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I support zero-tolerance for sexual abuse, says SA bishop

Bishop Sithembele Sipuka recently travelled to Rome to attend the meeting on ‘The Protection of Minors in the Church’ called by Pope Francis. In this exclusive interview with spotlight.africa he shared how listening to the victims of abuse brought tears to his eyes. He says that victims need to be put first. The bishop, who is also president of the local episcopal conference, says that he believes in a zero-tolerance approach to abuse. And, he assures us that guilty priests and bishops in southern Africa will be held accountable. By Russell Pollitt SJ.

What was your impression of the meeting in Rome? What was the most important part for you? 

My impression was that the meeting was well considered by the Pope. In his opening remarks, he said that he seeks to consult widely in order to deal with the scourge of sexual abuse by the clergy. The Holy Father was present for the whole duration of the meeting.

I think that the seriousness of the meeting was further reflected in the quality of the presentations, interventions and group discussions. There were some practical proposals made of what needs to be done. The presentation by Cardinal Blaise Cupich [the Archbishop of Chicago, USA] is one example of someone who, I thought, made very practical suggestions. He called for the devolution of authority to deal with sexual abuse cases at local level. He also said that the expertise of the laity should be used in dealing with the problem.

I also found Sr Veronica Openibo SHCJ’s input very powerful and practical too.

There was a palpable sense of worry that the failure of dealing decisively with child sexual abuse has discredited the Church.

There was also, I think, a sense of shame and guilt that the Church has let victims down by covering-up. This is wrong and we cannot continue to allow it to happen.

Most important for me was hearing the painful testimonies of abuse survivors. This gave me first-hand experience of the extent of the pain caused by sexual abuse. It is very different when you hear about it from those who suffered, rather than hearing about it from secondary sources. It grips you, it brought tears to my eyes. It made me feel disgust and also wonder how a priest could do this. Concrete action is needed which really puts victims first.  

Some commentators still think that many bishops in Africa and Asia are in denial about child sexual abuse. Do you think the bishops are divided on the issue?

Yes, some African and Asian bishops have argued that in their countries the abuse of children has not manifested itself in sexual abuse but rather in other forms of abuse like child labour, child soldiers, neglected children etc. This argument has however been thwarted. I hope that bishops who think that child sex abuse in their countries is less of a reality left the meeting converted.

The fact that it has not surfaced and that it may be happening at a lower scale does not mean that it is not happening. It is happening. The question remains: What do we as Church do about it?

The sharing of an Irish bishop that I referred to in an article in the Southern Cross (that 20 years ago it was not thought that child sex abuse was taking place in Ireland but 20 years later everybody knows that it was taking place), should serve as a warning to us all.

I think that some bishops, at least one or two that were in my group [in the meeting in Rome], who thought that child abuse is not too much of a problem, after hearing about the dynamics of child sexual abuse, left the gathering with a different mentality.

If there was division amongst the bishops when we arrived at the meeting, by the end there was definitely more unity about this issue.

One of the inputs emphasised that even if it is occurring at varying levels in different parts of the world, given the universality of the Church and the collegiality of bishops, no bishop should be complacent because he thinks it is happening on a lesser scale in his part of the world.

The purpose of the meeting was to raise a sense of collegiality among the bishops so that we can deal with this scourge.  I think that, to a large extent, this was achieved.

I also think that while the sexual abuse of children by clergy is despicable and should be confronted and dealt with decisively, and granted the purpose of this meeting was to deal with the sexual abuse of children, it should not blind us to other forms of child abuse.

Equally, the sexual abuse of children by clergy and religious, should not blind us to the fact and the extent to which child sexual abuse is taking place in families and in society at large.

This crisis seems to be leading to an exposé of not only child abuse but also the abuse of religious sisters. Are the bishops taking steps to address abuse too?

Yes, this issue was raised in the last plenary meeting [of the Southern African bishops] and a decision has been taken to discuss it.

Given the power imbalance between nuns, religious sisters and priests, and the fact that we live in a patriarchal society, one expects this form of abuse. Now that it is being put on the table; hopefully cases of this kind of abuse will be revealed so that we can confront it.

I have also learnt that abuse is not only committed by priests against religious sisters, but also by sisters who abuse other sisters. Statements have been made suggesting that some older sisters groom and sexually abuse younger sisters.

If we hope to widely and effectively address this problem, this aspect of sisters abusing sisters would have to be factored in and confronted too.

It is not only bishops who have a responsibility to address this problem, religious superiors must also address this and take action.

Fortunately, in Southern Africa, there is a platform for engagement between the bishops and religious superiors. The Leadership of Consecrated Life (LCCL) and the bishops’ board meet together twice a year. We will address this problem together.

One major way of tackling this problem is the holistic formation of both female religious and priests.

Women religious must be empowered to refuse any form of abuse by priests.

What are the biggest obstacles in addressing issues of abuse in the church in South Africa? 

I think that the biggest obstacle is the culture of silence. People don’t know where to turn when they have been abused.

I think that the issue of abuse should be included in schools and catechetical programmes, and in the ongoing formation of the laity — in various groups like sodalities.

First of all, we need to educate people about sexual abuse.

Secondly, we need to encourage people to come forward and report sexual abuse when it happens.

Procedures and protocols for preventing abuse must be publicised and made widely known.

What are the SA bishops going to do?

The South African bishops follow the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) protocol for the investigation of sexual abuse of minors by clergy. It was first published in 1994.

This protocol has been revised five times already — the most recent revision was in 2013.

The protocols will be revised and updated, as has been the practice, especially after the meeting. There will be a lot more material which will hopefully help us to improve our protocols.

Already, cases of abuse in Southern Africa have been investigated and concluded. Some are still ongoing.

There is always room for improvement, so the SACBC committee on professional conduct will be studying the discussions from the meeting in Rome closely and follow-up on it.

In addition to improving procedures for dealing with cases of abuse, more emphasis and focus must be on prevention. I will be advising that we study preventative measures, including what I alluded to above: that the issue must form part of the formation in schools and catechetical programmes.

Do you support zero-tolerance approach? Do you think the bishops should adopt a zero-tolerance position?

Yes, I do. As far as I am concerned, any proven case of direct and intentional abuse of a minor must include that person being removed from priesthood.

A priest who abuses a minor is a sick person who should not have been ordained in the first place. When abuse is proven, I think it also nullifies his ordination.

You could argue using sacramental theology that such a priest is defective material for the sacrament of orders. This renders his ordination invalid. Somebody who sacramentally represents Christ and acts “in persona Christi” as it were, cannot abuse children and still claim to represent Christ.

In order to minimise, if not to eliminate the possibility of ordaining the wrong people, we need to pay attention to the selection of candidates and to intensify human formation in our formation system.

In regard to others who may have contributed to the abuse of children in an indirect way — like failing to prevent sexual abuse or making a misjudgment that leads to sexual abuse —  they have to be dealt with according to each case. Sanctions against such people, which may include expulsion from priesthood, would have to be determined according to the gravity of their omission or commission.

Can you, as president of the episcopal conference, assure us that priests and bishops will be held accountable for abuse in Southern Africa? 

Yes, I can assure you that they will be held accountable wherever there is proof and responsibility/guilt.

This will also apply for cases in which there is proof of negligence in preventing the sexual abuse of minors and in dealing with it when it occurred.

* 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.