A Victim of Catholic Clergy Sexual Assault Speaks Out
COMMENTARY: Let us unite in bringing the darkness to light and healing to all.
Catholic bishops from around the world commenced a meeting last month in Rome to address the issue of clergy sexual abuse of minors. In the days leading up to the conference, another layer in this crisis emerged and was acknowledged by Pope Francis: sexual abuse of nuns in Africa by priests.
As an adult female victim of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest — abuse that occurred across international borders — I want to share my story.
In November 2012, I was 22 years old and headed to Tanzania, Africa, to do missionary work for the Catholic Diocese of Geita. On my second day in the country, a Catholic priest attempted to rape me at a diocesan-run hotel and conference center (known as TEC) in the capital of Dar es Salaam (Dar), where I was temporarily staying. After my perpetrator locked us in my hotel room, he eventually fled the scene after I began yelling and let out cries for help.
While there were three priests I was acquainted with that day who had taken me to experience Tanzanian culture and see the city of Dar, only one priest was responsible for the physical assault.
I was shocked, intimidated, confused, jet-lagged and completely alone in a foreign country. I didn’t speak the local language and had no idea how to report the incident to local authorities.
The situation itself was complicated: My assault occurred in the Diocese of Dar es Salaam (Dar), the country’s capital, but it was not my final destination. Although my abuser was working at TEC at the time, he was not a priest of the Diocese of Dar, but of the Diocese of Singida, an entire day’s journey away. He was also teaching at a seminary part time, entrusted with forming young priests.
I was overwhelmed, with no idea where to turn. I left the next day, sticking to the only plan I had, and traveled by plane, boat and bus to my final destination.
I stayed in Tanzania for the next six months doing mission work. During those months, after receiving my phone number from a fellow priest, my abuser continued to contact me via phone call and text message, professing his love and affection for me.
While in Tanzania, I mustered the courage to tell a friend back home what had happened. My friend connected me with a priest in the United States who supported me through the ordeal. He was the first to inform the bishop’s office in Dar about the incident.
Shortly before I left Tanzania for home, I received an odd visit from a priest who had been responsible for my safety while I was in Dar (different from my perpetrator). He traveled to Geita, supposedly to ask my help on his U.S. graduate-school application. He lied. Although the bishop of Dar had sent him to find out if the incident was true, the priest sought to convince me to remain silent about it, to protect himself, my abuser, and fellow priests who were present that day although were not present at the time of the incident.
Upon my return to the U.S., I told my family what had happened. We sought help from our local bishop, Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver, who assisted us, particularly in communicating with the bishops of both Dar and Singida. Despite the archbishop’s help, though, the responses from these bishops in Africa were inadequate. The bishop of Singida stated that my abuser was treated according to “principles of natural justice,” with no further explanation.
My family and I also wrote a letter to the Vatican detailing the incident, only to receive a form-letter thank-you response and a holy card. Our pleas for justice fell on deaf ears. My family and I sought to take legal recourse but were unable to find an attorney to take the case, as the incident occurred in a developing country.
I learned later from personal connections in Tanzania that my abuser stopped working at TEC and is now a parish priest. I shudder to think about whether this priest abused others before me or is currently abusing others.
I know there are many others with stories like mine, and worse. The abuse and complicity must stop. We are a global Church that needs global solutions. Although the Vatican sex-abuse summit was a step in the right direction, there are still issues that remain unaddressed and questions that need answers.
During the summit, Pope Francis provided a handout of 21 reflection points, for “the protection of minors in the Church,” and he concluded the conference by summarizing with eight key points. However, these points gave few specifics and little to no concrete solutions.
It has already been 17 years since the scandals originally broke in 2002. How much longer must the faithful wait for resolutions and accountability from the hierarchy?
We must ask: How will the Church ensure support for victims and protection of the innocent of all ages, not just minors? How will the Church ensure transparency and accountability for those at the highest levels of the Church? What kind of support is in place for those who still haven’t found justice? While there weren’t procedures in place to deal with abuse across international borders at the time of my incident, I welcome the dialogue that began at the abuse summit in order to address this matter.
Yet there are still questions to be answered: Shouldn’t there be mechanisms in place to ensure that, globally, bishops adhere to the 21 reflection points made at the summit? Why are they merely “reflection points” and not requirements for every diocese? What are the specific protocols for handling accusations against bishops?
My Catholic faith, which I ardently love, has helped me find healing. As a victim, I long for the Church and her people to be healed from the wounds that have afflicted her.
Despite efforts to correct the human failings of Church leaders, if nothing else, I pray that this Vatican meeting renewed the hierarchy’s commitment to protect the divine institution — the Body of Christ, the People of God.
We must continue to seek healing and reform. If no definitive action is taken, I believe God himself will cry out for justice. Let’s unite in bringing the darkness to light and healing to all.
Krista Keil currently resides in Washington, D.C., and plans to pursue
a master’s degree in counseling.