Cardinal Turkson child abuse blunder may damage papal prospects

By Savi Hensman
February 20, 2013

Cardinal Peter Turkson may have badly damaged his prospects of becoming pope by suggesting that child sexual abuse is not a major problem in churches in Africa because homosexuality is looked on negatively. The remark is not only offensive but also reveals a dangerous ignorance that may undermine attempts to protect children.

Since Pope Benedict XVI, now frail and in poor health, announced his resignation, there has been much media speculation about who would become the next pope. Peter Turkson, who comes from Ghana, has been widely named as a possible candidate. But his remarks during an interview with Christiane Amanpour of CNN may have lessened his chances.

When she asked about the possibility of the Roman Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal spreading to Africa, he said it would unlikely to be in the same proportion as it has in Europe. “African traditional systems kind of protect or have protected its population against this tendency,” he claimed. “Because in several communities, in several cultures in Africa homosexuality or for that matter any affair between two sexes of the same kind are not countenanced in our society.”

As numerous experts have pointed out over the years, child abuse is not linked with homosexuality, and can be perpetrated by seemingly respectable ‘family’ men and even women. What is more, much of the abuse which later came to light took place in societies rooted in tradition and where being gay or even having an illegitimate baby could be harshly punished, such as Ireland up to the mid-twentieth century.

As a 2010 article by MJ Breiding and other researchers on the World Health Organisation website explains, “Sexual violence during childhood is a public health problem of concern throughout the world, including sub-Saharan Africa.” It can be hugely damaging: for instance “In Swaziland, sexual violence in girls has been associated with suicidal thoughts, unwanted pregnancy, complications during pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections”.

While much abuse goes unreported, it is evident from African news media that children can be at risk, even in churches. Abuse is a problem everywhere in the world, both in faith and secular settings.

For instance, just a few months before Peter Turkson’s remark, a court in Ghana sentenced a pastor to eighteen years’ imprisonment for molesting a 14-year-old girl when he was supposed to be ministering to her spiritually. Earlier in 2012, another pastor was arrested after absconding while on trial for abusing eight girls aged from three to eight years old.

Other senior Catholic clergy are more realistic. In 2010 Buti Tlhagale, the Archbishop of Johannesburg, said that the church in Africa is inflicted with the same scourge as the churches in Ireland, Germany and America, but has not yet been exposed to the same media glare.

Peter Turkson has previously indicated that he is unwilling to defend the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people, a stance different from that of the Vatican, and which could be another obstacle.

The Roman Catholic Church’s standing could be further damaged if it appointed a new pope who was known to be dangerously ignorant about child sexual abuse. Cardinal Turkson would be well advised to apologise for his remarks and study the issues in more depth.

* From CNN: 'Meet the man who could be the first black pope' -


(c) Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on religion, social justice, politics and church affairs. She is an Ekklesia associate.

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