Some of our confreres, especially in remote areas, might not have the chance to read the Petit Echo, either because of postal delivery failure, or because they only have an Internet access on their cellphone. Whenever I read particularly essential articles, I will post them as ordinary posts on the website, which should be easier to read from a cellphone. Don’t miss those.
Integrity of the Ministry and its Consequences in the Apostolate
Peter Ekutt, M.Afr. (in PE nr 1114)
Sincerity and humility
Following recent reports of many instances of sexual abuse by priests and consecrated persons, Pope Francis wrote a strong letter to all the faithful people of God. This letter in fact is a cry. It is a cry expressing the embarrassment and the pain of the Pope and of the whole Church, in the face of the scandals of sexual abuse and other abuses and their wounds. This cry unites with that of the victims who remained traumatised their whole life. As missionaries of Africa (White Fathers) we are all shaken, as are other congregations and Christian communities. At this point, the most important issue for us is not about who is behind these scandals, but more importantly, what these scandals reveal about our way of being as missionaries. As missionaries of Africa, perhaps this cry can help us draw lessons from the past so that we can become more attentive to the integrity of our ministry. This question invites us today to take a candid and less stereotypical look at this crisis, at people and cultures. No age limit, no pastoral experience, no culture is immune to this evil. Everyone, regardless of age and missionary experience, is exposed to it.
I had the opportunity of animating a session for some religious men, women and diocesan priests. I started the session by asking the participants to brainstorm on their thoughts about ‘sexual abuse’ and ‘abuse of power’. The expressions of their faces convinced me they were not comfortable with these questions: it appeared unusual and required an exceptional amount of courage to face them. It is not surprising that stigmatisation, mistrust, a culture of silence and taboo surround these subjects to some extent, depending on the setting. In general, I see that there is also a certain degree of mystification around these subjects. Fear of filing a complaint, of stigmatisation and of justice, not to mention family ties, prevent people from speaking out and disclosing the cases they are familiar with, however well known they may be.
Regarding our communities, some confreres accept the fact that there are cases of sexual abuse as well as vulnerable adults, but to dismiss the issue they resort to stereotypical phrases such as ‘but it is rare in Africa’, ‘it does not happen in our sector or in our community’, ‘homosexuality is less harmful than paedophilia, “sleeping with a 17-year-old girl is not paedophilia because she came to me”. When it comes to signing the code of conduct in our society, some people feel that it is a trap. I know of some areas where the confrère in charge of the apostolate does not dare to communicate the information to the confrères. Instead he waits for problems erupting before he starts quoting the main policies and rules. This explains in part the distrust of the confreres in this apostolate. We are seen as policemen on the lookout for infractions to incriminate. Therefore, a blockage on the subject!
The Society of Missionaries of Africa continues its pilgrimage 150 years after its foundation, amidst sorrows and joys, successes and difficulties, however, internal difficulties are still the most painful and destructive. The scandal of sexual abuse, abuse of power, addictive abuse and breach of trust is making the whole body of the Society suffer. Therefore, we try, not to seek out the victims, but rather to raise the awareness of confreres about what Pope Benedict XVI called “the open wound in the body of the Church” in general, and within our Society in particular.
Learning to combine discipline and humility
Our approaches may have their limits, we do not deny it. However, Truth is persistent. In fact, in the courtroom, the accused include not only political actors and economic operators, but also teachers, youth group leaders, parents and clergymen. We often underestimate the prevalence of sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults, but in practice, we have to admit that there are painful records and cases where the Society had to pay a heavy price. This article therefore seeks to provoke a reflection on the integrity of our ministry. The fact of being a Christian – especially a consecrated one – says Pope Francis, ‘does not mean that we behave like a circle of privileged people who believe they have God in their pocket’.
It is important, therefore, to reflect on the severity of the rules to be adopted in all our establishments, in order to prevent similar occurrences and to follow the logic of Pope Francis who calls for a ‘never again’ in our communities, sectors and provinces. It is also important that the Society be committed to the respect of the rights of both the victim and the accused; that it ensures that the truth goes with charity, both towards the victims and towards the accused, leading them on the path of healing and reconciliation both with each other and with society.
“Prudence” is the key word.
‘Tt is not enough for Caesar’s wife to be innocent, she must also appear to be innocent,’ according to Plutarch, was the answer of the great Caesar concerning the repudiation of his wife Pompeia, suspected without concrete proof of extramarital relations with Clodius. The moral lesson of this story is that all public officials must not only be honest, but must also avoid any behaviour that could call into question their integrity; in the Christian context, we call this PRUDENCE.
To live this prudence in the protection of minors and vulnerable people, it is important that missionaries respect the limits of the private spaces of our missionary communities in Africa. Several formation houses, fortunately, these days, insist on the prohibition of receiving visitors in our private spaces, namely our bedrooms and team rooms. This decision of the Formators or communities of the houses of formation is to be welcomed and encouraged; it shows the seriousness of our commitment and formation of future missionaries of Africa in the spirit of Cardinal Lavigerie who never ceased to emphasise this prudence in his letters to the first confreres.
Our world has changed, and this is true for everyone, including the clergy who were once considered as living saints on earth. I see here an urgent call to all: To learn to combine discipline and humility, both at the individual and community levels.