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For years, Catholic Church leaders at the Vatican and around the world considered clergy sex abuse an “American problem.” Well, the past year has shown that pedophile priests and the cover-ups that protected them have been a European scourge as well — and now an African archbishop is making headlines by confirming that it’s not even only a Western problem.

In a statement published by the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop of Johannesburg Buti Tlhagale said the damage weakened the church’s ability to speak out with moral authority in Africa, where it has at times been a rare voice challenging dictatorship, corruption and abuse of power. Some excerpts:

“With CNN bombarding the world for days on end with the painful clergy scandals in Ireland and Germany, I could not turn myself into a more positive frame of mind, for I know that the church in Africa, is inflicted by the same scourge…”

“Trust has been compromised. The halo has been tilted, if not broken. What happens in Ireland or in Germany or America affects us all. It simply means that the misbehaviour of priests in Africa has not been exposed to the same glare of the media as in other parts of the world. We must therefore take responsibility for the hurt, the scandals, the pain and the suffering caused by ourselves who claim to be models of good behaviour. The image of the Catholic church is virtually in ruins because of the bad behaviour of its priests, wolves wearing sheep’s skin, preying on unsuspecting victims, inflicting irreparable harm, and continuing to do so with impunity.  We are slowly but surely bent on destroying the church of God by undermining and tearing apart the faith of lay believers.  Ironically, priests have become a stumbling block to the promotion of vocations.

Bad news spreads like wild fire. I wish I could say that there are only a few bad apples. But the outrage around us suggests that there are more than just a few bad apples.”

Reuters explains that this news is devastating because Africa is one of the fastest growing regions for the Catholic Church. While Catholic numbers are decreasing in the developed world, between 1990 and 2000, Africa’s adherents jumped from about 2 million to an estimated 140 million. (That sounds quite extreme to me, but I can’t find anyone disputing this yet.) Only about three dozen abuse complaints have been reported to the conference since the mid-1990s, but it sounds like Tlhagale expects many more are about to surface…

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