By Sarah E. Murphy
Life couldn’t be more different now than when I last wrote. In January of 2020, the year held much promise, and despite all that has transpired since, I still believe that. The onset of the global pandemic almost seems like a distant memory here in the United States, for those on the front lines of that battle are joined by Americans fighting for racial equality. Meanwhile, countries all around the globe are standing in solidarity, demanding the US finally take accountability for the systemic racism dating back to our country’s inception, a shameful by-product of the slave history that was glossed over in my history textbooks. Before I had any idea of what this winter would hold, I was contacted on Facebook by clergy abuse survivor/activist Benjamin Kitobo, seeking my help sharing his story. His life was forever changed in 1980, when he was a 13-year-old student at an African seminary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), then known as Zaire. Benja suffered sexual abuse for four years at the hands of a Belgian priest who had been sent to Zaire after being accused of abusing a child in Belgium. His “punishment” was the signature response of the Roman Catholic Church – a quiet reassignment to avoid scandal – in this case to a remote African village, where he would ostensibly be out of sight and mind. Predictably, taking a page out of the predator playbook, he continued his behavior in his new environment, and the bishops who ignored the potential danger he posed were complicit in his crimes against Benja and the other boys he targeted at the school.
Benja was featured last November in a documentary on CNN titled “Abuse and Scandal in the Catholic Church: The Case of the Predator Priest,” detailing his courageous journey seeking accountability, resulting in obtaining a taped confession from his abuser. But after issuing an abuse complaint, he later discovered his abuser was still working with children in Rwanda, which is part of his motivation as a survivor advocate. According to Benja, it can be life-threatening to speak about abuse in Congo, where the topic is swept under the proverbial rug.
Benja was the only survivor representing Africa at the global summit of bishops in Rome in February of 2019, which I also attended, billed by Pope Francis as an “all-out battle” against this scourge that has plagued the Roman Catholic Church since its beginning. Despite the pope’s claims, no concrete change has occurred since then, which is unsurprising to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to this criminal issue. Benja and I both participated in the March to Zero, a peaceful protest through the streets of Rome on a crisp, sunny Saturday morning, organized by Ending Clergy Abuse, with participation from other prominent groups, such as SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests) and bishopaccountability.org. Our paths didn’t cross during that invigorating walk across the Tiber river, from the Piazza del Popolo to Castel Sant’ Angelo, just outside the unwelcoming walls of the Vatican, but I was honored and taken aback when he contacted me seeking my help telling his story in the form of a memoir, and to bring attention to Africa’s handling of this particular plight. Benja’s life is fascinating and full of accomplishment. Now a father, living in St. Louis, he left Congo as a refugee, spending a brief time living in Foligno, a small town in the Umbrian region of Italy.
We first spoke in depth over the phone last January, in between his busy schedule as a nurse, and trying to finish his dissertation. A sweet and funny man, the same age as my husband, Chris, he explained reasonably yet passionately the vital importance of shining a light on his native land and the most marginalized of abuse victims.
“They knowingly send these predators to prey on these innocent victims, who are powerless to fight back. It’s risky to speak out. The control they have is like slavery all over again. You’re only free when you speak up, but the price of speaking is very high,” he said.
Although I have no idea what it’s like to be targeted for my skin, I do know what it’s like to be discounted for my sex, in society and religion, which is one of the primary reasons I left the Catholic Church, after being confirmed as a teenager. In 2020 America, despite fighting tooth and nail for suffrage a century ago, a topic also glossed over in the history books, women are still not equal to their male counterparts, starting with their paychecks. I write this on Juneteenth, a holiday I never knew existed until a few years ago, and only now am getting a more clear understanding of, for it was not even mentioned in those same history books. Needless to say, it was obviously a bit impulsive, if not incredibly naive, to immediately say yes when Benja asked if he could obtain financing, I would accompany him to follow the story to Congo. Although Chris supports my clergy abuse investigation wholeheartedly, despite the fact it doesn’t garner any kind of paycheck, he shot down the idea of such a trip, considering he could hear Benja on speakerphone describing the potential dangers I might face. In my earnest desire to give voice to the voiceless, it didn’t initially dawn on me that I could now be the target of race, and a victim of physical and sexual violence due to my skin color. Talk about white privilege.
Although the pandemic has put so many things on hold, Benja and I have spoken a few more times since, and I remain committed to the project, while we try to find someone with the affluence to aid us in seeing it to fruition. For a Cape Cod freelance writer, already struggling to make ends meet, it’s even more challenging now to pursue my passion in our pandemic world. In our most recent Facebook exchanges, Benja candidly discussed his own far more serious challenges – as someone who is fighting both of the aforementioned battles – saving lives from Covid while also living with racial inequality. In a moment of vulnerability, he shared his despair, while I apologized for my race.
“Don’t take it that way. You are a link of hope. We all need a hopeful outlook,” he wrote.
I hope that I can help my new friend…