is very strong,” and that next week’s anti-abuse summit is “a very important” moment. Abuse, she said, is not limited to just the Catholic Church but happens in all faith communities and requires the effort of each to end it.
In the Catholic context, scandals are “the beginning of the solution,” she said, because “unless we recognize [the problem] and it comes out, we cannot move forward.”
“I want to wish everyone participating in that meeting the best possible reflections and outcomes,” she said, and voiced hope that the summit would be “a demanding discussion, but also an ambitious one.”