Truly Good Shepherds of the Young, The Anchor, July 2, 2010

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Out Into The Deep
July 2, 2010

As the whole Church has been confronted with the evil of the sexual abuse of young people in her midst during the past several decades, one of the most frustrating explanations I’ve heard about the failure of some Church leaders to respond forcefully and adequately to stop this evil was that they were unaware at the time of how much harm such abuse causes in those who suffer it. We know so much more now than we did then about the nature of pedophilia and ephebophilia, they say, as well as about the long-term psychological, relational and spiritual consequences endured by victims. For these reasons, they assert that it’s inappropriate to judge decisions of the past by today’s standards.

While it’s certainly true that the psychological sciences do know much more now than they did fifty years ago about the nature of these perversions and while the bold witness of sex abuse victims has made it impossible for us any longer not to recognize the trauma they experience, I’ve always thought that the suggestion that past leaders somehow did not have all the information they needed to respond decisively and adequately as morally and historically flawed.

For the second installment of this mini-series on saints whom God has raised up to illustrate the virtues those of us in the Church need now to respond to the crisis of the sex abuse of minors, I want to turn to the martyrs of Uganda, principally Saints Joseph Mkasa, Denis Sebuggwawo and Charles Lwanga. They show us, in the context of a primitive culture from the 1880s, what the Church in the northern hemisphere, for all its sophistication, should never have forgotten.

I wrote about these saints last June 5, concentrating above all on their heroic fidelity to the point of brutal martyrdom, only a few years after having been evangelized. Today I want to focus on what they teach us about the proper response to the sexual abuse of minors: in short, they died to protect the young from suffering sexual abuse.

When King Mwanga arose to the Bugandan throne in 1884, he appointed Joseph Mkasa, baptized two years before and a loyal servant of Mwanga’s father Mtesa, as majordomo, or chief-in-charge, of his palace and court. The king literally owed his life to Mkasa, who a few years before courageously captured and killed with his bare hands a venomous snake that was threatening the then-prince’s life. In addition to his official duties, Mkasa was also the de facto leader of the nascent Catholic community, since in 1882 the aging and paranoid King Mtesa had banished the White Fathers from the realm, leaving Mkasa as the principal catechist of a growing number of catechumens.

Upon becoming majordomo, Mkasa appointed a young catechumen, Charles Lwanga to supervise the court pages. A short time later, the two of them began to observe that the new king was homosexually attracted to the teenage pages and was seeking to have them brought into his private company to molest them. Bugandan culture at the time made room for such perversion, especially coming from someone in a position of power. Though just a neophyte and a catechumen, Mkasa and Lwanga, however, knew that such behavior was absolutely incompatible with the Gospel and they determined to do all that they could to be good shepherds and protect the sheep entrusted to them from the ravenous wolf in regal garb.

They, first, had a genuine Christian love for others, such that they were willing to sacrifice their lives for their good. It was impossible for them as Christians to do nothing, even though looking the other way or enabling the king’s perversity would obviously have been good for their court careers. Serving the Lord came before serving any earthly king — and serving the Lord in this case clearly meant, as spiritual fathers, defending the young from evil.

They also had a true Christian horror for sin. They were revolted by the evil that the king desired. They had a simple Christian common sense of black and white, of right and wrong, and hated sin with all the zeal with which they loved the Lord.

Both characteristics ought to define Christian leaders and people in every age.

Even though Mkasa and Lwanga were willing to die to defend the pages from the king’s wickedness, they did not have a death wish. They first tried to persuade those pages who could easily disappear from court without any harm coming to their families to run away. With various ruses, they next began to ensure that the pages who remained were “otherwise occupied” whenever the king sent for them. They furthermore began to teach the pages various ways to avert the king’s advances if the other measures failed.

All of these strategems worked for a time, but the king soon figured out what was going on and became enraged. No longer able to avoid a direct confrontation, Mkasa bluntly rebuked the king for his perverse attraction to the boys in his service. Mwanga was consumed with anger against Mkasa and his fellow Christians whom he knew were helping and training the boys to avoid his advances. Under the pretext of Mkasa’s disloyalty for putting the commands of another king, “The God of the Christians,” over his own, Mwanga had him executed.

A few months later, when the King returned from a trip to see one of his routine victims receiving catechetical instruction — which obviously involved teaching on the sin of homosexual activity and abuse — he summoned the catechetist, St. Denis Sebuggwawo, put a spear through his chest and then had his executioners hack his corpse to pieces.

The following day the king rounded up all his pages and gave them a choice between the Christian God and him, between prayer and the predator, between life and death. Three sided with the king. Charles Lwanga and 26 pages — 16 Catholics and 10 Anglicans — sided with God. Mwanga sentenced them to be burned alive and they were brutally tortured.

What do we learn from their heroic example? Those called to lead Christ’s flock learn the gift of courage, hatred for sin, and a love for God’s children even to the point of death.

All members of society, inside and outside the Church, learn two valuable lessons as well.

First, King Mwanga was not an ecclesiastical figure. It’s a simple fact that the vast majority of abuse that takes place in our society does not occur within the Church, as media attention might erroneously imply. Therefore, sincere members of the Church and society should work just as hard to extirpate abuse in those places — public schools, in homes with unrelated adult males and other situations with higher incidence rates of sexual abuse of minors than exists in the Church — as they do in the Church.

Secondly, and this deserves to be stressed: King Mwanga came to the throne at 16 and executed the Ugandan martyrs at 18. SS. Joseph Mkasa and Charles Lwanga weren’t trying to stop the perversions of a lecherous sexagenarian, but of a boy who was only a few years older than his victims. Mkasa and Lwanga knew, however, that such abuse was just as disastrous for those who suffer it, even for those who were consenting to the king’s designs.

If we as a society are truly against the sexual abuse of minors, then we must seek to eliminate it, even when the perpetrators are other minors. We have to acknowledge, however, that most of our society not only is ignoring, but enabling, the damage done by peer-on-peer sexual abuse, such as occurs when seniors prey on freshmen, popular freshmen go trophy hunting after their weaker classmates, or junior high Casanovas abuse their classmates for their own gratification.

The Ugandan martyrs gave their lives to protest young people being taken advantage of in this way. Today we ask their intercession that we might imitate their courage, their love for the young and their horror for all sexual sins that injure the young from modern day Mwangas.