Johannesburg - Sexual abuse by Catholic priests is a scourge in Africa as well as the Western countries where scandals have badly hurt the Vatican's image, a leading African Catholic archbishop has said.
Archbishop of Johannesburg Buti Tlhagale said the damage weakened the Church's ability to speak out with moral authority in Africa, where it has at times been a rare voice challenging dictatorship, corruption and abuse of power.
"What happens in Ireland or in Germany or America affects us all," Tlhagale said in a message on April 1 that was published this week on the website of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference, which Tlhagale heads.
"It simply means that the misbehavior of priests in Africa has not been exposed to the same glare of the media as in other parts of the world."
The Church is now engulfed in a scandal over the sexual abuses of children by priests. It faces accusations in several European countries of mishandling and covering up abuses, some dating back decades.
"I know that the Church in Africa, is inflicted by the same scourge," Tlhagale said.
Africa is one of the fastest growing regions for the Church and ever more important as the number of practicing Catholics in the developed world declines. Africa's Catholic population rose from about 2 million in 1990 to about 140 million in 2000.
While reports of sexual abuse by priests have come to light locally, they have not made global headlines.
The Vatican and Catholic bishops in Europe and the United States have protested against what they say is a media campaign against the Church.
Some reports have accused Pope Benedict of negligence in handling abuse cases in previous roles as a cardinal in his native Germany, and in Rome -- accusations the Vatican denies.
Some 40 complaints of abuses, some from as far back as four decades ago, have been received by the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference over 14 years, its website said. Over half involved the sexual abuse of teenage girls, it said.
Father Chris Townsend, the group's spokesman, said some clergy had been found guilty and action had been taken, although the bishops were responsible for those measures. Precise details were not given.
Celibacy is frowned upon in some traditional African societies and there have been reports of priests having mistresses and fathering children in parts of Africa.
The Church's reputation in Africa is far from unblemished -- priests were accused of aiding Rwanda's genocide, and AIDS activists challenge its opposition to condom use in the world's worst afflicted continent.
But in some countries, Catholic clergy have won a reputation for being willing to use their position to speak out against oppression and misrule when others cannot. Tlhagale said the abuse scandals undermined the Church's moral authority.
"As Church leaders, we become incapable of criticizing the corrupt and immoral behavior of the members of our respective communities," he said. "We become hesitant to criticize the greed and malpractices of our civic authorities."