(By Brian Mark Hennessy)

On his visit to the United States recently Pope Francis gave a homily commencing with the words, “God Weeps”. Just a week later on Vatican Radio, Father Tesfaye Tadesse Gebrelselasie, the new Superior General of the Comboni Missionary Order – known widely as the Verona Fathers – gave a broadcast beginning with the words, “Daniel Comboni will be happy”! Clearly the subject matter was not the same, for had it been, Father Tesfaye would have had to admint that Daniel Comboni, looking down upon the Order he founded from on high, is certainly most profoundly unhappy.

Pope Francis was addressing the shameful subject of clerical child abuse that has driven a once blind and arrogant church into retreat over its failure to recognise, address and make amends for the sins of “grevous delicts” – as the Vatican refers to crimes of a sexual nature – committed by clerics of the world’s dioceses and religious orders. Father Tesfaye, on the other hand was celebrating the Comboni call to share the Gospel with the needy, the poor and the impoverished. That is not an unworthy cause, but it was somewhat out of tune with Pope Francis for Father Tesfaye neglected to endeavour to also share the joy of the Gospel with Victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by members of his own Order. It is not as if he was unaware of the abuses for he, the previous Curia of the Order and every bishop and priest of the Order had been constantly reminded of the abuse over a decade or so by the very Victims he was ignoring.

Prior to the recent election of Father Tesfaye to the post of Superior General, his electors had been canvassed by the Victims, sexually abused when they were children by members of his Order, to ensure that a worthy man was elected – one who would at last acknowledge the crimes of abuse and the condonement of that abuse by numerous members of the Comboni Missionary Order’s hierarchy since reports of the abuse were first notified to them in the 1960s. So, before the turn of 2015, the Victims had a glimmer of hope that the Old Guard of the Order – Fathers Glenday, Sanchez, Devinish and their entourage – who were each steeped in the very failures of denial, castigation and slander that Pope Francis was condemning – would be replaced with a more enlightened leadership. Perhaps it is too soon to judge Father Tesfaye, but so far, and I state this a matter of fact by this public record, he has been as silent as his grieviously unworthy predecesors.

Father Tesfaye made another worthy comment in his broadcast and that was that he announced to his brethren that the European nations – in which he included Great Britain by name – were also to be a “fundamental space for anouncing the Gospel”. That was not a surprise to me because I had already noted that the London Province’s Charity Account Mission statement is that the purpose of the Order in the United Kingdom was to spread the message of the Gospels both “at home” and “abroad”. All familiar stuff – but which Gospels are the Comboni Missionary Order referring to? I deduce that they are not the same set of Gospels to which Pope Francis is referring – for he talks of the cherishment of children and repentance of the Catholic Church for the grave sexual sins of clerics of Catholicism against children. He talks of dialogue, compassion, understanding and seeking forgiveness from the Victims of abuse. “There is no place in the Church for clerics who have abused children” he has stridently announced. The Vatican has even accepted that the sexual abuse of children is a form of torture due to its punitive, cruel and degrading nature – as declared by the United Nations Human Rights Commission Against Torture.

It was not a co-incidence either that hitherto, at the very same moment as the Pope was meeting the Victims of clerical sexual abuse in the Domus Sancte Marthae in 2014, that an Archbishop in Rome was addressing a gathering of English speaking Catholic prelates and child abuse specialists. He commenced, “Abuse will remain a wound in the side of the Church until the day in which every single survivor of abuse has achieved the personal healing he or she deserves. What happened should never have happened in the Church of Jesus Christ – because Jesus Himself tells us that children are a sign of the Kingdom of God. This means that our understanding of Faith and of the Kingdom is measured in the manner in which we protect and respect and cherish children, or in which we fail children. … The Church must lovingly embrace Victims, those wounded men and women whose wounds cannot be sanitised from a distance. The Good Samaritan is the one who carries the wounded man in his own arms. …Jesus also said that we must leave the ninety-nine and go out to seek the one who is lost. This refers also to the Church’s attitude towards victims of abuse. The Church must go out of its way to seek and find even more victims and survivors …as the healing of wounds inflicted by the Church will derive only from a new vision of a “healing” Church”.

This is all very much out of tune with the absolute refusal of the hierarchy of the Comboni Missionary Order to have any contact or dialogue whatsoever with the Victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by members of their Order – let alone apologise or make meaningful reparations or show compassion and understanding. Indeed, publicly, members of the Order have stated slanderously that the Victims are “money grabbers” and have maintained by suggestion that there is not a semblance of truth in their claims. Clearly, the hierarchy of the Order just wishes that the Victims will disappear in time and that they can then get back to their old regime of neglect and indifference – and, no doubt, the re-establishment of their self-assuring and self-assumed superiority and self esteem. In that warped version of reality, they must long for the “good old days”! The problem is that the Victims are not going away – and those “good old days” are never coming back. They may dream, but the only pedestal they can ever hope to grace in the future is one of lifeless, cold stone, upon which they can perch high, un-feeling, blind and out of sight in the facade of an ancient Cathedral. They appear unaware that there is a new reality amongst the legal and civil populations of the world who have championed the rights of children and demanded justice for victims – to the shame of the Bishops and Religious leaders of the Orders of the Catholic Church who have been dragged kicking and screaming in a reluctant game of “catch up”! But catch up they will – either in the spirit of Gospel enlightenment, or by the slow realisation that the alternative is increasingly a destiny as a curious anochronism and, ultimately, waning extinction.

So, Father Tesfaye is unequivacally wrong. Daniel Comboni is not happy. The Comboni Missionary Order is at odds not just with the civil populations of the world, but also with their Pope – and with the Gospels of the Evangelists. The Order cannot proclaim the Gospels “selectively”. They either embrace every tenant or they are just like an empty vessel making meaningless noise. Only charlatans preach, but do not practice. The choice of how history records Father Tesfaye’s personal contribution to his Order – either a revival in the enlightenment of the Evangelists or the Order’s further headlong dash to destruction – is in his hands. Father Tesfaye should make no mistake: he is being watched in what he decides and does – not just by Victims now, nor just by the media, nor ultimately also by the British Government in their forthcoming Public Inquiry. He is being watched also by the Hierarchy of the Catholic Church in the British Isles who have now, through their most senior Cardinal prelate at Westminster, assured Victims in writing of his practical support to the Victims of abuse perpetrated within Father Tesfaye’s Order. The result of this is that the Vatican too will be fully aware in the greatest detail of the allegations of abuse made against members of his Order, allegations of the historical condonement of that abuse by his hierarchy, allegations of attempts to conceal the truth by silence, denial and obfuscation, allegations of hierarchical re-victimisation of and discrimination against Victims – and also the grave allegation that his Order has sytematically protected the very clerics who are alleged to have committed those heinous, sexual abuses against children and minors.

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