In this file picture, Head of the Catholic Church in South Africa, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier. Photo: AFP
In this file picture, Head of the Catholic Church in South Africa, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier. Photo: AFP

Church will always put any victim first

By Wilfrid Napier Time of article published Mar 24, 2013

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Since my interview with Mr Stephen Nolan on BBC’s Radio 5 on March 15, and reaction hitherto, I have thought about how best to convey my sincerest and unreserved apology for remarks that came across as insensitive to children who have suffered, and continue to do so, at the hands of paedophiles.

 Let me first put it on record that the Roman Catholic Church condemns the abuse of children, women and other marginalised groups of society in the strongest possible way.

 The interview that came on the back of Pope Francis’s election was initially supposed to have been about the conclave, our new pope and challenges facing the Catholic Church, and I was more than happy to take part.

Its focus, however, quickly became the sexual abuse of children within the church, an issue I did not mind addressing.

Mr Nolan pressed on about my views on paedophilia, and the line of answering that I took was one that tried to examine a holistic approach to understanding the complexity of this type of abuse and crime.

That is, while supporting and protecting the abused as best as possible, we as a society also need to examine the systemic causes thereof, which might include casting a long glance at the abuser as the abused.

I answered as best as I could, within the parameters of that medium, and repeatedly qualified my response with the fact that I was not an expert.

I strongly felt that in our discussion we needed to consider both the criminal and psychological aspects of this abhorrent act.

My intention was never to put the abuser first, nor in any way raise their status. To do so would seek to undermine and perhaps even negate the devastation and heartache with which victims live.

I could not have imagined the backlash that followed the interview, and in hindsight I realise that I could have expressed myself better on the matter.

Comments I made during my conversation with Mr Nolan were both unfortunate and regrettable and I wish to reiterate the fact that they do not reflect those of the church.

I believe that they were read in isolation and outside of the context I have tried to provide above, vis-à-vis what I refer to as a holistic approach.

Allow me to expand on the thought.

During the conversation, and in the limited time that I had, I tried to open up the conversation to include the psychological aspect of this horrendous act, which the church believes must be dealt with according to the requirements of both civil and canon law.

There is no way that I could have tried to either defend this scourge or make excuses for the perpetrators.

In revisiting the conversation, it unfortunately came across in that way.

I wish to add that during the interview, I tried in vain to explain that the priority of pastoral concern is, and must always be, with the victim.

Paedophilia is a sick, despicable and punishable criminal act. There can be no shying away from its criminality and the need for perpetrators to face the full might of the law.

The church has, in the past, come under severe criticism for its silence on the issue of sexual abuse within its own parameters.

We, as the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC), have over the years tried to tear off this veil of silence by putting in place a protocol that outlines exactly how allegations of abuse are handled.

A professional conduct committee that published the protocols for dealing with abuse, to which all the clergy and church workers in the region of the SACBC are to adhere to, was set up.

 As the church, and society at large, we need to make a concerted effort to protect the rights of our children.

 According to the 2011 Census, children in South Africa make up nearly 34 percent of the population. If we do not all come together as a society to protect the welfare of this vulnerable group, who will? The responsibility around issues of inequality, poverty, abuse in all its forms, has to fall squarely on all our shoulders.

 Let us take this moment to reflect on the status of children across the world; not only in relation to sexual criminal acts, but in all areas.

 I was particularly saddened that this gross misunderstanding came on the back of an auspicious and significant milestone in the life of the Roman Catholic Church, the election of Pope Francis.

Once again, I wish to convey my heartfelt apology to all those who have suffered at the hands of paedophiles; I in no way ever meant to place the perpetrator’s rights and concerns over those of the victim, who is always the innocent child.

* Cardinal Napier is Archbishop of Durban.

Sunday Independent

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