Pope should say sorry for Rwanda genocide


There has been no Catholic Church inquiry into the priests who butchered and were then protected, writes VINCENT BROWNE

SO THE Supreme Pontiff thinks that demands for accountability on his part amounts to petty gossip of dominant opinion, which he is confident his faith will give him the courage to deflect.

This is in the immediate aftermath of revelations in the New York Times that he personally had failed, as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to act over complaints during the 1990s about an American priest, Lawrence Murphy, who was alleged to have abused some 200 deaf boys in Milwaukee.

Apparently he did not even respond to letters from the archbishop of Milwaukee about the case, and there are also suggestions that he may have halted a church trial of the abusing priest, following a plea by the priest concerned.

There are also questions about his involvement in a case in Munich when he was archbishop there in the 1980s, concerning the release of a paedophile priest into pastoral duties after he had been found guilty of sexual crimes against minors.

The reference to dominant opinion is brave – indeed audacious. For most of two millennia the dominant opinion was that of the Catholic Church, and, ipso facto, of the reigning power in that church, the pope. And during that time the dominant opinion for centuries sanctioned slavery, the subordination of women, religious persecution, mass slaughter bordering on genocide and countless dictatorships, whether of monarchs or generals.

This present pope can hardly resort to the familiar bolt-hole concerning such accusations: that popes merely reflect the mores of the times, for the pope is the arch anti-relativist. He and his predecessors rode on the back of dominant opinion for centuries and were the dominant opinion for, during most of those times, at least in Europe, no other opinion was tolerated.

The Catholic Church was the dominant opinion in a small African state for part of the 19th century and most of the 20th century, and during that time they planted a poison in the civilisation of the culture of that country that has had horrendous consequences – far far worse than even the most egregious abuses of children by clerics here and elsewhere. These horrendous consequences materialised in the recent past, just 16 years ago.

In the 19th century the Catholic Church sent missionaries to Rwanda to bring civilisation there, along with colonialism – first German colonists, later Belgian. Along with the colonial power, they used a section of the local people, the minority Tutsis, to exert control and domination. There had been historical tensions between the majority Hutus and minority Tutsis for centuries, but prior to the colonial conquest those tensions were nascent.

Under the missionaries the tensions resurfaced. The Catholic Church gave preferential treatment to the Tutsis, and no non-Tutsi was given preferment within the church for decades: for instance, no Hutu became a bishop.

When independence for Rwanda became an inevitability, the Belgians and the church switched sides, in anticipation that the Hutus would be the dominant force post-independence. Inevitably, and predictably, sectarian tensions between the Hutus and Tutsis were ratcheted up and in the post-independence era there were several mini-genocides before Africa’s holocaust in 1994 when one million people were slaughtered out of a population of eight million, almost all the victims being Tutsis.

The Catholic Church bore grave responsibility for contributing to the culture that fermented the genocide, but the culpability did not end there. Hundreds of Catholic priests and nuns and some bishops personally took part in the genocide – indeed led the genocide in many areas. Fleeing Tutsis, including women and children, crowded into churches, believing they would have sanctuary there, and were encouraged in that belief by priests, who then turned on them and, along with the Hutu militia, slaughtered them in the sanctuaries and pews.

I visited one of those churches just outside Kigali in 2004 when I was in Rwanda doing a TV programme for RTÉ on the anniversary of the genocide, and in the church the remains and belongings of the hundreds of slaughtered people were still in place. The tiny shoes of infants, women’s shawls, handbags, toys, skulls and bones were all there. It was difficult to walk through the church without walking on the remains of the slaughtered.

And what did the Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church do in the wake of this mass murder? It gave aid and assistance to the genocidal priests in escaping retribution in Rwanda and elsewhere. They were hidden in monasteries in Italy, France and Belgium, away from the reach of the International Criminal Court that was established to try and convict those who committed such barbarity.

There was no church inquiry into its own culpability for what happened. I suspect there were few if any canonical trials. There was no Pastoral Letter expressing shame for the involvement of the functionaries of the Catholic Church in that terrible crime. No apology. No papal visitation to identify with the victims. No papal audiences for the survivors. Nothing.

Think of how the Rwandans must feel about the Pastoral Letter to the Irish faithful.

I am indebted to Martin Kimani, an African researcher who has written extensively on the Catholic Church in Africa, for his article on the same topic that was published in the Guardiannewspaper on Monday last