Catholic Church facing up to demons of child abuse

The issue of child abuse by Catholic priests has tainted the church in America, Ireland and other parts of the world. The abuses have also revived the debate on whether celibacy should remain the key pillar of priesthood. BRIGHT MHANGO raises these and other issues with the church in Malawi.

In the world over, it is only just now coming out; Catholic priests have been sodomising young boys and the issues have largely been kept secret. The BBC recently reported that in the Australian state of Victoria, more than 600 children were sexually abused by priests since the 1930s.

The Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, described the figures as “horrific and shameful” and that is just in Australia.

The current Pope himself, Benedict XVI, has recently been implicated in a scandal in which he is said to have covered up the case of an American curate who abused 200 deaf children.

Many skeptics now easily do not trust priests and even Hollywood is capitalising on the scandals to poke fun at the Vatican.

The victims of abuse in the church are usually young boys who help the priests in various tasks, including carrying Bibles, candles and helping the priest fix his cassock.

The priest and boys obviously spend more time indoors since parents do not suspect a priest to be a paedophile and thus do not question the system.

The cases reported so far include abuses of children as young as three years. The common forms of abuse are oral and anal penetration

Coming back home, where close to 100 percent of the population is religious and where the Catholic Church has a huge chunk of members from the population, is the church clean? When the world over is questioning the integrity of priests and reeling under child abuse cases, is the Malawian church aware of the global issues?

Father George Buleya is the general secretary of the Episcopal Conference of Malawi and he started by pointing out that in Malawi so far there are no reported cases of child abuse.

Catholic priests swear to remain celibate all their lives.

I asked Buleya whether the child abuse cases come because priests might be sex-starved and whether it was time to revise the celibacy rules to allow the priests to marry.

Buleya regretted what he called a misconception that many people hold of connecting celibacy to child abuse.

“In fact, there is more sex abuse in the families, among other institutions that look after children, than among priests.

“Celibacy is a discipline of the church that has worked for many years; it is a difficult doctrine but cannot be changed just because of failures on the ground. And again, there is no connection between celibacy and sex abuse,” he said.

The church is responding to the issue, however. A draft Child Protection Policy is in its advanced stage and it is meant to address many issues apart from abuses. The policy is pinned on five principles, according to Buleya.

The first principle is to prioritise children in decision making; children issues will take centre stage and abuse will be viewed from the perspective of the child.

The other issue is to abide by local laws where cases of abuse will be subject to laws and not just deal with it as an in-house matter.

The church’s own law, the Canon Law, will also help in deciding on what to be done in cases of abuses.

“The fourth principle is to act promptly to all rumour and allegations. The fifth principle is to respect the laws of natural justice where the accused have to be heard,” said Buleya.

On whether there is a policy in the church that encourages abused children to report their experiences, Chris Chisoni of the Catholic Commission on Justice and Peace said there is going to be a desk, the Child Protection Office, set up at the national office of the church in Malawi.

He said this will deal with child abuse and similar issues.

Critics were angered more when the church seemed to only relocate the paedophile priests away from the areas where they committed offenses instead of removing them.

In the 1950s, Gerald Fitzgerald, founder of a religious order that treats Roman Catholic priests who molest children, argued that such offenders were unlikely to change and should not be returned to ministry.

Now that the church is facing up to reality and not pretending that all is saintly, critics might as well ease the pressure on the criticism pedal.

In Malawi, the upcoming Child Protection Policy is a bold step. The only question hanging over the issue is: has there really been no cases of child abuse in the church in Malawi?

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