Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Rawlings' outburst on Bishop Sarpong

from Our Correspondent in Ghana

Ability to speak well and decently in public rates high among us...We wish it were possible to speak of the PNDC chairman in similar terms for his televised address on June 3 when commissioning GBC's new transmitters.
"WILL NO-ONE RID ME OF THIS TURBULENT PRIEST?" The English King, Henry, said this of Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury who was subsequently found murdered on his alter for daring to disagree with the King.

In Ghana, we are witnessing a replay of this 16th century English drama when Flt. Lt. J. J. Rawlings, Head of State and PNDC Chairman, in a public forum says of Bishop Peter Akwasi Sarpong, Bishop of the Kumasi diocese of the Catholic Church: "If I were not a Head of State, I would have punched him right on his nose, I would have dealt with him physically personally…”

And that is a short portion of the context of a most vitriolic unwarranted attack which the PNDC Chairman launched on the Bishop during a speech he delivered when he was commissioning the new Transmitters of the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation on June 3 1985.

It was, to say the least, a most disgraceful show of arrogance as one would expect from a badly-brought up young man who happens to be ruling a nation of 14 million people by force of guns. Said a seventy-year old devotee of the Church: "That speech amounts to direct threats to our Bishop. "Se bishop ho gu enso gu enkaraa, yebisa Flawrence, (i.e. if anything harmful should happen to the Bishop, we will hold Rawlings responsible)".

That Bishop Sarpong should bear the brunt of Rawlings' abusive language in public shows how moral decadence and defiance of traditional respect for the old and elderly haveplummeted in this nation from those who profess to be clean above all humanity to possess the divine right to police and rule this nation of ours.

As the STANDARD, the National Catholic Weekly re-echoes what the poor old man said: "Let us all pray that the Bishop does not come to any physical harm as happened to Thomas Beckett…”

Although the STANDARD was willing and ready to publish the full text of the speech that J. J. Rawlings delivered on that fateful day, the paper was restrained from doing so by the Hierarchy of the Catholic Church especially by the Bishop of Kumasi himself. His pastoral letter published by the STANDARD expresses it all:

Dear Ag. Editor,

I know you are all with me.

Thank you very much indeed. Is it true that the STANDARD is going to publish the FAMOUS SPEECH in its entirety? If you are contemplating this, please do not do it... I would not like the Church to be dragged into this matter. My attitude has been to let things as they are, especially as I DO NOT KNOW WHAT REALLY I CAN DO (CAPS MINE). I consider the whole thing as a salutary experience which no sermon or book could ever give me. I keep before me the exhortation of St. Peter: 'No one can hurt you if you are determined to do only what is right; If you do have to suffer for being good, you will count it as a blessing. There is no need to be afraid or worry about them! Continue to pray. I pray for you all.


(Sgd) P. K. Sarpong
Bishop of Kumasi

The apparent conflict between the Bishop of Kumasi on one hand and the PNDC Chairman and the Catholic Church and the government on the other arises out of the affair of two Dutch missionary workers who were withdrawn from the Kumasi diocese. The STANDARD comments:

"Differences of opinion as to how to go about the Church's business had arisen between the Bishop and two of his expatriate missionary staff. Efforts at resolving the differences having failed, the Bishop as Head of the diocese decided there should be a parting of ways and that the missionaries could no longer work under the auspices of the Kumasi diocese".

This is what has apparently incensed J. J. Rawlings so much that he lost all his sense of judgement and resort to such unrestrained language on a public platform.

Despite the fact that the Dutch missionaries were openly engaging in "unorthodox" activities throughout the parish, the Bishop and his council of priests, the Priests Senate, gave them three chances to change their attitude towards the prescribed manner of theological work but they did not budge.

After all that the diocese explained that the missionaries could continue with their work anywhere in the country or the Ashanti region but not within the Kumasi diocese. This arrangement obviously did not appease the political authorities and it has resulted in open and public acrimony between the Church and State.

After their annual five day meeting in Accra, the Catholic Bishops of Ghana issued a communique which expressed support and solidarity to their colleague and stressed the existing diocesan autonomy within the Church. It said, in part, "Dioceses are autonomous. Each Bishop takes his responsibility before God and administratively he is responsible to the Holy Father directly. It is his duty to lead, to praise where praise is due, to correct when the need arises, to have a particular person removed from his diocese and even penalized for obduracy in wrong doing.

Such actions are totally domestic matters. It is totally wrong for anyone to read into them uncharitable hackneyed stereotypes and to subject them to unfavourable interpretations, comments and innuendos. To misconstrue them to mean an attack on the State or a particular ideology is uncalled for and unfortunate."

The communique signed by the President of the Conference, The Most Reverend Peter Dery then expressed the support of the Conference to Bishop Sarpong, "We stand by our brother, Bishop of Kumasi who in this time of trial was singled out for attack when he was only discharging his duty before God. What happens to him happens to us all and the Church. We pledge our fidelity once more to him, the Church and to his Holiness the Pope...

In a letter of support, the Union of Ghana Catholic Diocesan Priests' Association (UGCDPA) recounted the history of the friction between the government and the Church beginning with the incessant attacks by the late General Acheampong who "waged a relentless war of propaganda against the country's Bishops".

According to the UGCDPA's letter, the Church's objection to Father Kwabena Damuah's ascendancy to the PNDC throne, the suspension and deportation of Father Joop Visser, another Dutch Catholic Priest, the non-renewal of the contract of an Irish Nun, Reverend Sister Philomena Morris to work in the country, and now the withdrawal of Fr. Joop Valentine and Mr John Crawford both of the Society of African Missions from the Kumasi Diocese, all featured in J. J. Rawlings famous' speech in which he referred to the aforementioned personnel as missionaries who were bringing the "the Progressive truth to the people. UGCDPA pledge their unflinching The Support to the Bishop of Kumasi in his faithful stance against any interference from any quarter."

The National Laity Council, the National Council of Catholic Women and the National Catholic Youth have all deplored the derogatory outbursts made by Flt Lt Rawlings and have pledged their total and unalloyed Support to all the Bishops in Ghana and especially to the Bishop of Kumasi. Several Catholic Groups, Organisations and individual devotees of the Church have all called for Rawlings to render a public apology to the Bishop and the Catholic Church.

The Kumasi Traditional Council in a press statement issued in Kumasi and signed by Baffour Amankwatia V Bantamahene and Ag. President of the Council, considers the "matter a purely domestic one for the Catholic hierarchy to resolve and refutes allegations in the Ghanaian Times attributed to the KTC allegedly supporting Rawlings' castigation of the Bishop".

The STANDARD in its editorial of June 16 1985 had this to say: ". . . If we happen to be public officers it behoves us, in any case, to conduct ourselves with the utmost propriety if only to set a good example. In our traditional setting, no matter how powerful we may be, we do not call anyone names in public, especially if they are older than we are . . . The public officer who goes beyond the bounds of propriety must know the risks he runs. We appreciate that there is much that should change in this country but we should hope that some things will still remain with us, however old-fashioned they may be. Ability to speak well and decently in public rates high among us. We wish it were possible to speak of the PNDC Chairman in similar terms for his televised address on June 3 when commissioning GBC's new transmitters".

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