KAMPALA, Uganda — He is a celebrity across eastern and central Africa, a gospel-music star known to many as the “Dancing Priest.” But for years he also was a keeper of painful secrets — his own and many others’.
In going public, Anthony Musaala has forced the Roman Catholic Church in Uganda to confront a problem it had insisted didn’t exist. And he may stir a debate far beyond Africa’s most Catholic of countries.
The Ugandan priest has been suspended indefinitely by the archbishop of Kampala for exposing what he calls an open secret: that sex abuse in the Catholic Church is a problem in Africa as well as in Western Europe and North America.
The African Catholic church is fast-growing, pious and traditional. As the church elsewhere forks out billions of dollars to compensate the child-sex-abuse victims of Catholic priests, few African Catholics have questioned the assumption, voiced recently by Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, that the African church is purer than its counterpart in the West, which they regard as secular and permissive.
It’s not more pure, says Musaala. He claims to have the evidence to prove it.
“The Vatican turns a blind eye because it doesn’t want to be embarrassed about this blooming church. But I think it’s time we had the truth,” Musaala says.
In March, he wrote to the archbishop of Kampala, Cyprian Lwanga, about priests who fathered children, kept secret wives, or abused girls or boys. One of the cases of abuse he cited involved himself. He was one of numerous boys sexually abused at 16, he says, by Catholic brothers at one of Uganda’s best boarding schools. He also listed several other cases of alleged child sex abuse in his letter.
“Wherever you go, people know about this. It’s like an open secret. People know. Nothing is ever done,” said Musaala in an interview.
In the letter, Musaala also called for a debate on marriage for priests.
The letter was leaked to the media. And in response, Lwanga suspended Musaala, saying his statements stirred up contempt for the Catholic Church and damaged the morale of believers.
Later in the month, Lwanga acknowledged that abuses had taken place, apologized to victims and set up an internal inquiry. But he did not backtrack on Musaala’s unpaid suspension.
Lwanga’s limited concession came after South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban said in a BBC interview that he had dealt with cases of child sex abuse, which were handled by the church internally, and not referred to police. He suggested that the perpetrators weren’t criminals and needed counseling.
“Some of the priests went, according to the wisdom of the time … for treatment, came back and have been under — what we call it — personal surveillance and have functioned quite normally ever since,” he said. Napier later apologized, but also accused the BBC of twisting his words in the radio interview.
Anyone who calls for these embarrassing secrets to be brought to light, placing the church in an awkward position, doesn’t get much sympathy from Uganda’s conservative churchgoers, even if the allegations are true. To traditionalists, what Musaala is doing is un-African.
The suspended priest says he spends hours each day sitting under a tree in his garden. He has no work. He thinks, prays, reads the Bible. He feels as if he is undergoing a test, like the biblical prophets “who said things that kings did not want to hear.”
© The Seattle Times