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South African Church Keeps Some Abuse Claims Private

May 17, 2002 | The Boston Globe

A controversial sexual abuse policy to be spelled out this weekend in a letter to Catholic parishes throughout Southern Africa is putting the church on a collision course with law enforcement authorities.

The letter states that church officials will not report accusations against priests to the police. Under the policy, which already is in use, church officials instead will launch an internal investigation.

The letter was written by Cardinal Wilfrid F. Napier of Durban, president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference, and was addressed to the estimated 3.7 million Catholics in South Africa, Swaziland, and Botswana.

''We're not trying to cover things up,'' said Bishop Michael Coleman of Port Elizabeth, vice chairman of the bishops' conference. ''We want victims cared for, and we want justice done. But there is a perceived degree of corruption among the police, so we believe the victim should decide whether or not to report the matter to the police.''

The church's policy has been in place for several years but is becoming public now because of heightened awareness of the subject as a result of the sexual abuse allegations involving priests in the United States. The policy also is coming under more scrutiny from government officials, who argue that all abuse cases should be reported to authorities.

''The law is very clear that they have a responsibility to report these things to the police,'' said David Porogo, chief director of communications for the Ministry of Justice.

South African law obliges anyone who ''treats, attends to, instructs, cares for, or advises'' a child to report suspected abuse to authorities.

However, the law does not provide a penalty for violators, so it is unclear what action the government can take against church leaders who do not report abusive priests.

''This is a loophole in the law,'' said Tertius Geldenhuys, South Africa's assistant commissioner of police services. ''It is an oversight that will be immediately addressed.''

The church's policy also states that within two days of receiving an allegation, a report will be issued to a supervisor and that the victim and the alleged perpetrator will be offered counseling. Priests found guilty of misconduct will be sent for treatment and may be reintroduced to the ministry in a limited capacity after counseling.

Leaders of women's and children's rights groups were critical of the church's policy. ''The church is treating the rape of children like an internal discipline problem,'' said Krystyna Smith of the Rape Action Group.

Her organization has called on the South African Law Commission, which is now finalizing a new sexual offenses law, to single out the church to ensure that it does not neglect its responsibility to report crimes against children.

The new legislation would include a specific penalty for those who fail to report accusations, officials say. Meanwhile, the government hopes to shame the church into obeying the law.

''It is in the interests of the church to do this, to not be seen as sweeping these things under the carpet,'' Porogo said. ''The church will be in trouble, its image will be tainted, if it doesn't work with us.''

There has been no sexual abuse scandal here, and pedophilia is not seen as a problem in the South African clergy. Church officials say they are aware of about 12 priests who have committed sexual misconduct in Southern Africa in the last decade. However, church leaders have kept no central registry of such crimes.

Napier's letter to parishioners is both conciliatory and defensive.

''Child abuse by church personnel is seen by us as `a sign of the times' through which the Lord speaks to us,'' Napier wrote. ''We hear him crying out: `Repent, my friends.'''

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