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SA female priests call for Catholic church to probe sexual violence

Pope Francis leads a mass at the Monument of Mary Queen of Peace, Port Louis, Mauritius, on September 9 2019.
Pope Francis leads a mass at the Monument of Mary Queen of Peace, Port Louis, Mauritius, on September 9 2019.
Image: AFP

Women priests want the Roman Catholic Church to be scrutinised as the uprising against gender violence gathers momentum.

SA's four women priests told Sowetan's sister publication TimesLIVE: “As much as intimate relationships, family, home and neighbourhoods are not safe places for women, neither is the church.

“Sexual abuse of women and children has been prevalent within a number of Christian churches, including the Catholic church which has been complicit in its cover-up.”

Mary Ryan, Patricia Fresen, Dianne Willman and Ann Ralston said they wanted to “add their voices with others in the religious sector in protest against this scourge of sexual violence”. 

They described gender-based violence as something which “breeds in patriarchal environments”, where unequal gender relations prevail and “men’s superiority is entrenched”. 

They described the Catholic church as such an environment and said it was only more recently that it was being forced to scrutinise violence within its own ranks.

“The extent of the wound is unknown, but what is clear is that the problem is within,” they said.

“It is time for Catholics who have experienced such abuse to speak out and shine a light on this darkness too.”

They called on Catholic men, including male clergy, to speak out against patriarchy, and said it was time for Catholics to reflect on violence against women and children, which was “religiously sanctioned” by the church.

Bishops from across the world met Pope Francis at the Vatican in February to discuss sexual abuse within the church, and it came to light that SA had about 35 reported cases.

The president of the SA Catholic Bishops' Conference, Bishop Sithembele Sipuka, said at the time that more people would hopefully have the courage to come forward.

“Some have been dealt with conclusively, and some are still in the process and have not been concluded,” he said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if some cases come forward now because there is a lot of fear, stigma and manipulation. When people begin to see that (things are) being spoken about, it is likely that more people will come forward.”

In the USA in 2002, the Boston Globe published an explosive investigative report on sexual abuse cases in the Catholic church.

About 160 perpetrators were identified as each having committed several crimes. The scandal resurfaced when a 2015 film, Spotlight, revealed how difficult it had been for Boston Globe reporters to crack open the complicit silence of the Catholic church.

In 2017, a documentary series called The Keepers looked at how the unsolved murder of a nun was linked to her knowledge of scores of sexual abuse and rape cases committed by a priest at the school where she worked.

The series looked at how the various components of the Catholic church across different regions worked together to hush things up.