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South Africa’s most senior Catholic, Archbishop of Durban Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, has plunged the church into a fresh child abuse row.
Two days after he took part in the election of Pope Francis, Napier incurred the wrath of religious groups and anti-child abuse lobbyists who are now calling for his head after he described paedophilia as a psychological “illness, not a criminal condition”.
Napier is likely to fly into a storm when he returns home on Friday.
Napier, 72, told the BBC on Friday that people who were abused as children and in turn abused others needed to be examined by doctors.
In an interview with Stephen Nolan, Napier referred to paedophilia as “a psychological condition, a disorder”.
“What do you do with disorders? You’ve got to try and put them right,” he said.
“If I – as a normal being – choose to break the law, knowing that I’m breaking the law, then I think I need to be punished.”
He said he knew at least two priests who had been abused as children and became paedophiles.
“Now don’t tell me that those people are criminally responsible like somebody who chooses to do something like that. I don’t think you can really take the position and say that person deserves to be punished. He was himself damaged.”
Speaking to the Sunday Tribune from Rome last night, Napier appeared to back-track, although he still questioned whether it was right to prosecute perpetrators “damaged” by abuse.
He accused the BBC of being “sensationalist” by “putting words into my mouth” and playing a short excerpt of a 17-minute interview.
“I made it quite clear that paedophilia is a crime, and that we as a church have got a whole process in place for dealing with it.”
Napier said strong action had to be taken where people had been convicted of sexual abuse.
“Those people should be removed. But what about the case where somebody has been damaged? What I am saying is, can you call it a crime if someone has been damaged? Judges do it all the time, they say, ‘This person is not fit to stand trial’.
“When someone is sick then they need to be cured. My view is that person needs help first and foremost. My point is: if somebody has been damaged, how do you undo that damage? You have to deal with that damage first. And then the law can take its course.
“This interviewer asked me to come and talk about the pope’s election. I made a sacrifice to come home early so I could do the interview, not knowing he had another agenda. But two minutes into the interview, he tried to get me to say what he wants me to say.”
As reports of Napier’s statements made international headlines, child protection lobbies were outraged.
The founder of Operation Bobbi Bear, Jackie Branfield, said it was “insanity not to incarcerate rapists”.
“I pray these comments are not true coming from a man of God. I always held him in high esteem.”
She said paedophiles were the lowest form of humanity, taking away children’s innocence.
“Paedophiles are not just raping children but murdering them, gouging out their eyes and disembowelling them.
“And Cardinal Napier says they are victims and must be excused for their actions? I was raped, but I am not out there raping children.”
Branfield said Napier would be returning home to an angry nation.
“We deal with horrific cases. If he wants to get them psychological help, he can offer it to them in prison where they belong.”
JoAnn Downs, a child abuse and rape activist and African Christian Democratic Party MPL, describing his statement as “awful”.
“I know he said some of the guys who were caught were abused themselves and that they should get psychological help. Yes,they should, but it’s not an excuse. It’s still a criminal act. And while we may agree paedophiles should get psychological help, it should be behind bars where they can’t abuse kids.”
The way the Catholic church had dealt with paedophiles had not been a shining example. “It’s awful. He’s such a great guy, he’s done such good work. This is really unfortunate.”
The Rev Ivan Booth, the Diakonia Council of Churches chairman, said he did not believe Napier would make such sensational statements.
“I am sure he would want to pursue criminal action against paedophiles. We believe that criminal action, along with psychological help, is needed. The interview needs to be reviewed in its full context.”
Linda Naidoo, the director of Childline KZN, said she was outraged at Napier’s “careless” and “sad” comments.
“Saying they are victims is an excuse. Research clearly shows that not everyone who was abused will become an abuser. His comments are absolutely sad.
“I think Cardinal Napier is trying to absolve the church and their sins, and for this he needs to be held accountable.
“Strong action should be taken against him for making such irresponsible comments.”
Errol Naidoo, the founder and director of the SA Family Institute, called Napier’s comments ridiculous and irresponsible.
“Children who have been abused by priests will be even more afraid to come forward against these institutions and men who are respected in their communities,” he said.
He believed they used the cloak of priesthood to gain access to children.
“If they were sexually abused themselves, they should have voluntarily sought help and not entered the priesthood where they would have every opportunity to harm children. It shows their intent.”
Archbishop Stephen Brislin, president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said yesterday: “We have not yet had the opportunity to listen to the interview or to read a transcript of the interview given by Cardinal Wilfred Napier on BBC Radio 5.
“However the conference is well aware of the devastation caused by sexual and other abuse of minors, both for the victims and their families, and condemns all abuse unreservedly.
“For centuries, there has been a veil of silence surrounding child abuse and it is only in recent years that the matter is receiving the attention it deserves. Unfortunately, there have also been failures on the part of the church.
“Paedophilia is a criminal offence and we will comply with the legal requirements when such cases come to our attention. Perpetrators must take responsibility for their actions.
“Abuse of children is so widespread that there is an urgent need for a growth in knowledge and understanding of what causes an abuser to harm children. Without such knowledge we will never be able to deal adequately with the matter and give adequate protection to our children.” - The Sunday Tribune