Kenya’s clerical abuse cases should have been handled with more transparency

Cardinal John Njue of Nairobi says he does not know the reasons why his predecessor, Bishop Cornelius Schilder, retired early. Bishop Schilder is accused of sexual abuse (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

No one likes bad news, and one hardly likes to pass on bad news, but RTE broadcast a programme about clerical abuse in Africa last week. The programme has not been noticed here in the United Kingdom as far as I can see, but a missionary friend of mine who works in Kenya sent me the link, given that two of the figures mentioned were people I once knew. You can see the programme here.

You can also see the way this has been reported in the Kenyan press back in February here.

As far as I can see the Kenyan press has not taken the matter further.

The programme is distressing viewing, in that the facts with regard to two of the Kenyan cases are not in dispute, except by the accused persons themselves. The programme deals with cases from South Africa and Nigeria as well, but I am restricting myself to commenting on the Kenyan cases involving the Mill Hill Missionaries. The reportage was perfectly fair, though one does wonder why RTE has to wheel on Geoffrey Robinson, whose connections to Ireland and to Africa were never explained. The person who came out of the programme best was Fr Anthony Chantry, the superior of the Mill Hill Missionaries. He seems to have faced up to the problem, and was not in a state of denial about it; moreover he made the entirely sensible point that the more transparency in the Church when dealing with these matters, the better. In short, Fr Chantry struck me as someone who “gets it”, as they say.

The programme hinted that there might well be further cases to emerge, and this is something that we must all be prepared to face.

Two further points of interest struck me. The bishop accused, who denies the allegations, was not removed from office for two years once the allegations were made. The programme implied that this was dilatory on the part of the Vatican, which, of course, has jurisdiction over bishops. Two years does seem like a long time, but it is worth remembering that when the Vatican wants to remove a bishop for whatever reason, it can take a very long time if the bishop refuses to co-operate. The recent example of the Bishop of Toowoomba is case in point. The Vatican spent over a decade trying to get him to relinquish his post.

And there we have the other point. I was living in his diocese when the accused bishop left Kenya, and nothing was said about any accusation; rather we were all told that he was retiring on health grounds. This approach, frankly, does not work any more. My guess is that some sort of compromise deal must have been hammered out, and this fiction about ill-health was the price paid to get the bishop to go. But it does not look good, to put it mildly. It makes it seem that the Church cares about its own reputation more than it does about the victims.

Again, the Kenyan police were not informed about either case, and both of the accused men were quietly withdrawn to Europe. While it is true that few people in Kenya trust the police in the same way as people in other countries do, this seems not just wrong but an ultimately counter-productive way of acting. As Fr Chantry says, the greatest degree of transparency would be best in dealing with cases of this sort.

So we have two stories here. The first is the story of rape and abuse, and that is a bad story, whatever way we look at it. The second story is how the Church handles these matters. That does not have to be a bad story, as Fr Anthony Chantry shows. But, sadly, not all religious superiors “get it”, and they sometimes make this second story much worse than it might otherwise have been. Let us hope that when new cases emerge that the Church’s response will be better than it has been perceived to be up to now.