In the light of the recent media coverage of an allegation of child abuse made against a priest in this Archdiocese, I write this letter to help you understand the Catholic position in this situation.
The Church will endeavour to ensure that the full truth comes out and that the issues are dealt with properly, professionally and sensitively. The Church is cooperating fully with all State authorities investigating this matter.
The protection of the child is an essential priority of the Catholic Church. Since the beginning of Christianity 2000 years ago, our church has been requested by society to be a place of safe refuge for children.
Indeed, in this Archdiocese there are hundreds of abused children from families and neglected homes who are cared for by the Catholic Church. Catholic schools have, for centuries, led the world in education theory and practice.
I want to say that the Catholic Church is an exceptionally safe place for young children. Yes, there have been cases in which church failed. One failure, one broken child is a tragedy, as it damages the child for life in its relationships with adults and even with God.
Any person who is aware of a sexual abuse of a minor, a young person under the age of 18, is under obligation to report this to the police or to a social worker. They should also report it to the church if it concerns a Catholic person, a Catholic religious or priest.
The church in South Africa has a protocol which has been in place since 1999 to address these matters. The Church will set up a team, including independent professionals, to investigate such allegations. This team will speak with the complainant, the victim, the respondent, and all witnesses concerned. It is composed of a contact person, a delegate of the Archdiocese, a lawyer, a church lawyer, a psychologist, a medical person and a media person and a manager of procedure.
If the findings of this team confirm that an offence has been committed, it presents it to the bishop who must then make a judgment. If the bishop judges that the church person is guilty of such an offence, he must then refer this to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome.
If a report of an abuse first comes to the Church rather than to police, the Church will always advise the complainants that they must take this evidence to the police or to a social worker. This is, in fact what happened in this most recent case. It was our chancellor who facilitated the meeting between the complainant and the police. Our Church works, and will in this case, fully cooperate with the State in all investigations so that the truth is established and that, above all, innocent children are protected. In this case, we have also pledged that the minor and his family will be both assisted and protected.
The fact that the media exposes and investigates these allegations is both necessary and helpful. Leaving a vulnerable child in an abuse situation is a crime for any adult.
However, given that child abuse is of epidemic proportions in South Africa, it is noteworthy that the media reserves most of its energy for Catholic priests. Criticism of the Catholic stance on abortion accompanies certain attitudes.
As Catholics we do admit that there have been failures especially between the years 1960 and 1980. To make matters worse, some of these offences against children were not reported or not dealt properly by the church. Yet while this is a regrettable, and no excuses should be offered, we must remember that this was a time in society where issues of child abuse were simply not discussed in society in general. The press and media did not investigate such reports, and very few states had laws or protection units dealing with the issue.
It was believed also that adults who engaged in such offences could be cured. And yet this has proved untrue.
The fact that the Catholic Church has been made an example by the media, and by society, should at least have the effect of a wake-up call to all.
The Associated Press in 2007 reported that sex abuse of children in United States Schools, non-Catholic, was widespread and mostly unreported or covered up. Professor Shakescraft of Virginia University in United States studied 290 000 cases of alleged abuse between 1991 and 2000 in government schools. Out of a sample of 225 000 teachers who admitted sexually abusing a pupil, not a single one had been reported to the authorities.
Child abuse is present here in South Africa and mainly in families where married adults are involved. There is massive silence on the issue.
I ask for your prayers for all involved in this situation. As a Catholic Church, we fail sometimes, but in general let us have a vigilant confidence.
Our policies are in place and, in fact, the British government recommends our Catholic Church procedures to other institutions as a model to follow if they want to have a safe child protection policy.
Let us pray for all involved in the present case here in Pretoria. Let our Catholic people please be careful about gossip, exaggeration and innuendo. This is causing a lot of pain to many people. The priest accused has been for many a model and spiritual support, and to attack him is deeply wounding to many people. Others may not have liked him and may see this as an opportunity to further hurt him. This however, is not a Christian attitude. The Church will endeavour that all truth comes out and the issues are dealt with.
We will try in time to help the victim, the complainant, and also to accompany the respondent and deal with the situation as best we can, in truth. In the meantime, we continue to bring our children close to Jesus who desired that the little children should come to Him.
Yours Sincerely in Christ,
+William Slattery, OFM
Archbishop of Pretoria