By Linda Bordoni
When I return home after this meeting “we will be encouraging people to speak up” Bishop Sithembele Sipuka said speaking to Vatican News on the sidelines of the four-day meeting of Presidents of Bishops’ Conferences on “The Protection of Minors in the Church”.
Bishop Sipuka, who is the President of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference, was in Rome to represent South Africa, Botswana and Swaziland at the unprecedented summit called for by Pope Francis to enforce responsibility, accountability and transparency in the Church as it responds to the clerical sexual abuse crisis.
Reflecting on the fact that the wish of the Holy Father, when he summoned this meeting, was for bishops to be concrete about the issue and to go beyond theory to really deal with the problem, Bishop Sipuka said the Pope clearly “sees this is as a big problem” and he wants to hear from as wide as possible spectrum of voices in the Church.
The bishop described the meeting sessions as “moving and gripping” because, he said, it is intended that participants deal with the problem “with the experiential point of view” of those who have suffered abuse.
The testimonies of the survivors
Bishop Sipuka spoke of the testimonies of the victims saying they “changed our perspective” because, “until you’ve heard people speak about their own experiences”, it’s very different to just hearing that “it is wrong”.
So, when you share their pain and realize the destruction it has caused in their lives, he said, “you begin to realize the enormity of this problem: I think that was the first moving thing about the meeting”.
One Church, diverse perspectives
He mentioned the daily sessions that included presentations and discussions, and revealed that during the discussions that took place in the “small language groups” it emerged that there are some very different perspectives that come into play.
“There is a sense that it [clerical sex abuse] is much more poignant in Europe and America than it is in continents like Africa and Asia” he said.
Bishop Sipuka spoke of cultural dynamics that are at play in terms of dealing with the issue, pointing out that in Western cultures people are “much more forthright” and “this makes it – not easy to deal with – but it enables one to confront it”.
“In continents like Asia and Africa there is a culture of silence and taboo that is still there” he said.
But on a positive note, he said that “We are learning by being together” and said “it is providential we are discussing this all together so we can be pro-active where there is still a sub-culture of secrecy”.
'We must affirm the victims'
The most important message Bishop Sipuka says he will take back to Southern Africa is to tell his bishops to affirm the victims.
“One has had an insight so now one has a more concrete awareness of what it is so we will be encouraging people to come up” he said.
He reiterated his brother bishops will be asked to view the question from the perspective of the victims, highlighting how, thanks to this meeting he has a “heightened awareness of what it means to the victims.”
So, he said “it’s been a sort of a conversion”.
Reaffirming that the Church in Southern Africa needs to call on people to speak out “because we acknowledge their pain”, the bishops said “We shall talk about it openly in our Churches – this is what I will encourage”.
He said the Catholic Church in Southern Africa has a protocol for the investigation of allegations as well as a safeguarding policy and said all efforts will be made to implement these tools: “people must know where to go and what to do”.
“I will be telling my bishops not to keep these documents on our shelves but spread them to the parishes” he said.
A wake-up call
Bishop Sipuka described this meeting is a timely wake-up call and expressed gratitude to the media and to the victims who have raised awareness.
Truth be told, he said, all this has been happening for a long time and “we have been in denial and covering it up. If the victims had not had the courage to talk, I’m not sure we would have woken up, we may still be trying just to keep the credibility of the institution”.
“I think the media and the victims are ‘God-sends’ to us so we can address this problem” he concluded.