Do you remember the 1986 movie, The Mission, starring Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons? It’s a British drama written by Robert Bolt, about 18th Century Spanish Jesuits trying to protect a remote South American Indian tribe in danger of falling under the rule of pro-slavery Portugal. The magnificent Gabriel's Oboe, composed by Ennio Morricone, is the soundtrack. It was an exquisitely beautiful movie; one of my all-time favorites.
As a Brooklyn girl going to parochial elementary and high schools, the only non-Catholic I knew was my grandfather, who wasn’t allowed in the Church because he was a Mason. I fretted over that. How would he get to heaven? And what about all the other people who weren’t Catholic? What about children in foreign lands who had never even heard of Christ; what would happen to them? Would they go to hell when they died; to limbo? Not necessarily, the nuns would tell us, because they could be taught by missionaries—by priests and nuns whose vocations were to religious life and to spreading the gospel all over the world. “Pray for the missions,” they would say, “and for vocations to religious life as missionaries.”
Last week a reader of my blogs sent me an article about child abuse abroad. “You often hear about clergy abusing children in places that are local to you,” she wrote, “but people are rarely made aware of the horrific truth that these clergymen have often been abroad abusing children in numerous countries with no repercussions.” The article, by London’s solicitor advocate Alan Collins, describes the storm brewing on the horizon for the Catholic Church and other religious organizations. According to Mr. Collins, missionaries who were sent to Africa, Asia, and South America to bring converts into the faith, were, through their positions, afforded an opportunity to sexually and physically abuse children. It’s been reported in the Irish Times that Catholic missionaries from three religious congregations are being investigated, and that data being gathered points to a serious catalogue of abuse and cover-up in mission countries – one that has yet to be fully investigated. Mr. Collins goes on to add that neither religious congregations nor the Catholic hierarchy has shown any desire to examine the extent of wrongdoing in missionary settings.
This information disgusts me. For some reason I’ve never before thought about missionary priests abusing children. I’ve never before thought about the possibility that known priest pedophiles in the United States could have been shipped to the missions deliberately as a way of “getting rid of” them either. I’m grateful to the reader who sent me Mr. Collins’ article. As she pointed out, education and awareness are essential to prevention and healing. I urge you to read Mr. Collins’ entire article, especially if you were abused by a missionary or know someone who was.
As for me, I want you to know that these days my old neighborhood, Park Slope, in Brooklyn, is an urban human sanctuary of ethnicity and world religions. I no longer fret about the elitist Catholic rules with which I was indoctrinated, but rather about her pathology. About how many of her priests have hurt children in serious ways; about how many adults ache with the wounds that have been inflicted on them; about how sad it is; how evil it is.
The wet, wooded lot outside the window of my suburban Atlanta office this morning reminds me of scenes from The Mission: images of South American tribespeople running through the brush, bathing in streams, playing under waterfalls, naked and free. I remember watching the children’s little black bodies bobbing about, and I remember thinking about how beautiful they were; how their innocence and sense of freedom and joy touched my heart. How could anyone hurt these children? How, in the name of God?
Because I had never heard of Alan Collins before, I did some searching on the internet and came across this interesting interview.
I also wanted to see if I could find other stories about child abuse by missionaries. There are many, and of various denominations, not just Catholic. Here’s one about an investigation into child abuse by members of the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE).