YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – A Catholic priest in the Ivory Coast has committed suicide after allegations he had abused an underage girl.
Father Richard Bilé served as the associate pastor at the St. Francis of Assisi parish in the village of Affiénou in the southwest of the country. He was found hanged on April 24 by the pastor of the church.
Bishop Raymond Ahoua of Grand-Bassam said the initial findings pointed to suicide, but the police are still continuing their investigation and the diocese is awaiting their determination of the exact cause of death.
The priest’s death came barely a week after Ahoua received a complaint that Bilé had sexually abused a young girl. The local press reported the girl was in the sixth grade.
“Appropriate decisions relating to the matter were taken awaiting the conclusion of Holy Week,” said Father Lambert Lath Yedo, the diocesan spokesman.
Yedo said the process was underway when the diocese learned of the death of Bilé. Local media reported the priest had been suspended from celebrating Mass until the allegations had been fully investigated.
“After learning about the death, Bishop Raymond Ahoua, overwhelmed by sorrow, calls on all and sundry to remain calm,” the spokesman said.
Yedo said the bishop had extended condolences to the diocesan family, the family of the diseased as well as the family of the alleged sex abuse victim.
Although the investigation is ongoing, a letter allegedly written by the deceased was found asking for forgiveness from his family, friends, several clergymen, and the entire community.
“I tried to serve God through my brothers and sisters. I loved my divine master, he knows that. That is why he will forgive me and welcome me,” the letter reads.
“I wish to be buried in Bongouanou, in front of the Saint Andrew Catholic Church where I grew up as a child, beside the tomb of Father Alexandre. This way, I won’t be too far from my mother, Marie-Cécile Tanoh,” the letter continued, asking his father to speak to both Ahoua and the Bishop of Abengourou to make the arrangements.
“Near to God, I will have peace,” the letter said. The note did not include an admission to molesting the child.
The case of the priest has drawn attention to the issue of clerical abuse in Africa, which has lagged behind Europe and North America in establishing national and diocesan child safeguarding policies.
In February, Pope Francis hosted the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences at the Vatican to discuss the clerical abuse crisis.
The next month, the Center for the Protection of Minors and Vulnerable Persons was opened at the Catholic Missionary Institute of Abidjan, the Ivory Coast capital. Church officials said the center was established as a direct response to Francis’s call to provide more protection for children against sexual abuse.
Sister Solange Sia, the center’s director, said the institute will be used not only to study the risk factors for the commission of abuse against minors, but also to provide care in case of abuse.
She said the institute would help the Church to “listen to the cries of today, so that we can give a response based on the Gospel.”
Father Pierre Claver Yessoh, the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Abidjan, said the center comes “at the right time” for the Church in the Ivory Coast.
“To have a center of this magnitude in the archdiocese of Abidjan is an opportunity for all the people of God,” he said.
The institute is working in collaboration with the Center for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, considered the leading such institution in the field.
Bishop Ignace Bessi, president of the Ivory Coast bishops’ conference, said he did “not think we have covered up sexual abuses involving priests.”
Speaking to the French Catholic newspaper La Croix ahead of the February summit, he said: “The option is, I think, to punish those guilty without creating a scandal.”
He said a problem is that laypeople, due to a culture of modesty, are often reluctant to report abuse by clergy.
“In Africa there is a certain modesty about sexual matters: Western culture is certainly more extroverted on these matters. But the most important is to take disciplinary sanctions in cases of abuse,” the bishop said.
“When the bishops know about it, the sanctions imposed are thorough. There was recently a case of misconduct in the Diocese of Yopougon. The priest was suspended and laicized. We always assume our responsibilities,” Bessi told the French newspaper.