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In the name of the Father

By Owei Lakemfa

WHEN I was growing up in Lagos, almost all the non-Nigerian Catholic priests I knew were Irish. They built and ran some of the best schools and were the embodiment of moral authority. It seemed that the primary profession of the Irish was priesthood. It is therefore shocking to learn that the Irish youth today has his attention turned to other callings.

In 2000, only one youth in a population of 700,000 Catholics in Northern Ireland was ordained a priest. With few new entrants, it means that the priesthood is greying; a 2007 survey showed that half the priests in the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland were between 55 and 74 years. But the worst news is the waves of scandals that have swept through the Church. Father Brendan Smyth was found to have sexually abused children for four decades. A nine-year government inquiry published in May 2009 revealed a systematic abuse of children in church-run schools and orphanages over a 60 -year period from the 1930s. A new report this month revealed long lists of sexual abuse of children by Dublin priests from 1975 to 2004.

These indictments caused  Pope Benedict XVI   to write a pastoral letter to  the Irish Church in which he said “grave errors of judgement  were made and failure of leadership occurred”.

But it is not in Ireland alone the Church has faced  severe storms. There was Father Lawrence C. Murphy in the United States who made a career sexually assaulting over 200 deaf and dumb boys over a 24-year period from 1950. The hapless children reported the assaults and petitioned against Father Murphy even after they had grown into adulthood, but neither the Church nor secular authorities listened to them. One of his victims, Steven Geier said the Father told him that God wanted him to teach the boys about sex.

Finally, the American Church took action and made official written complaints about the case.  Signed by Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland of Milwauke, the complaints were officially received in 1996 by the Vatican Congregation of the Doctrine under then  Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI). But  Father Murphy was not sanctioned and continued in his career until he died in 1998.

This is one of the cases that has led to some demanding  that the Pope resigns. Another case was when as Archbishop of Munich, Cardinal Ratzinger presided at a meeting  which approved the return of a self- confessed pedophile to his priestly duties where he committed more sexual abuses on children.

The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano accused the press particularly in America of attempting to rubbish the Pope and other top Vatican officials. But the most disastrous damage control attempted was by the New York archbishop, Timothy Dolan who argued that child molestation is not the preserve of Catholic priests or unique to the Church. True, except that it is much more devastating if you find the devil where you expect holiness. A priest is not supposed to be a criminal, but a righteous person who preaches or brings salvation; he is expected to preach and live the word of God.

But the Church cannot be judged solely on the misdeeds of a few misguided priests. It cannot be condemned based primarily on the Inquisitions, the bloody crusades; on Spanish bishops sanctioning the massacres of General Francisco Franco or its silence when the evil duo of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler reigned and sent many to untimely graves.

In Nigeria, as in many countries, the Catholic Church  built schools, hospitals, moulded many young lives and called millions to repentance. It took care of the poor, built homes for the needy, wiped away tears from the orphaned and the widowed and brought salvation to billions of humanity.

Personally, I have known many fine Catholic priests. There was Father Murumba of Ibadan in the 1980s who recognised the face of Christ in every hungry child, the late Father John Ofei of Abuja who was ever-ready to assist anybody irrespective of religion, and Fathers Gabriel Osu in Lagos and Mathew  Kukah in Kaduna who are always preoccupied with the state of the society.

A number of Catholic priests I read about influenced me in my youth. Archbishop Jaime Sin of Manila who encouraged priests all over the world to stand up against tyranny. When the tyrant in his home country, President Ferdinard Marcos threatened to hold a referendum on who is more popular, Sin told him: “Even Barabbas was able to defeat Christ by means of a referendum”. Father Camilo Torres of Bogota was a prophetic figure who inspired millions of people, including the legendary Ernesto Che Guevera. He  made  the famous statement:  “I took off my soutane to be more truly a priest”. With that, he took off to the mountains to join guerrillas fighting for justice, and  was killed in the struggle. There was also Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador whose assassination by the death squads three decades ago was commemorated in an insightful write up by Father Kukah on March 24, 2010. Romero had told  his country’s soldiers to  repent of their murderous ways.

The Catholic Church needs reforms. One of the  urgent areas  is on celibacy  which was not originally church tradition. Celibacy began from  the Second Lateran Council in 1139. Australian priests have written the Vatican that in order to check the dwindling number of priests, they should be allowed to marry and have families like Saint Peter, the first Apostle was allowed to do.

The shortage of priests in Netherland is so severe that 200 parishes have  had to close in the past seven years. The solution proffered by  the Catholic Dominican Order  in  that country in its March 2010 booklet is to allow unordained ministers chosen by their priestless congregations celebrate mass.

Such unordained ministers argued the Dutch priests “whether they are women or men, homo or hetero, married or single, makes no difference. What is important is an infectious attitude of faith.” Is the Vatican listening?


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