A few days ago John Cardinal Njue raised concerns over the morality of the Willy Mutunga and Nancy Baraza and urged the Parliamentary Committee vetting the two to raise the issue when questioning the two nominees. Capital FM, as if on cue, reports on two cases of abuse by Catholic priests on two boys in Kenya while just last week the Vatican released new guidelines that would seek to effectively address child abuse within the Roman Catholic Church. The aim of this post is to think these events together and in relation to the unsaid other in this mix: the victims of abuse by priests, the queered bodies that routinely fail tests of morality and moral order and the priests themselves though un-othered and occupying the primary scope of discourses around these events.
That questions over the morality of Willy Mutunga and Nancy Baraza would be asked was apparent ever since their nominations were made public and as I have stated in my last post, this is nothing new as all bodies awaiting to fill positions that would deeply intersect with the publics and, hence, “the norm”, have to be completely sanitised and, no matter how unrealistically, seek espouse the said “norms” and “values”. From an article on the KBC website which, I’m assuming, directly quoted Cardinal Njue, Archbishop Korir and Archbishop Kairo:
“… We need people with judicial philosophy that reflects natural law, the Kenya religious and African cultural values, including our universal respects for life, our recognition of the importance and family well being and our role of religion in public and private life.”
The rest of the article which quotes extensively from what was said in the press conference is filled with invocations of “morality” and “moral order” which, it is claimed though not explained, is fundamentally constitutive of justice. One can say, from the above excerpt, without much thinking, that the Episcopal Conference, under which the three archbishops were speaking, is engaging in its usual anti-LGBTI and anti-abortion stance in post-referendum Kenya. In about 40 words, anti-LGBTI and anti-abortion rhetoric has been established and justified as per “Kenya religious and African cultural values”.
Enter Capital FM and its exposé on the abuse of two boys by Catholic priests in Kenya and, just this morning, the arrest of Father Kizito over fresh sexual harassment charges. This changes the line of discussion altogether. The Catholic Church in Kenya loses any grounding on discussion on morality over this (not my words, most of the comments I’m reading on the Capital FM story are questioning the morality of the church). The discourse on hypocrisy takes over and over the next few days; talk will be firmly centred on what right the church has in commenting on the morality of judicial nominations when they cover up sex abuse cases and in the end aid sexual offenders by never reporting them to the authorities. I am here to argue against the discourse on hypocrisy.
The “discourse on hypocrisy” forecloses on a lot; it does not sufficiently address the huge influence the Catholic Church has over government, society and individuals. How does this influence affect the way cases of sexual abuse in the church are handled? In the many stories on Kenyan TV on priests who sexually abused an under-aged girl, we don’t have follow ups on what took place, no court cases nor arrests, the best we get to is a transfer to another area where there is a risk that the said priests will do the same thing. We can then rightly adduce that little action is taken or the action that is taken only goes to serve the interests of the church – the victim is relegated to the shadows, to pixelated and blurry images. The discourse on hypocrisy seldom has solutions or the solutions offered do not seek to shake profoundly what has come to be considered the norm. For instance, one of the more popular solutions offered to combat sexual abuse in the church, especially that perpetrated by celibate priests, is that they should get married. Marriage, heterosexual marriage, which has its own problems, is presented as a safety net against deviant sexualities even though we know that domestic abuse and marital rape are some of the problems women need to contend with when married. The fact that the Catholic Church, whose leadership is composed of celibate men, is one of the most avid supporters of heterosexual marriage and the biggest aggressor against queer rights. Even more interestingly, it is common in Latin America for celibate priests to be queered by means of jokes. I read somewhere that a common joke is that priests lack cojones (Google that) and that they wear dresses. Discourses on hypocrisy, in this case, pass over the queered nature of Catholic priests. I am also wary on the developing story because people are already co-opting the abuse of boys by male priests as homosexuality – very two distinct things. The situation doesn’t help in more sober discussion, unfortunately; the white-male-priests-sexually-abusing-boys meme can comfortably accommodate appropriations such “homosexuality is a foreign import” or ‘homosexuality is abusive, especially towards children”. This is convenient scapegoating and I hope that we will have more people coming out and calling this vile appropriation out.
The new guidelines by the Vatican over how sexual abuse accusations should be handled by the RCH are not enough or, to put it more bluntly, will do nothing to stop the culture of impunity by religious leaders heavily tied to their abuse of not only children but women, fellow priests and male parishioners. Pressure should be put on the Catholic Church to address the problem of sexual abuse with the seriousness it deserves. In Kenya, like in may other instances all over the world, cases of child abuse go unreported because of the victimised and demonised nature of the people who go through such abuse.
We need “better” modes of approaching sexual abuse within the church without othering its victims. We need to think about how power and influence within the church aids and abets criminal behaviour within its confines. We need to go beyond the convenience on scapegoating and really look at the various correlating cultural imperatives that have enabled this behaviour. Finally, we need to reason beyond hypocrisy to try to see how the church maintains its double standard – anti-queer rhetoric on one side and enabling sexual abuse on the other.