For the entire nation of Rwanda, not to say those Rwandans like myself who are also citizens of other countries, April, like every other April since 1994, has been a month of solemn remembrance.
As we remembered the million or so who died and the continued pain and suffering of those who against all odds somehow managed to survive, another event, more widely publicised, thousands of miles from the sorrow and sadness in Rwanda, caught my attention.
The much heralded visit of Pope Benedict the XVI to America grabbed the headlines not only in America but here in Britain and I suspect all over Europe. For a while the visit managed even more air time and column inches than the nomination tussle between Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama, which is proving to be the most exciting American presidential campaign for decades.
The pastoral visit took in an address to the UN in New York, to offer the world body a more spiritual outlook on the world. With the Iraq war and the war in Afghanistan showing no signs of coming to an end, the conflagration in the Middle East continuing apace, the famously scholarly pontiff had no shortage of examples of how humanity could do better.
On the African continent, death, destruction and a daily struggle for survival have become the norm for the long suffering people of Sudan. Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, have their agonies, while Kenya tries to recover from self inflicted wounds. One could go on. As the Chinese curse would have it, we are indeed living in interesting times.
And the Pope did not disappoint. Iraq was mentioned and world leaders were reminded of humanity’s higher purpose. However the recurring theme throughout the papal visit was the allegation of wide spread sexual abuse of children by catholic clergy. This issue has divided America’s sixty million or so Catholics and it has injected a tense controversy to the Pope’s visit.
The fact that it was this particular pope served to heighten the tension. It was this Pope, a theology Professor before going to the Vatican, who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was charged with defending Roman Catholic beliefs and doctrine. His firm adherence and enforcement of these beliefs led to his being nicknamed “God’s rottweiller”.
A rottweiller is a particularly ferocious breed of dog, bred for its strength and ferocity in the hunt. The problem of how to respond to the sexual abuse scandals that have plagued the Catholic Church in America and world wide fell on Cardinal Ratzinger’s desk. For years he sought to keep the abuse as quiet as possible and even sweep it under the Vatican carpet.
However, the alleged victims would have none of that. Now as Pope he was visiting America where the most vocal of these alleged victims have waged a relentlessly successful and damaging campaign aimed at the Catholic Church. The Vatican will have been forewarned that the sex abuse scandal would dominate this papal visit.
The Pope’s advisers clearly decided that the best way to ensure maximum damage limitation was not to try to duck the issue any longer. It seemed the new strategy was to tackle the controversy head on. Even before the question was put to him and before his aeroplane had touched American soil, the Pope was expressing his empathy with the victims of the alleged sexual abuse.
The Pope expressed deep shame, adding that “no words of man could describe the pain and harm of such abuse…we are deeply ashamed and we will do whatever is possible to see that this does not happen in the future…”
These words were relayed by news organisations around the world and were repeated several times during the five day visit. Every time I heard them I could not but compare this apparently heart felt acknowledgement of the pain suffered by victims of sexual abuse to the continuing evasions about the Catholic Church’s involvement in the Rwandan Genocide, not only in 1994, but even more blatantly in 1959.
The comparison was all the more poignant coming as it did during the month of April, a time of remembrance for the victims of these genocides. The abuse of children by Catholic priests they trusted implicitly is indeed a shameful betrayal, one that has gone on around the world, not just in America. It would be wrong to underestimate the trauma suffered by its victims.
It is claimed that in America alone since the 1950s, eleven thousand children were abused by almost four and a half thousand priests, the abuses involving both boys and girls. It is probably fair to say that the Church was forced into coming clean about American cases of abuse. America is a notoriously litigious society and the Church has been hit where it hurts most, in its coffers.
Since 1950 the Church has had to pay out over two billion dollars in compensation claims to the victims of sexual abuse. Last year six dioceses had to file for bankruptcy, after having to pay out more than six hundred million dollars. No doubt the Church felt that while it could do nothing to stem the haemorrhaging of money from its accounts, it could mitigate the PR disaster that this issue has caused, hence the pre-emptive Mia culpa, after years of stubbornly refusing to accept any responsibility.
Rwandans have no particular power to oblige the Catholic Church to accept responsibility for the part played by the Church’s hierarchy in the Rwandan Genocide, other than an appeal to the Church’s conscience and its adherence to Christian values and principles. This it seems has not been enough. Of course the Catholic Church is not the only institution that conveniently turned a blind eye to the spilling of so much innocent blood.
It was after all an Anglican Bishop, one Samuel Musabyimana, who is alleged to have told Interahamwe militias that while he supported the killings, perhaps they might oblige him and take the victims to be murdered elsewhere, away from his church. And one cannot forget that the United Nations offered mealy-mouthed platitudes, employing weasel words to avoid calling the killings by their right definition of genocide.
Under the rules of the United Nations charter, public acknowledgement that genocide was taking place would have obliged the UN to intervene. Better therefore to avoid the word, however apposite it was to describe what was taking place. Because intervention was deemed inconvenient, over a million souls were allowed to be murdered.
However, for all it might be worth, the Anglican Church and the UN have at least acknowledged that they failed in their moral duty. The Catholic Church has chosen to stand proudly in the gallery of shame, shoulder to shoulder with France, in dismissing calls for them to acknowledge their part in one of the twentieth Century’s worst cases of crimes against humanity.
The Church’s position should come as no surprise. It has form, and not just in Rwanda. Towards the end of his death, the late Pope John Paul the Second, apologised to the Jewish survivors for the support the Catholic Church gave to the Nazis in the 1930s.
I remember then asking myself how he could apologise on behalf of the Church for giving succour to the perpetrators of one genocide, that of the Jews, while ignoring the active participation of the Rwandan Church in the Rwandan genocides of 1994 and 1959. That question remains as pertinent as ever. To be continued Tomorrow.
Vincent Gasana is a journalist of Rwanda origin living in Britain.