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Calling a #MeToo moment for African Sisters

The repugnant revelations of the abuse of minors in the Church have led many to point the finger at what they suggest is a homosexual subculture among priests. The suggestion then is that gay clergy are exclusively to blame for the recent horrors. But, if this is what is at the root of the problem, then the revelations here by Sr Sue Rakoczy IHM don't appear to fit the diagnosis. She is calling for a #MeToo moment in the context of African Religious sisters who have for too long suffered sexual abuse by priests in their local communities. This would suggest that the culture of abuse present in our Church's ministers is not as uniquely applicable to homosexuals alone as some might like to believe and urgently needs to be interrogated. 

Ponder these three accounts:

A priest told me that when he gives a group retreat to a community of sisters, he weeps as they relate the rape of women in their communities by priests. When a sister falls pregnant, she is sent home to her family; the priest is transferred to another parish or another diocese, with no responsibility for the child he has fathered.

In another African country, a bishop founded “his” community of sisters. His residence is near the novitiate house. Often he takes the novice director and one or two novices “to spend the night” with him. They dare not protest because he is their financial support.

A sister told me that one of the priests in the parish in which she lives is exerting extreme pressure on her to have sex. She wants to keep her vow of consecrated celibacy but he keeps telling her that “sex is natural” and she must obey him.

The most horrendous recent revelations in Pennsylvania in the United States in the never-ending sexual abuse scandal in the Church, have led to more outrage and anger. But what about the women I have just described? Their plight is also a #MeToo moment.

Some of the students I have known at St Joseph’s Theological Institute are very conflicted because they find celibacy extremely difficult. They have told me, “Celibacy is not natural. It is not African. It is imposed by Western culture.”

I have responded:

“The norm for humanity is marriage; for Catholics, this means faithful monogamous marriage. Celibacy is unusual — in all cultures. At this time, celibacy is required for priests, with the few exceptions of married former Anglican and Lutheran clergy.  If celibacy is too difficult now, leave your religious congregation because you will cause scandal as a priest. If you want to be a priest and also be married, enter another church.”

The abuse and rape of sisters is fuelled by the power of patriarchy and clericalism. Patriarchy prevails in all cultures as the power of males over women and children.

Traditional African culture is profoundly patriarchal and to question it takes real courage. For example, the birth of a boy is a joy while the birth of a girl brings disappointment. In marriage, the woman must be faithful but the man can have as many sexual partners as he wishes.

In the course I teach at St Joseph’s on “Women Doing Theology” we discuss how patriarchy is embedded in cultures. For most students, this is the first time that they have looked at their culture critically and it is very uncomfortable.

Clericalism is an ideology of the superiority of ordained clergy over all other people. Priests and bishops are psychologically separated from the People of God as special with immense privileges.

The day a man walks into a formation house or diocesan seminary he begins to breathe the poisonous air of clericalism. Nothing is more important than clerical status and privilege. Hence the denial, cover-ups and lies of the sexual abuse scandal: “father” must not lose his status as abuser-priests are transferred from parish to parish as bishops collude.

Patriarchy and clericalism profoundly impact women religious. Patriarchal norms such as “men rule and women obey” appear “natural” to both women and men. A sister may think, “How can I say ‘no’ to Father; he is a priest and knows more than I do.”

Yes, some women recognise and act against aspects of patriarchy but it remains the DNA of African cultures and the Church. This oppression is internalised and some sisters act out of it, demeaning their own dignity and worth as persons.

Clericalism acts together with patriarchy. A priest has power; a bishop has power. Both have economic resources which sisters do not have.  So when a priest rapes a sister he does it because he can. The woman can fight and scream but usually the man is physically stronger and he does what he wants to do.

In his 20 August 2018 letter to the People of God, Pope Francis states, “To say ‘no’ to abuse is to  say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism.”

The priesthood, other than celibacy, appears to some Catholic young men as an attractive career option since it brings power, status and often a much higher economic position than that of their family. One day in a class a student stated that he joined his congregation to get a car like his parish priest. Now that he is a parish priest he has his long-desired vehicle.

So, what can we do? We the People of God must cease deferring to clergy as special persons. One small but significant change would be to stop serving clergy first at a parish meal. Let them wait in the queue and chat with people.

Formation programmes for sisters must put them on the alert that some priests may try to rape them and will use “cultural” excuses to justify their insistence on having sex. Breaking through both patriarchy and clericalism sisters must have the courage to shout and scream “NO” and if she is raped, to bring criminal charges against the priest. Rape is a crime, not a clerical entitlement. A priest who fathers a child must be dismissed from the priesthood in order to give financial and emotional support to his child.

Formation programmes for male religious and diocesan candidates must include critical analysis of how patriarchy pervades their cultures. They must realise and internalise that ministry is service (John 13:1-15), not entitlement.

Formation houses easily breed the virus of clericalism and so every effort must be made to counteract this “specialness”. There should be much more pastoral experience before ordination, especially insertion in poor communities, so that the candidate experiences the lives of the People of God which often involve much struggle for survival.

Throughout the world millions of people have left the Church because of their disgust and anger at the scandal — a scandal which is never-ending. This is not the Christian community based on the Gospel but one in which some clergy have grievously violated the Gospel. Jesus had some strong words about millstones and drowning for those who cause scandal (Mt 18:6).

I have lived in Africa – Ghana and South Africa – since 1982. I rejoice in the positive values of African culture, but I am also angry and disheartened at how culture, including clerical culture, causes immense suffering to African women.

African sisters must speak up. What has been hidden must come to the light of Truth!

Images: Flickr/David Jones remixed by Ricardo da Silva SJ

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.