The Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference began their bi-annual plenary session on 31 July in Mariannhill, Kwazulu-Natal. In his first opening address as president of the conference, Bishop Sithembele Sipuka raised concerns about South Africa’s socioeconomic and political situation. He also addressed the issue of clerical sexual abuse, talking specifically about the rape of religious women by priests and priests who have children.
In his first address as President of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Sithembele Sipuka of uMthatha, said that Church leaders have “retreated to the sacristies and occasional pastoral statements” instead of being present to people who are left alone in desperate situations.
The bishop was addressing the violent protests that are now a regular occurrence in South Africa. He said that, like in the apartheid years, some protests which are potentially destructive can become constructive if Church leaders journeyed with people to “facilitate a more constructive engagement with elected leaders”. He said that people who protest often undermine their cause and look unreasonable because they “destroy facilities they have in order to get another facility. If they want a road, they will destroy a clinic, and if they are angry against crime they burn a school.”
Sipuka made these comments in the context of reflecting on South Africa’s socio-economic and political situation. He said that “There was a palpable sense of hope when he [President Cyril Ramaphosa] finally succeeded a president who did not want to go. He noted that after former president, Jacob Zuma, was “literary pulled from power by the scruff of the neck, kicking, screaming and wondering, ‘What wrong have I done?’ the whole country and the world were exhilarated with the emergence of Mr Cyril Ramaphosa.”
The bishop said that some of the expectations that people had of Ramaphosa had been fulfilled. He mentioned the various Commissions that have begun their work – specifically the State Capture Commission. He said that the “resignations of some Ministers and Directors, the non-return of some MPs to Parliament, the non-reappointment of some Ministers and the reduction of the Cabinet from 36 to 28 Ministers” are all signs of hope.
“Yet there are some unnerving developments that make one wonder if Mr. Ramaphosa is a real hope for South Africa or just a passing euphoria.” He said that some present developments question if “we are progressing towards any genuine change or towards change of benefactors from corruption and political patronage.”
Sipuka also questioned the role of the Reserve Bank in the economy. He said that the economic system “is failing to reduce poverty” and noted that, except for the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters), nobody is willing to deal with it robustly.
“There is a tendency to accept the system of economy as something about which nothing can be said, as something sacrosanct. This reluctance to deal with the skewed economic system manifested in the recent debates on whether the Reserve Bank should concern itself only with the stability of the rand or to also include provision for it to play a role in development and employment.”
Admitting that he is no expert on the Bank he said that “one thing that is clear to everyone, is that the present system of economy to which the Reserve Bank is closely linked is benefiting very few people and the majority are left out.” He said that Pope Francis frequently has said that “the prevailing economy is the economy of exclusion and inequality and needs to be changed.”
The bishop said that the worldwide Church needs to take up issues related to the economy and make a contribution so that we can realise an economy that is inclusive. “The concerns about the economy cannot be allowed to be the domain of the Economic Freedom Fighters alone.”
The president of the conference also addressed the question of the clergy and sex abuse. He said that he attended the Summit on the Sexual Abuse of Minors in Rome, called by Pope Francis, in February this year. Sipuka said that the aim of the meeting was “to elicit pastoral solicitude and compassion about the problem so that we as Bishops are moved to address it.”
Sipuka said that during the presentations and discussions at the gathering concrete suggestions were made. Some of these have now found themselves into the Motu Proprio document that Pope Francis released for the whole Church. The bishops will look at this specifically at the plenary.
Quoting a homily by Archbishop Buti Tlhagale of Johannesburg – who said that priest-abusers should be automatically excommunicated – Sipuka said that the sexual abuse of minors should automatically render ordination invalid because “if one abuses children, he is obviously defective material for the sacrament of priesthood. He cannot be acting in persona Christi when he abuses children that Jesus instructed us to allow them to come to him.”
Sipuka also addressed the issue of the rape of religious sisters by priests. He said that while this has not “significantly” surfaced in the conference area, the bishops are discussing it with the Leadership of Consecrated life in Southern Africa (LCCL). “Then there is the issue of priests with children, which unlike the rape of Sisters is something that often surface[s] in our Conference,” Sipuka said. He went on to say that there is, too, “a lot of talk about active homosexual and lesbian relationships occurring among priests and nuns respectively.”