My opinion (for what it’s worth) was recently solicited in a targeted survey regarding the protection of minors in the Catholic Church in (Eastern) Africa. Respondents were asked to identify the five most burning issues (from a list of thirteen arranged alphabetically.) The survey made for grim reading: If infants survive Africa’s high mortality rates, they may face other challenges: Some AIDS orphans run households; while many children end up homeless or living on the streets; other children become soldiers; some are refugees and migrants; some suffer emotional or physical abuse; others are trafficked or forced into slavery or labour; some cultures promote what is called in most cultures ‘female genital mutilation;’ some are exploited online, while others are married at a young age, and become mothers as early teens, which often puts an end to their formal schooling. These children are frequently susceptible to infection by HIV, or caught up in inter-generational HIV transmission.
Of course, the context of the survey is to inform our heads of episcopal conferences, summoned to the February 2019 Summit on the Protection of Minors in the Catholic Church, of the real issues concerning child safeguarding in our region. The subtext is that among so many dangers that minors face in Africa, sexual abuse is a relatively minor concern: It should not be blown out of proportion (as happens in other places.)
While it is laudable to name and address all the issues challenging children on our continent (particularly in the light of the recent synod on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment), it is neither helpful nor honest to minimise the reality of the vulnerability of minors to sexual abuse – even in the Church. Of course we name that most sexual abuse takes place at home either by parents or relatives, but we must not deny that it also happens in schools and churches and in the neighbourhood. I read only one national daily newspaper, and at least once a week (in the ‘Counties’ section) there is a brief report of a child being ‘defiled’, or of a lynch mob taking justice into its own hands and attacking an alleged perpetrator, or of a case of a teacher appearing accused in a local court. I take this as very crude evidence that the sexual abuse of minors is not ‘somebody else’s problem.’ We should not bury our heads in the sand like the proverbial ostrich and believe that not seeing the problem means that it doesn’t exist.
On a slightly more scientific level, “child protection officers” from around the continent confirm that sexual predation is not insignificant among the many vulnerabilities children face. And even “worse” is when it is men preying on boys, when same-sex attraction and love are taboo on our continent. (see my contribution to this forum for the FIRST of May, 2017 – “Airbrushing reality.” And see the African contributions to the recent Synod on Young People.) This only compounds the shame, guilt and confusion of the victim of abuse: How can a male child, adolescent, or young adult make public that he has been abused by another male? Nothing in our cultures has prepared us to deal with this scenario. The trouble is that if it doesn’t exist, then there is no need for structures or policies to deal with it.
I am sure that at the February summit, bishops from around the world will concur that an ad hoc financial settlement is not the way to make this nonexistent problem go away. I pray for a summit that will show the compassionate face of Christ to all of God’s children, that will put the interest of the victim before those of the institution or the perpetrator. I hope for an awakening in Africa to the reality that this is a global concern touching us no less than any other continent. I hope that our Church will have the humility to learn from others with more experience and honesty in dealing with the pain. I dream of the day when Africa gives a safe home to all of her children.