“Some found my precautions too harsh …” (PE nr. 1093 – 2018/07)

Our Society is working very hard to make our places of mission as safe as possible for the most vulnerable especially children. Reading over some texts of our Founder, we can discover that this work has its roots in the actions and determination of our Founder. (1) In the domain of preventing sexual abuses, Cardinal Lavigerie was probably ahead of his time. (2) In a letter, dated the 30th October 1883, to Father Bridoux, Vicar General of the Society of the Missionaries of Africa, Cardinal Lavigerie reminds him that, in the matter of prevention,

he has not been strict enough regarding the framework in which the mission among the youngest should be carried out. The Cardinal also reminds him of the precautions that should be taken. This letter follows on from the imposition of a sanction and a sending away of a member of the Society who had probably abused a child :

“I have received your letter on the sad business that you have told me about. The culprit has completely confessed. He will leave shortly. (…) This unfortunate example should give food for thought to the members of the Council, on the strictness of the rules to be adopted in all our establishments in order to prevent similar incidences! Some people find my precautions too harsh. On the contrary, we found that we did not go far enough. In addition to no visiting in rooms, we must add another; never to be alone, no matter where, with a child unless one can be seen by all, ‘Qui stat, videat ne cadat(3)’ (4) ”

In this passage, it is possible to get a hint of the sadness in the heart of the Cardinal in discovering that a member of the little Society that he had founded should have committed such a terrible act. He had a heartfelt determination to make the missions safe places for children.  One can also read in these remarks that his action in this field was not received with the necessary goodwill which was due to him. “Some find that my precautions are too harsh.” To paraphrase the Cardinal we can also say: “On the contrary, we found that we did not go far enough.”

In another letter, dated 31st May 1886, Cardinal Lavigerie refused Fr. Burtin, in charge of a school in Rome, permission to acquire a private garden for the schoolchildren. The acquisition of this garden and its adaptation would bring about a division in the community and the rule of three would no longer be respected. The Cardinal saw a big danger that one of the Fathers would find himself alone with the children which could result in risks for the mission and the children:

“It is not possible for me to let you go down this path. It would divide the community and from that point on, it would lead to other serious drawbacks other than the ones you have already told me about. Our rule of three Fathers always together would be breached in spirit. Our precautions, so necessary and sanctioned elsewhere by severe spiritual penalties in order to prevent Fathers from being alone with children, would be abandoned. One day you would have a scandal in Rome that would shame your little Society in front of the universal Church because those jealous of you and those who are your enemies are neither blind nor dumb.” (5)

Here it is clear that Cardinal Lavigerie was very conscious of the risk factors, which could expose children to abuse and the Church to scandal. To counteract this, he insisted on the rule of three members working together. It is interesting to note that the 2016 General Chapter came back to the importance of this rule of three. This is not something naive, and it is very likely that the Holy Spirit challenges us through the voices of our Founder and the General Chapter to return to that rule of prudence and support that is so deeply rooted in the missionary witness of our society.

Cardinal Lavigerie was very attentive to the care given to young people, even among religious sisters and he did not hesitate to ban them from receiving Holy Communion when they beat the young girls in their care. Already at that time, he did not tolerate this kind of behaviour. This should still challenge us today. In a letter addressed to Fr. Deguerry, dated 20th May 1874, he let him know the punishment concerning a sister who beat a child:

“Sister G…wrote to me to let me know of the departure of a young girl. Do not take this child back under any circumstances. However, the sister also merits a serious punishment for having beaten her. Please tell her that I prohibit her from receiving communion for eight days and that if  she or any other sister will, by the mere fact (of doing it), be deprived of Holy Communion for fifteen days every time they beat a girl.” (6)

One of the texts of our Founder which is perhaps more unequivocal about his determination to prevent child sexual abuse can be found in his instructions regarding the running of the College Saint-Louis in Carthage. The Cardinal warns against indecent behaviour towards young people, as well as ambiguous situations that could be detrimental to the mission of the Church:

“Discretion is necessary in showing kindness to the children. They must not become too attached to them using the fact that they are adopted children as an excuse. Particular shows of affection can contain very real dangers and sometimes lead to ultimate shame. They should be on their guard as nothing is quite as it seems in these matters, and the slightest negligence in the beginning can lead to fatal consequences.” (7)

An orphan’s camp established by Archbishop Lavigerie at Ben-Aknoun  (Algeria)

Thus, Cardinal Lavigerie challenges his sons and daughters regarding the risks existing in this domain. There is a difficulty in knowing what is really going on in their hearts and this can be hidden behind demonstrative gestures. He was also very much aware that in some cultures, there were abusive behaviours and the gestures of missionaries could be interpreted in a negative way even if the intention was honest. Consequently, for the Cardinal, the rule of prudence demanded that the missionaries abstain from gestures or conduct which could be misunderstood:

“This is particularly true in countries where vices against nature are unfortunately well-known and consequently the minds of children are particularly aware in this area to suspect evil by making the most innocent acts look guilty.” (8)

It was for these reasons that Cardinal Lavigerie forbade his missionaries but also any of the personnel serving in the educational institutes to be alone with a child:

“Therefore, in a school such as the College St-Louis, the rule should be to never touch a child under any pretext whatsoever. If one touches them in anger to correct them, it will be said that they are badly treated. If one touches them affectionately, it will be said that we want to abuse them. It is absolutely necessary to abstain from such habits and to remember in particular the measures the Ecclesiastical authorities in Algiers have taken in order to avoid even a suspicion of such evil. The rule forbids ipso facto any director or teacher, whoever they are, to never ever be found alone with a child in any part of the house, study halls, classrooms or rooms.” (9)

It is clear that Cardinal Lavigerie as a man of his time was also concerned for the reputation of the Church in addition to his anxiety for protecting children. He was very aware that any abuse of children be it physical, sexual, spiritual, was the worst kind of counter-witness to evangelisation. Rather than hiding the problem, the Cardinal always took the necessary decisions, which were sometimes painful and unpopular.  Some questioned the determination of Cardinal Lavigerie in the field of protection of the most vulnerable, accusing him of wanting to promote the deployment of his “dear sons” the Missionaries of Africa. An observant reading of the correspondence of our Founder tells another story. It is that of a man determined to protect children from abuse, protect the Church from scandal, and protect the priesthood from immoral behaviour. To achieve this, he did not hesitate to take drastic measures when he expelled 14 members of the same Institute because of child sexual abuse. It is interesting to note that the accused priests spread lies about the motivation of the Cardinal. However, the truth is more dramatic than that as we can seen in a draft copy of a letter of the 12th August 1882 that his secretary wrote and which he wished to send to the Congregation which had made him aware of the slurs circulating about his character :

“As for the truly amazing letter that you address to your visiting brother, I have only one thing to say to you; it is all a tissue of ridiculous and detestable inventions and I am astonished that a man of your experience, having seen the Cardinal and his works and had come to Algeria himself could have entertained the least doubt in this matter. Since his arrival, 18 years ago, His Excellency has felt naturally obliged to impose ecclesiastical sanctions on priests or religious guilty of serious faults. In one of the congregations you speak about, he obliged the departure of three priests, one guilty of sodomy, and another of different acts against morals and the third of open revolt. In another Society, he cracked down on at least 14 subjects, guilty of attacks on children. And the same with the rest. Naturally, these people do not say why (they were sent away), they invent false stories which are going around France giving out stories that are completely different from what has actually taken place.”  (10)

As in other areas, the Cardinal had to show great determination and courage to make the Church/Family a safer place for children and vulnerable adults. May his courage and determination help us in our work for the protection of the most vulnerable at the heart of our Societies.



  1. The texts quoted here come from our archives in the Generalate or from the book “Instructions aux Missionaires” published by Editions Grands Lacs, Namur, Belgium in 1950 (IAM 1950).
  2. We have no way at the moment of comparing what was happening in other Missionary Institutes or Religious Congregations; we can only get a sense that the Cardinal was a pioneer in this area.
  3. 1 Cor 10:12 : “Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.”
  4. Archives MG – N. 1270 (copy of C III-54).
  5. Archives MG – N°3.142 (207), copy of T.992
  6. IAM1950, page 38.
  7. IAM1950, page 156.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Archives MG – N°3.139 (276) B.3.131.

Stéphane Joulain, M.Afr.

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