Of Sinners & Saints

I have spent much of my free time this week wading through the Murphy Report. For those of you who don’t come from Ireland, allow me to briefly explain that this is the latest investigation to document the pattern and scale of child sexual abuse carried out by members of the Catholic Church in the country. Though this report focusses on a single diocese (Dublin) and limits itself to a period of 30 years (1975 – 2004), it still manages to identify 104 priests who can be said to have definitely or to be strongly suspected of abusing children.

In spite of its 650 pages, I found it to be a grimly absorbing account of how such an horrific abuse of trust seemed to become almost common within the church. Equally distressing and certainly more shocking was the manner in which the church hierarchy made every effort to cover its tracks, hide its clergy and generally act as if the problem didn’t exist. The Vatican didn’t even manage to cooperate with this current report. At no time, save for the very end of the period, did the welfare of children seem to figure in any of its thinking. I was startled by how close to home so much of the abuse took place, I counted 5 priests who had ministered in parishes around my childhood home.

Growing up in 1990’s Ireland, when many of these scandals first broke, the details of the whole sorry affair still shock but tragically don’t surprise. You could say that I grew up at the time when Catholic Ireland finally died, when the extraordinarily strong ties that the Church had held over both government and governed since Independence were washed away as wave after wave of allegations hit first the press and eventually the courts.

It was this jaundiced view of the Catholic Church that I brought with me to Africa. Yet it is here that I have found greatest reasons to reconsider the institution. I can’t count the number of times I have been told of an organisation doing great works within the poorest slums or most remote communities only to learn that at the helm is an ageing priest or nun, typically from an Irish order. This army of men and women who left Ireland to join the missions are still at the heart of many of the very best institutions of care and support and the continent still relies heavily upon their selfless service.

Its worth noting that a mission priest or nun is, in my experience, very different from the stereotypical man or woman of the cloth that you might remember from your childhood. I have had deeply pragmatic discussions with mission nuns about how best to empower women who sell sex to gain a better price for their services or at the minimum how to protect themselves from HIV and the other risks of their business. I have seen mission priests stand up in public fora and openly demand universal use of condoms. There is little or no sanctimonious piety when you meet a mission priest or nun, they are simply too close to the realities on the ground to let dogma get in their way.

To give just one example, Prof. Father Michael Kelly, originally hailing from Tullamore, is someone I have had the immense honour of working alongside on a number of occasions this year. A sprightly 80 years old, he joined the Jesuit order and moved to Zambia over 50 years ago and has had a long and illustrious career in the service of the Zambian people including a long period as Dean of Education at the National University. As a member of the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection, he remains highly active within Zambian Civil Society – an authoritative voice in the region and across the globe on critical issues relating to HIV, Women’s Rights and poverty.

In this way my year in Africa has somehow shown me the Catholic Church laid bare – capable of great goodness and great evil depending upon the men behind the collars. Tragically the actions of the wretched few have cast a long shadow which can reach even these distant lands. Of the 46 priests whose abuse was documented in the Murphy report, I counted 4 who spent time on missions to Africa and they were just the ones who also abused in Dublin. It is beyond doubt that whatever oversight they might have met in Ireland would have been even less on their missions. There is no question that African children suffered under their and others care – it is only a question of time before that particular wretched story has to be told.

I also made mention last week of the enormous ramifications these scandals have had on church collection plates around the world and from there the church based initiative such as Ng’ombe Home Based Care. The scandals have not only turned off the funding tap, they have turned many men and women away from the institution altogether and devoting themselves to a similar life of service. I have yet to meet a mission priest or nun who is under the age of 60. Many of them are still working hard, true to their cause to the last – but have no illusion, these are a dying breed and there is no generation to follow in their footsteps and take on the immense contribution they make to the continent.

One Response to “Of Sinners & Saints”
  1. janno says:

    May the Lord filter out and judge these sinners, and may the sould of the faithful ones you met rest in peace. Sad their voices are not being heard. The best development workers the average eye will never meet; they spend the rest of the life in far flung places utterly commited to their cause and fully embedded in local society. They are the ones that stay behind when a genocide strikes the country and the UN security phases hits 5. You’re right, these people are a dying race, which the current world doesn’t breed. i know i am not one of them, let their perservance and long term commitment to Africa’s people be a humbling encouragement to you and me berk.

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