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Opinion: Ending Child Abuse in Ghana and in the Church, taking moral lessons from St. Maria Gorreti

I have decided to write this article on this day to celebrate the memorial of St. Maria Goretti, a Virgin and Martyr who 118 years ago defended the faith of the Church by preferring to die rather than succumbing to immoral behaviour. In this piece I have defined Child Sexual Abuse from different perspectives; I have looked at Child Sexual Abuse from legal perspective; I have discussed Child Sexual Abuse and Chastity in the Church; and I have looked at the life of St. Maria Gorreti and the lessons we can learn from it.

Definition of child sexual abuse

Sexual abuse is sexual behaviour or a sexual act forced upon a woman, man or child without their consent.


The 1999 WHO Consultation on Child Abuse Prevention (62) states that:

“Child sexual abuse is the involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared and cannot give consent, or that violates the laws or social taboos of society.”

Child sexual abuse is evidenced by this activity between a child and an adult or another child who by age or development is in a relationship of responsibility, trust or power, the activity being intended to gratify or satisfy the needs of the other person. This may include but is not limited to: the inducement or coercion of a child to engage in any unlawful sexual activity; the exploitative use of a child in prostitution or other unlawful sexual practices; and the exploitative use of children in pornographic performance.

Some of the Features that characterize child sexual abuse

In child sexual abuse rarely is there physical force. Perpetrators try to manipulate the child’s trust and hide the abuse. The perpetrator most of the time is a known and trusted caregiver. The perpetrator can sexually abuse the child or minor over many weeks or even years. This becomes something frequent at repeated episodes and turns into something invasive with time. Perpetrators usually engage the child in a gradual process of sexualizing the relationship over time. It is established that Incest/intrafamilial abuse accounts for about one third of all child sexual abuse cases. This buttresses the fact that perpetrators are known and trusted people. It is important to note that

Paedophiles are individuals who prefer sexual contact with children to adults. They are usually skilled at planning and executing strategies to involve themselves with children. There is evidence to suggest that paedophiles may share their information about children through child pornography. This can take place globally through the internet.

Child Sexual Abuse from Legal perspective

What is considered child sexual abuse in Ghana per our criminal code?

Ghana’s criminal law regime is governed by The Criminal Offenses Act, Act 29

Sexual abuse ranges from forcible sexual bodily contact with another of or sexual intercourse with another all without their consent. Any of these activities with a minor with or without their consent is viewed as child sexual abuse in Ghana. Children below the age of 16 years cannot validly consent to any sexual activity.

Definition of some related terms under Child Sexual Abuse

Rape is having sexual intercourse with a female above the age of 16 years without her consent.

Defilement is having sexual intercourse with a child below the age of 16 with or without their consent.

Indecent assault occurs when a person without the consent of another, forcibly makes a sexual bodily contact with the other person or sexually violates the body of the other person all without actual sexual intercourse.

Incest occurs when a male not less than 16 years has sexual intercourse with his daughter, grand-daughter, Sister, mother or grand-mother or a when female not less than sixteen years has sexual intercourse with her father, grandfather, brother, son, grand-son

When would one consider sexual activity between two children abuse?

Any sexual activity between children below the age of sixteen is not viewed as child sexual abuse as both children are victims and each do not have capacity to validly consent

What can one do if he/she suspects a child sexual abuse? How does one report child sexual abuse?

File a report with the Domestic Violence and Victims Support Unit of the police

Can one make an anonymous report of abuse?

Yes. An anonymous report can be made

What is the punishment of child sexual abuse?

Sexual intercourse with a minor in a natural or unnatural manner is punishable by a term of not less than 7 years.

Can one sexually abuse a consenting child due to the support or benefits to the victim?

A child below the age of 16 cannot under any circumstances consent to sexual activity regardless of support or benefits. Any sexual activity with a child done by an adult is considered criminal.

Child Sexual Abuse from Scripture- OT and NT.

From the Beginning
“In creating men ‘male and female,’ God gives man and woman an equal personal dignity.” “Man is a person, man and woman equally so, since both were created in the image and likeness of the personal God.” This also explain why human sexuality must be respected. It is something established by God himself. It is good. It must not be made bad by man or woman. It must be done in its proper place- marriage

The Law- the Sixth Commandment

The sixth commandment in Ex 20 reads “you shall not commit adultery.” In Jesus’ time he says, “You have heard that it was said”, “You shall not commit adultery.” “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus, adds more to the sixth commandment making it clear that sin is committed first from the mind. Therefore, our thoughts can lead us against the sixth commandments. Obviously, what we think about is what we act upon.

Throughout the entire Bible, sexual violence—including rape, assault and harassment of either women or men—is outlawed and condemned. Our loving Father will bring about a future Kingdom that is free from these evil acts. God promises to administer justice to all who have been mistreated or abused (Exodus 22:22-24)

The primary law concerning rape is found in Deuteronomy 22:25-26, which describes a situation when a man “finds a betrothed young woman in the countryside, and the man forces her and lies with her.” The use of the word “force” conveys a clear meaning of rape that distinguishes this passage from the surrounding verses that share a similar structure. A careful examination shows that verses 23-24 deal with a case of consensual adultery, while verses 28-29 concern consensual sex before marriage—neither of these describe a man using “force.”

Deuteronomy 22:25-26 mentions that, a man found guilty of rape would be put to death, and such a terrible act is equivalent to murder:
“You shall do nothing to the young woman; there is in the young woman no sin deserving of death, for just as when a man rises against his neighbour and kills him, even so is this matter” (Deuteronomy 22:26).Not only was the man punished, but the woman was proclaimed entirely guiltless.

A close look at the circumstances presented in the law reveals great deference to the victim. It describes a young woman “in the countryside” who “cried out, but there was no one there to save her” (Deuteronomy 22:27). By “crying out” the woman warned her attacker that this sex was not consensual and reminded him of the penalty of the law. Despite the horrific nature of the assault, she at least could have confidence of her full protection under God’s Law and that justice would be done. The law gave the woman the benefit of the doubt, and, when the matter was investigated, her testimony would be taken seriously.

Some personalities who upheld this law and those who violated this Law

Let me mention first the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah are known for homosexuality. They wanted to know, that is to have sex with the angels of God sent to save Lot. It is from Sodom that the term Sodomy has been coined a term which explains anal or oral sex particularly of homosexuals and bestiality that is having sex with animals. These are crimes against nature.

The story is told of Joseph in Genesis 39 who run away from Potiphar’s wife who wanted to go to bed with him. In fact, Joseph saw the act as a sin against God so he would not do anything against God. In other words he would not violate the law of God. He preferred imprisonment to violating the law of God.

In 2Sam 13, the story is told of Amnon who raped his half-sister Tamar. This incurred the wrath of Absalom the brother of Tamar who killed Amnon. Clearly the sin of Amnon can be seen as incest.

Sexual Abuse from the New Testament

St Paul places all sexual abuse and acts against the sixth commandment in a list of “works of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19-21). Paul’s letter to the Ephesians proves that sexual harassment, even in the form of lewd or suggestive “jokes,” have no place in the life of a Christian and are totally prohibited: “…fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks” (Ephesians 5:3-4, emphasis added). Paul goes on to write in verse 5 that those who practice, say or even think such things, and refuse to change their ways, cannot be part of God’s Kingdom (Ephesians 5:5).

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church

“The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.” For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of “the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved.”

I will limit what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says on sexual abuse to offenses against chastity. From number 2351 to 2356 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church the following: Lust, masturbation, fornication, pornography, prostitution, and rape are mentioned as the offenses against chastity.

Lust is disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure. Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes.

Masturbation is to be understood as the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. “Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.”

Fornication is carnal union between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman. It is gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses and the generation and education of children. Moreover, it is a grave scandal when there is corruption of the young.

Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, and the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense. Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials.

Prostitution does injury to the dignity of the person who engages in it, reducing the person to an instrument of sexual pleasure. The one who pays sins gravely against himself: he violates the chastity to which his Baptism pledged him and defiles his body, the temple of the Holy Spirit. Prostitution is a social scourge. It usually involves women, but also men, children, and adolescents (The latter two cases involve the added sin of scandal.). While it is always gravely sinful to engage in prostitution, the immutability of the offense can be attenuated by destitution, blackmail, or social pressure.

Rape is the forcible violation of the sexual intimacy of another person. It does injury to justice and charity. Rape deeply wounds the respect, freedom, and physical and moral integrity to which every person has a right. It causes grave damage that can mark the victim for life. It is always an intrinsically evil act. Graver still is the rape of children committed by parents (incest) or those responsible for the education of the children entrusted to them.

Saint Maria Gorreti A Model For The Church

St Maria Gorreti is an example of Mercy and Love. In fact, today as we commemorate her virginity and martyrdom the Church presents her as a model for us to imitate. By divine plan the readings of the 14th Week in ordinary time Year 2 is apt in discussing faithfulness or fidelity of God and faithfulness and fidelity to God as Maria Goretti exhibited in 1902, 5 July.

The Gospel from Matthew 9:18-26 speaks about the woman suffering from haemorrhage and the official’s daughter who died. Other accounts of this story tells us, the woman suffered for 12 years and the official’s daughter was 12 years. This is obviously the number of the Church built on apostolic foundations. The Church can be seen here presented in her old age and in her youth. God is faithful to her church through his various cures and healing shown in the text by Jesus. The Church is also supposed to be faithful to God shown in the text by the official representing her daughter and the woman who showed her faith by touching the cloak of Jesus.

The first reading from Hosea chapter two (2) indicates God’s love for his people and by extension the Church. God through the prophet Hosea marries his church and even when his wife the Church behaves like a prostitute he still renews his covenant with her so us to win her back.

Using today’s reading as a springboard let us look at the love Maria Gorreti showed God and the Church 118 years ago.

In the eyes of the world, Maria Goretti was unremarkable. Young, poor, and uneducated, she could not even read or write. Yet, her heroic purity and forgiving spirit have made her great in the eyes of God and the Church.

Maria was born on the eastern side of Italy, but her family moved to a home near the small seaside village of Nettuno when she was six years old. When her father died from malaria, Maria cared for her younger sister and handled the housework so that her mother and older siblings could work in the fields. Her family had very little, but they were close knit and deeply religious.

One afternoon, in July 1902, twelve-year-old Maria sat quietly mending a shirt on the front steps of her home. The neighbour boy, Alessandro, who also worked on the family’s farm, surprised her, pulled her into the house, and attempted to rape her. Maria protested, telling the young man that this was a mortal sin and he would go to hell. She cried, “No! It is a sin! God does not want it!” Enraged, the eighteen-year-old began to choke Maria, but she insisted that she would rather die than submit to him. Alessandro pulled out a knife and stabbed the defenceless girl repeatedly before running away.

Maria’s family returned home to find the young girl bleeding on the floor. They took her to the hospital in nearby Nettuno, but the surgeon was unable to repair the damage that had been done. Remarkably, as she lay dying, Maria forgave her attacker, saying that she wanted to see him in Heaven one day.

Alessandro was apprehended shortly after the attack, and sentenced to 30 years in prison. During his incarceration, he saw Maria in a dream. She gave him a bouquet of lilies, but the lilies burnt his hands. He awoke a changed man, repenting of his crime and committing to living a reformed life. Upon his release from prison, he went immediately to Maria’s mother seeking her pardon, which she granted, saying, “If my daughter can forgive him, who am I to withhold forgiveness?” Alessandro became a lay Franciscan and lived the rest of his life in a monastery.

St. Maria Goretti was canonized as a martyr, and Catholics young and old can learn a great deal from her response in the face of her attacker: “God does not want it.” The lesson does not end there, however. With her quick willingness to forgive her attacker and her desire even to see him in Heaven, St. Maria Goretti reminds us that what God does want is mercy and love.

Lessons From The Life Of St. Maria Goretti

The life of St. Maria Gorreti teaches all of us old and young to be courageous to resist sexual abuse. In fact, in this modern times we can also be heroes and heroines resisting child sexual abuse, rape, prostitution and any sexual act that violates the laws of God, the laws of the Country and the laws of the Church.

Though uneducated Maria Gorreti teaches us that chaste life is not the preserve of the intelligent and the learned. It is for all. From the story of Maria Gorreti we learn that God can change even the stubborn sinner.

The following are some other ways to remedy child sexual abuse in our country and in the Church: humility, prayer, frequenting the Sacraments especially Penance and Reconciliation, fleeing from the near occasion of sin, temperance, and mortification of exterior and interior senses.


I thank all who contributed to making this piece especially the Vocations Director and Youth Chaplain of the Catholic Archdiocese of Accra, Fr. Osmund Kudoloh for his support, Sr. Oluchi Egbedike (FMA) for her contribution on Maria Goretti, Lawyers Nana Tawiah Okyir, Nana Achiaa Addai for their input from the legal perspective, and Nana Kwame Opong for his input from the Ghana Population Council. I acknowledge also the opportunity given me by Fr Emmanuel Daffour Appah and the Christ The King PYC and Cathholic Youth Organization, Cantonments- Charity! Forever!

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