Last weekend I had lunch with a dear Zimbabwean friend. P was raised as a Catholic and attended a Jesuit boarding school in Zimbabwe. The boys who were aged between 11 and 17, regarded the Jesuit Fathers as the epitome of brilliance. How else could they describe priests who after only two weeks of the new term, knew the name of every boy in the class and could tell at a glance which unfortunate soul was absent? It was only much later that P discovered that the priests' amazing powers of recollection were largely due to meticulous organisation whereby a student's seat in chapel was referenced to his desk in class and even to the bed in which his slept. It's easy when you know how it's done. Thus it never occurred to the boys to challenge the priests on anything. Not even when they fondled them.
P told me of how one night, he and a group of boys witnessed a European Father having sex with a man from a nearby village. The careless priest had left the window open and a lamp switched on behind him. When the story broke, the Jesuits immediately closed ranks. The event was reconstructed in its entirety and they maintained to a man that the sex act the boys had witnessed, never happened. It was nothing more than a mischievous fantasy put about by wicked boys. Then in a rare act of protest, the boys, some of whom were prefects, refused to take holy communion and held out for several weeks. That's when the Fathers came down hard on them. Although their only offence had been one of youthful voyeurism, the boys were suspended and their parents called in to apologise. All this occurred more than 30 years ago but P's anguish in retelling the events is still raw.
African families revere education and would gladly send their sons and daughters off to seemingly benign institutions, in relatively isolated areas and be eternally grateful for the opportunity. It is also well known that the Catholic Church which set up many of these schools in Africa, is poisoned by a small but not insignificant number of priests who abused children with impunity. Put these two factors together and Cardinal Turkson's assertion that there is no abuse in the African church, looks patently absurd. I wouldn't be surprised if some priests regarded Africa as a choice destination and not because they could win over great numbers of new converts and embed Catholic values, but because of the opportunities for uninhibited abuse of children a backward continent offered.
I'm glad there was no white smoke last week for Cardinal Turkson - even if he is from the same part of Ghana as I am. There's been a resounding silence from Africa when it comes to abuse by Catholic priests. Indeed, more stories like P's need to be told. I know they are out there.
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