Reading current headlines on sex scandals within the Catholic Church, one would be forgiven for believing that the gates of hell have opened wide to swallow the Pope — Peter’s representative on earth — and clergy, if not the entire church.
For centuries, Catholics with grievances against priests have been referred to Psalm 105:15: “Do not touch my anointed ones …”
Therefore, they will not utter anything that might paint their pastors negatively. This is what came to my mind when Canadian priest Roger Tessier abruptly called off our interview.
At the point he was to comment on priests’ sexual improprieties, the elderly priest requested that we continue the next day.
In a recent statement, the Pope made a profound confession: “With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realising the magnitude of the damage done to so many lives.”
To his credit however, Fr Roger handed me over to his confrère, Fr Stéphane Joulain, whose no-holds-barred interview will delight those concerned with the dignity of the church. Paedophiles have cause to be afraid; very afraid!
While Fr Roger admits that there have always been sexual scandals in the Catholic Church, other churches are no better.
He cites a recent case involving the Anglican Church of Kenya in which a court ordered reinstatement of clergy accused of practising homosexuality.
For Catholic priests in Kenya, nothing could be more ominous than a recent Nation story that an international organisation had engaged a local DNA agency to provide services for children who believe they were sired by priests.
One such case involves a priest in Meru who is accused of killing two cousins.
Although the Nation interviewed Fr Stéphane before the DNA story broke out, action on predator priests will be music to the ears of the Rome-based priest, who holds a PhD in psychology.
He is the Coordinator for Integrity in Ministry for the Missionaries of Africa (the White Fathers).
Fr Stéphane was recently in Kenya to conduct workshops for future missionaries on the protection of minors. The courses addressed sexual and physical abuse and creating safe environments for minors.
The priest describes himself as a ‘collaborator’ of the Centre for Child Protection at the Gregorian University of the Jesuits, in Rome, where he offers a course on pastoral care of perpetrators of child sexual abuse.
The university has a six-week diploma programme and a two-year Master's programme for those preparing themselves to do Fr Stéphane’s kind of work.
He works with the leadership in the country he visits and in Rome on the best way to serve justice for victims while respecting the rights of alleged offenders.
He also deals with misbehaving priests or brothers having affairs with women and fathering children in the process.
Sex scandals within the Catholic Church are no different from the general population, Fr Stéphane thinks.
What makes them unacceptable is that they involve priests, who should behave better because of the high standard of morality associated with the church.
The society has to abide by the law of the land on minors and report to authorities, even as it invokes the Canon Law. Under-50-year-olds found guilty may be dismissed. However, those over 60 are usually received back after serving their jail terms.
The church distinguishes between consensual sex and abuse of authority — like taking advantage of a religious sister or a young woman who needs help.
“We sanction that dearly,” Fr Stéphane says, but is tight-lipped about the number of such cases he handles.
The priest is categorical that the church risks bankruptcy from sexual abuse settlements. In the US, for instance, the church has paid close to $4 billion (Sh402.8 billion) in settlements and penalties. Close to 15 dioceses have gone bankrupt.
Also affected are Canada, Ireland, Germany and Belgium, where there has been strong reaction against paedophilia.
Africa is equally bad. Apart from Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa, where bishops are acting on such cases, the rest are far behind.
“They believe it doesn’t happen,” Fr Stéphane said. Settlements are measly — Sh20,000 and 25,000 … but not for long.
He warned of western lawyers coming to file class action cases for sexual abuse victims, never mind their mercenary motives.
Does celibacy fuel paedophilia? The priest differs. Most abuses are done by men already in a relationship with a woman.
“Incest, the biggest crime against children, is mostly done by married men.”
While Fr Stéphane accuses priests of emotional immaturity, he notes: “Many women would tell you that their husbands are no more mature than their children.”
Since 2000 when the big child sex abuse scandals broke out, things have changed in the formation of priests, with more sessions on human sexuality and maturity and development.
Most ongoing cases happened between 1970 and 1990, and Fr Stéphane thinks ongoing strategies in priests’ training are paying off.
But he is cautious: “It takes 20 to 25 years for victims to speak out, so the cases perpetrated in 2000 will only come out in 2025.”
The biggest problem is bishops. When a priest with five children from five women is retained, bishops’ commitment to real change is called into question, Fr Stéphane said.
He cited cases of some priests being moved to other parishes or being sent for further studies.
Many African bishops feel they have to protect the church. “They haven’t learnt from the US that by trying to defend the reputation of the church, they made it worse."
Unless they read the warning signs, African bishops are going to learn the hard way, he says.
Fr Stéphane praises the media for its whistle-blowing, which has triggered high-profile resignations.
Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick of Washington and Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, South Australia are examples. The latter was jailed for hiding child sexual abuse.
“What Pope Francis is saying is that red and purple caps can no longer protect anyone from prosecution,” Fr Stéphane says.