Monday 26 March 2018

A Catholic priest who was a mass murderer

On November 22nd, 1999, I sent a letter I had written the day before about my thoughts about a Catholic priest then living in Florence, Spain but who had previously lived in Rwanda. My letter was sent to His Eminence, Aloysius Cardinal Ambrozic, the Archbishop of Toronto. What follows next is my letter.                                   

Your Eminence:

No doubt, it has been brought to your attention that the Globe & Mail published a searing article (November 21, 1999) about a priest in Florence Spain called Don Anatasio Sumba Bura Seromba) who is accused of being a mass murderer.

The particulars in the full-page article states that this man committed outrageous acts including firing a machine gun into his church in Rwanda and bringing about the deaths of many of his parishioners who sought refuge there. Further, the article goes on to say that when a bulldozer operator balked at smashing the walls of the church onto the dying parishioners, Father Seromba responded in part with, “This church will be rebuilt in three days.”

This was the action of a priest who had previously urged his parishioners to enter his church for sanctuary. It is estimated that between 2000 to 5000 innocent Catholics, men, women, children and babies died in that church and the surrounding churchyard with that priest participating in the slaughter.

The article in the newspaper then goes on to say, and again I will quote; “However, the Catholic Church, which performed so miserably during the genocide in a largely Christian country, still ignores appeals within and outside the church to purge ranks of suspected killers.”

It appears to me that what is the worst aspect of this terrible event in Christian history is the Church’s refusal to acknowledge that one of its priests committed genocide. The Church up to date, not only has ignored the failings of this man as a priest, it has even ignored his deeds as a mass murderer.

Of course, this doesn’t surprise a great many people both within and outside the Church considering the fact that for many years, the Church also ignored the plight of boys who were sexually molested by priests and Christian Brothers alike.

Father Seromba escaped from Rwanda before the authorities could capture him and bring him before a court in that country and as you are probably aware, he is currently living in Florence under the protection of the Church while he practices as a priest and studies theology in that city. I can’t help but wonder if it is the view of the Church that love and kindness towards a criminal is the most satisfactory kind of vengeance against other Christians who were slaughtered by this priest.

There are two issues, in my respectful opinion that the Church must address as it relates to Father Seromba. The first deals with forgiveness. When I looked up information on the subject of forgiveness, I read your pastoral letter of March 1995. In it, you said in part;

It is not easy to ask for forgiveness, for forgiveness does not pretend that nothing wrong has taken place. On the contrary: if nothing had happened, if no intentional wrong had been inflicted, there would be nothing to forgive. Forgiving is not forgetting or condoning, but a clear assessment of what took place, a clear acknowledgment of the wrong done, a clear determination to right that wrong if at all possible, as well as asking, in word, action and gesture that the sin no longer be held against the sinner. This is difficult. Our self-image, fervently clung to, though partly false in all who are not saints, is bound to suffer. I was misunderstood, I put it poorly, I was not thinking, I was not myself. I did not sleep well the night before.  I am quite willing to admit all that. I will gladly explain. I will apologize. But to go asking for forgiveness is much more painful. I admit that I know now, and knew it then, that what I did was wrong, that I did it intentionally "with malice aforethought"; now I am sorry, begging the person wronged not to hold it against me.” unquote

I think your words for the most part, were very apply put. What stands out in my mind however are your words that say, and again, I quote;

“Forgiving is not forgetting or condoning, but a clear assessment of what took place, a clear acknowledgment of the wrong done, a clear determination to right that wrong if at all possible, as well as asking, in word, action and gesture that the sin no longer be held against the sinner.” unquote

It would appear at first blush that you are suggesting that everyone, including the church must ask (by word, action and gesture) that the sin no longer be held against the sinner.

Where I have difficulty with this line in your statement is that the fact that a difficult question arises from it. Are you saying that the Church and its members and everyone else, should forgive Father Seromba’s sin and his crime or just his sin alone?

Let us suppose that Father Seromba were to say the very words you did, those words being;

“I will apologize. But to go asking for forgiveness is much more painful: I admit that I know now, and knew it then, that what I did was wrong, that I did it intentionally "with malice aforethought"; now I am sorry, begging the person wronged not to hold it against me.”

If this could be his own words as it relates to his shameful deeds during the genocide in Rwanda, would this mean that he should not be accountable to his fellow human beings for the crimes he committed in the name of his Church? 

I couldn’t find anything in your pastoral letters relating to justice so I looked to the Bible.

The Book of Proverbs speaks of justice in an indirect way when it recognizes the authority of social control as expressed in government.

One can find in the Second Chronicles, reference to the fact that national leaders with religious ideals should insist on the impartial administration of justice as established by local courts.

By paraphrasing Job’s lament, how would you feel if Father Seromba were to say just as Job did, “Who will fix a time for my case to come on?” How will you feel if your own parishioners were to ask, “Who will fix a time for Father Seromba’s appearance before a court of justice to come on?” Would you, like the Vatican, respond with silence?

The prophets taught that God administered the government of the world on the lines of strictest retributive justice and this was applied to all nations. Admittedly, the prophets may not have seriously considered life after death and for this reason, felt that justice must be right there and then but the principle of immediate justice has been adopted by all nations for thousands of years as it is to this day.

I sincerely hope you will forgive me for being so presumptuous as to preach from the Bible to a learned man such as yourself.

In closing, let me add these remaining comments.

Calvin Coolidge in his address before Congress on December 6, 1923, said in part;

“Free government has no greater menace than disrespect for authority and continual violation of law. It is the duty of a citizen not only to observe the law but to let it be known that he is opposed to its violation.” unquote

In my respectful opinion, the Catholic Church has as one of its duties as a responsible part of humanity and that is to oppose any and all violation of man’s law, (if they are just and legitimate) especially those laws that forbid the killing of other human beings that further a pogrom of genocide.

When the dictator of Panama sought refuge from the Catholic Church in Panama, the Church authorities abandoned him (and rightly so) and left him to fend for himself. This all happened before he was tried and convicted as a drug smuggler. If he on the other hand was a Catholic priest, would he have been sent to Florence to finish out his days as a practicing priest and be permitted to study theology—all at the expense of the Church?

The Church is faced with a dilemma. Father Seromba has been accused of very serious crimes against humanity—crimes that demand justice for the victims, their families and friends and for the rest of us who die a little when innocents are slaughtered.

If the Church continues to remain silent and continues to treat Father Seromba as if he had done no wrong, then history will be unkind to the Church of this era and the Church someday in the future will have to come to terms with the fact that the Church of this era wronged the people it should have protected and compounded that wrong when it refused to address its wrongs with more than just offering forgiveness to those who wronged humanity in the name of the Church.

I don’t blame the Catholic Church for what Father Seromba did to those many unfortunate victims of the genocide in Rwanda but I do without any hesitation, blame the Church for ignoring the world-wide call for justice.

I would certainly be grateful if you could give me some idea as to what the Church intends to do about this apparent outrage that is bringing the name of the Catholic Church into such disrepute. And further, I am anxious to know what the Church will do if the proper authorities request co-operation from the Church in the apprehension of Father Seromba for the purpose of trying him for the murder of his parishioners in Rwanda.

That was the end of my letter. He didn’t send me a reply. Was he too embarrassed to do so? Did he feel that what I had to say conflicted with his own thoughts about how a member of his brethren should be treated as a war criminal?

This particular war criminal priest was apprehended by Spanish authorities and turned over to the UN-backed International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda that later found Seromba, (then age 43) guilty of two charges of genocide and extermination and not guilty on two lesser counts. He stood impassively as the verdict and sentence were read out. He had denied all four charges. I always thought that lying was a sin. I guess that priest didn’t think so.

The priest was the second of three priests charged with genocide to be convicted by the court, which sat in the Tanzanian town of Arusha.

Seromba, who was a Hutu (the tribe who were committing the murders of 800,000 civilians of the Tutsis tribe) and a parish priest at Nyange Church in Kibuye, western Rwanda, when the mass killings started in April 1994.

Some 2,000 Tutsis, many of them regular churchgoers in Seromba's congregation, fled to the church seeking refuge as machete-wielding gangs scoured the countryside and when found, hacking their victims to death.

According to the prosecution, the priest directed the Hutu militia which poured fuel through the roof of his church, while gendarmes and communal police launched grenades and killed the refugees inside the church. He then watched for three hours as the doors were locked and one after another the walls were knocked down by the bulldozer until the roof caved in and crushed the victims. Survivors who managed to squeeze free were shot dead as they tried to escape. All that is left of the church are several large mounds of earth covered in flowers and chunks of concrete.

This priest’s conviction is likely to refocus attention on the role of the Roman Catholic Church during the genocide, when 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in a period of 100 days.

Seromba fled Rwanda in July 1994, and later moved to Italy and continued working as a priest for the Catholic Church near the city of Florence using the alias Anastasio Sumba Bura. He then fled to Italy after the genocide ended in July 1994. As Don Anastasio Sumba Bura, he conducted services at the church of San Mauro a Signa in Florence. He only gave himself up to the tribunal in February 2002 under pressure from Silvio Berlusconi, the then Italian prime minister. I guess the war criminal would rather turn himself in rather than be arrested by the Italian police.

On February 8th, 2002, he pleaded not guilty to the charges of genocide, complicity in genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide and extermination as a crime against humanity. His trial began on September 20, 2004, before the Third Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Trial for Rwanda (ICTR). On   December 13, 2006, he was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Seromba appealed the verdict. On the 12th of March 2008, the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda had decided that his responsibility was even greater than previously found and affirmed his conviction and subsequently increased his punishment to life in prison.

On the 27th of June 2009, the war criminal priest Seromba was transferred to Benin  where he is serving his life sentence at the Akpro-Missérété prison at Porto-Novo, Benin.

The tribunal also sentenced a Catholic nun to 30 years in prison for helping militias kill hundreds of people hiding in a hospital. Two nuns were also convicted in a Belgian court in 2001 for taking part in the genocide.

A tribunal in Rwanda convicted 139 people of rape, torture, murder and crimes against humanity in the largest trial seeking justice for Rwanda's genocide. The three-judge panel sentenced 11 people to death and 71 to life imprisonment. Lesser sentences were given to 18 of the accused and the others were acquitted.  Those who received the death penalty (including a deputy mayor) were convicted of being planners and masterminds of the slaughter.

The mass trial, which ended August 1st, 2003, involved 139 defendants. It was held in a temporary courtroom in Mugusa, one of the thousands of settlements that dot Rwanda's rolling green hills and the site of some of the crimes.

Elizaphan Ntakirutimana  was a pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Rwanda and was the first clergyman to be convicted for his role in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.  The Tribunal found that the accusations filed against him were proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Ntakirutimana, himself belonging to the Hutu ethnicity, had transported armed attackers to the Mugonero complex, where they killed hundreds of Tutsi refugees. He was convicted on the basis of eyewitness accounts. A number of the convictions against him were overturned on appeal but the sentence was unchanged. Ntakirutimana was sentenced to ten years imprisonment. He was released on December 6, 2006 after serving 10 years in prison, and died the following month

The trial was one of many taking place throughout this tiny central African nation of 8 million people. On average, between 30 and 40 defendants appeared before each tribunal. Whenever possible, the trials were held where the crimes took place.

Rwanda's genocide was orchestrated by a government of extremist Hutus who passed orders and distributed hundreds of thousands of machetes to killing gangs throughout the country known as Interahamwe. (a terrorist organization that seeks to overthrow the government dominated by Tutsi and to institute Hutu control again),   Since Rwanda began trying those accused in the genocide, more than 400 people had received the death sentence but only 26 had actually been executed.

In neighboring Tanzania, a United Nations tribunal was also trying people indicted on major genocide charges in Rwanda's war. The maximum sentence that tribunal could hand down was life in prison.

Since 2003, as many as some 120,000 prisoners in Rwanda were awaiting trial on genocide charges in overcrowded jails. Trying to clear the backlog, authorities released some of the prisoners facing lesser charges to their home areas, where they faced trial in local courts. I have no idea what punishments they received if they were convicted.

The Archbishop of Kigali said in a written response to questions that the church didn't have the power to stop the killings. He also added flatly that no Rwandan clergy were involved in the genocide. Either he didn’t know what he was talking about or f he did, he didn’t want to admit it. He was right on one point however and that is that the Church couldn’t have done anything to stop the genocide.

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