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Excommunicate abuser priests, says SA Archbishop

In a powerful homily at the ordination of four new priests, the Archbishop of Johannesburg addressed the sexual abuse of minors. He said that there is outrage against the Catholic Church’s hierarchy for its complicity, silence and cover-ups. He said that abuser priests should be excommunicated from the Church. Russell Pollitt SJ reports.

The archbishop of Johannesburg has called for the immediate excommunication of priests who have abused minors.

Archbishop Buti Tlhagale was preaching at the ordination of four priests in the Archdiocese of Johannesburg on Saturday 27 October.

He told the ordinands, Abel Maluleke, Oupa Matseke, Sefako Santawana and Boshom Mpetsheni that their ordination takes place against the backdrop of the trial of Pastor Omotoso vs Cheryl Zondi.

He said that this case, of the sexual abuse of a minor, “brings to the fore the raw feelings of anger, of outrage, of bitterness of frustration, of hatred, even of self-hatred. Feelings, desires of retaliation, of betrayal, of disloyalty, of unfaithfulness, of cover-ups, of a sinister abuse of power and deception.”

Tlhagale said then when such cases hit the front pages of newspapers many people cannot help thinking about the Catholic Church and the plethora of scandals of child sexual abuse across the world. “There is palpable outrage against the Catholic Church hierarchy for its complicity, its silence and its cover-ups. For siding and hiding perpetrators at the expense of victims.” The archbishop said that the question is asked: “Who can be trusted?”

“As you enter the Catholic priesthood, you must be prepared, dear friends, to carry the burden and the stigma of the moral failure of (the) Catholic priests,” he said to the ordinands.

The ongoing revelations of child sex abuse by clergy across the world – most notably in Chile, the USA, Australia but also in South Africa – have put the Catholic Church in the spotlight again. In July, American archbishop, Theodore McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals. He was the first cardinal to do so in the history of the Church due to allegations of sexual abuse.

Across the world people have expressed outrage, not only at the abuse itself but at the fact that authorities in the Church — bishops and religious superiors — have not dealt with the perpetrators of abuse. There has been a lack of accountability and transparency. Some bishops who covered up abuse or abused minors themselves remained in place. At worst like McCarrick they were promoted to higher office in the Church.

“The halo of the Catholic priesthood has been broken. The Church is castigated because it appears to have claimed to have a ‘holier than thou’ attitude. We, priests, claim to be the other Christ. We have set the bar high but fail lamentably to live up to that moral standard, that moral ideal, hence the merciless and the harsh criticism,” Tlhagale said.

In the middle of October, Pope Francis defrocked two Chilean bishops over child sex abuse claims. The Vatican said that this decision could not be appealed.

The archbishop said that in Canon Law the “procurement of abortion by a priest, or with the assistance of a priest, brings about an automatic excommunication latae sententiae, to the priest.” He said also that if a priest gets married whilst still in vows, this too brings about automatic excommunication.

Latae sententiae is the Latin phrase used in Church law meaning sentence is passed by the action itself. It follows automatically when a law has been contravened.

“The point I’m leading to is that perhaps the abuse of minors by a priest, considering its moral gravity, perhaps this ought to be considered as an automatic excommunication. In other words, when a priest is found to have abused a child that should be included in the list of those acts that bring about automatic excommunication,” he said.

“it is a false consolation to argue that child abuse does not only happen in the Catholic Church. Child abuse should simply not happen.”

The archbishop went on to remind people of the “hard saying of the Gospel of Mark [18:6]. ‘Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he was thrown into the sea’.”

The archbishop said that the abuse has caused some people to leave the Church. He said to the ordinands: “You have a duty to restore the good name of the Catholic Church currently in tatters because of the revelations of scandal after scandal.”

Tlhagale also lamented the state of the country. He said that it was visibly “under siege on a number of fronts.” He said that thousands of young people were deeply disillusioned with life and that many communities are frustrated by the broken promises concerning the lack of houses, electricity, water and decent sanitation. “Their dignity is being trampled underfoot just like in the old apartheid days. Their anger is palpable as they resort to destroying public facilities in order to make their voice heard.”

He condemned “defrauding the state, greed, self-enrichment, corruption, state capture the collapse of Steinhoff and VBS,” saying that these ills point to the fact that there is something fundamentally wrong in the state of South Africa.

He told the four new priests that if they were to initiate any reforms within the Church, they must start with themselves first. He said that they must become credible and genuinely honest pastors and shepherds.

He told them that they have a “moral duty, at least, not to make matters worse than they already are.”

“We restore the Church’s good name by our own lifestyle, by our own fidelity and simple honesty. Our own moral lapses, our own lives, regrettably marked by broken vows and broken promises, should not dissuade you from making a genuine effort to live up to expectations. To strive in earnest to be the other Christ who brings hope to the people of God.”

“Your ordination, gentlemen, to the priesthood, takes place against this unhappy background. These are difficult times,” the archbishop said.

* 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.


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Russell Pollitt SJ
Director of the Jesuit Institute South Africa and Editor-in-Chief of spotlight.africa. He studied the social sciences, theology and communications. He worked as pastor of the Jesuit’s downtown parish in Johannesburg, South Africa, for 7 years before moving to the Jesuit Institute. He is interested in the relationship between faith and society and the contribution that faith can make to public policy. He regularly comments on politics in South Africa and issues in the Catholic Church. He conducts workshops in South Africa on social media and the human person.

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