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KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo (ChurchMilitant.com) - Pope Francis refused to meet with victims of clerical sex abuse during his recent visit to the DRC, Church Militant has learned.
The pontiff did not address the burning issue of nuns being sexually assaulted by priests and the difficult question of children fathered by priests in the DRC but made only a passing reference to clerical celibacy "as a sign of complete availability to the kingdom of God."
At a press conference held in Kinshasa a day before the pope's arrival, international activists and Congolese victims of clerical sex abuse urged Francis to address the issue and meet victims during his apostolic journey to the DRC.
The press conference highlighted the testimony of a 14-year-old postulant, "Gloria," who was raped by Fr. André Olongo on March 28, 2020. Instead of disciplining the priest, the then-bishop of Tshumbe, Nicolas Djomo Lola, promoted him to the rank of episcopal vicar.
Gloria's uncle, Fr. Alphonse Okongo, said that Bp. Djomo, the former president of the Episcopal Conference of the DRC, offered him a bribe of $15,000 to become actively involved in the case and persuade the family to withdraw its complaint.
Marc Artzrouni, Europe coordinator for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests told Church Militant that the perpetrator priest was let off with a non-guilty verdict that was "probably facilitated by the bribes handed to the judges."
"The evidence of guilt was overwhelming," Artzrouni stressed. "At the end of the hearing, Gloria's lawyers, Boniface Okitapambi and Come Musuluku Kama, were called in by the presiding Judge Mvumbi who asked them with a straight face for $3,000 (all transactions are in dollars)."
"When the two lawyers asked Mvumbi if this money was to 'buy Olongo's guilty verdict,' he said 'No,' adding, 'Besides, the decision could be in your favor, but this money is just to incentivize us. With no written trace of our exchange, this will be our position,'" Artzrouni noted.
The court hearings were held on Oct. 24 and Nov. 8, 2020, and both lawyers signed an affidavit on Nov. 24, testifying to the judge's demand for a bribe.
Artzrouni also said that letters reporting the rape were sent by registered mail to the highest authorities in the Vatican and hand-delivered to Pope Francis by a Canadian survivor during his trip there last summer, "but there was no answer from the Vatican."
At the press conference, reporters heard how Gloria reported the rape immediately to Sr. Henriette Okitanunga who, together with Sr. Charlotte Ekumu, the founder–superior of the Sisters Servants of Mary Comforter of the Afflicted, informed Bp. Djomo.
Months later, under pressure from Gloria's priest–uncle and a police complaint filed by a second uncle, André Otambela, Djomo barred Olongo from public appearances and contact with minors without the presence of another adult. The bishop also reported the rapist priest to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Meanwhile, in June 2021, Bp. Djomo dissolved Sr. Ekumu's congregation in retaliation for her support of the victim and stripped Gloria's priest–uncle, Fr. Okongo, of all priestly duties as punishment for "blowing the whistle."
In November 2022, lawyers for Gloria's family learned that Fr. Olongo has been acquitted. They went to the court but couldn't afford to pay $400 to get a written copy of the judgment.
"We have requested that Pope Francis meet with clergy abuse survivors on many occasions but with no response," Denise Buchanan, a Jamaican survivor of clergy sexual abuse and founding member of Ending Clergy Abuse, told Church Militant.
"We have presented the issues in the press and through letters to the United Nations and the pope that need to be addressed," Buchanan, a psychoneurologist, said.
"The current case in the Congo requires a response from Pope Francis, and our presence in the Congo this week was to highlight the urgency and importance of this case for Africa," she added.
The Vatican said its Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith had "been able to deal with this case based on the evidence that was provided to it" and had determined it could not "proceed any further."
Gloria continues to suffer from recurring stomach pain and panic attacks because she fears she'll be prevented from becoming a nun since she is not a virgin, Marie Walo, an aunt, told the Washington Post.
Francis also refused to meet the alleged victims of missionary Fr. Jože Šöemen, currently the parish priest of the Church of the Nativity in the archdiocese of Maribor, Slovenia, who is accused of raping at least 50 altar boys in the DRC.
According to email correspondence, police reports and testimony from the father of one of the victims obtained by Church Militant, several victims died after Šöemen allegedly abused them.
In December, Jean-Denis Bolili Inyangi, who reported Fr. Šöemen's homosexual predation to Rome in March 2021, died after "an operation to treat his swollen belly and tearing of the stomach," his cousin Maxime Yele said.
Vincent Doyle, the founder of Coping International, an organization for children fathered by Catholic priests and religious, appealed to Pope Francis to visit Bolili's family and apologize to Šöemen's victims.
"I petitioned the Vatican Press Office and Dicastery for Communications to cover the story of the rape of 50 boys, given Slovenian TV spoke on it Thursday ... [The dicastery] willfully ignored that which the Congolese police had decided merited attention," Doyle told Church Militant.
"That's not 'zero tolerance;' that's tolerance, tolerating abuse which is maddening and shocking," Doyle lamented.
Doyle told Church Militant that he reported these "criminal allegations, as I am legally obliged to under Irish law," to Abp. José Rodriguez Carballo's office, but "the Church's response was to immediately become offensive" and "threaten me in my capacity as a mandated reporter."
In October, Fr. Šöemen told Slovenian news media Sobatainfo.com that the "insinuations, falsehoods and inaccuracies" directed against him "are baseless, and I deny them in their entirety."
"This summer, the archbishop informed me that a message came from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith that the results of the investigations were null," he added.
On Feb. 1, Dr. Doris Reisinger, a religious sister who was raped by a priest, said she was "wondering if Pope Francis is going to say anything at all about sexual abuse of nuns during his visit in Congo and South Sudan."
"It was the Vatican who deliberately 'Africanized' this issue (knowing full well that it is a global one). Being in Africa, he ought to talk about it," Reisinger tweeted.
The former sister, who is now an academic, blasted "journalists flying on the papal plane" for behaving like "groupies." She asked, "I mean are they fans, or do they provide independent (and critical) coverage?"
Francis remained silent on the widespread breakdown of celibacy in the DRC and other parts of Africa, despite a 19-page internal document issued by bishops asking priests who have become parents to give up their priesthood to take care of their children.
The document, "At the School of Jesus Christ: For an Authentic Priestly Life," asks priests to adopt "a responsible behavior towards children born of a woman and a priest" and to "take complete care of them and to request a dispensation from priestly obligations from the Holy Father."
If the priest in question is not willing to do so, the document asks the bishop to "present the case to the Holy See for the maximum penalty of dismissal from the clerical state."
The document was sent to all priests in the 48 dioceses of the DRC on March 4, 2022, just one day after it was officially announced that Francis would be visiting the country from July 2–5. The trip was postponed by the pontiff for health reasons.
In 1980 and 1985, Pope John Paul II reprimanded Congolese priests and bishops for breaking their promises of celibacy.
In June 2022, Bp. Djomo resigned, and Pope Francis immediately accepted his resignation.
The DRC is known as the African country with the most Catholics: Half of its 105 million people are Catholic, and the country counts more than 6,000 priests, 10,000 nuns and more than 4,000 seminarians — 3.6% of the global total of young men studying for the priesthood.
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