In March last year, a Catholic Priest, Fr Lionel Sham, was murdered in South Africa.
With 34 murders per 100 000 population, the country has the highest murder rate anywhere outside Latin America (but this is thankfully, now on the decline after a peak at the close of the twentieth century). For comparison, the world rate is 7.6. For both the US and the European region, it is 5.4. But to illustrate at a more personal level what this means, I want to tell you of the part that this had in my own decision to emigrate – for decades it was a firm assumption in my mind that I could never leave. I had too many family ties, and was too deeply committed to working within the country to bring about the fulfilment of the democratic ideal.
Way back in 1987, I had worked my butt off in the (all- White) general election as a constituency campaign manager for the “liberal” Progressive Federal Party. Working equally hard alongside me was Jean Simpson, an elderly woman whose husband John was a Johannesburg city councillor. Some years later, I read that John Simpson had been brutally murdered in his home, where he had disturbed a burglar in the middle of the night. Looking back, I realised that John Simpson was the FIFTH person I had personally known who had been murdered. (I want to stress that this was before the transition to democratic government. I am not one who blames the high crime rate on the ANC – it had started to rise well before that.)
There were more murders later of people that I knew. I stopped counting when the figure passed twenty. These were not close friends or immediate family, but still people I had known directly, people who put a human face on the statistics. At one further remove were the people related to the people I knew: one former colleague when to visit her parents, only to find their bloodied bodies dumped in the swimming pool. The final tipping point came a few years lter, when in a single day, I heard of two people known to me who had been killed: one was a pupil at the school where I taught, who had been out with a friend whose bag was snatched. She foolishly challenged the mugger, and was fatally stabbed in response – at 16 years old. The other was the mother of a Jesuit friend, who was killed in a car-jacking while waiting to pick up a friend for a bridge party. It was at that point that I knew I had to at least consider leaving. It was not that I was scared on my own behalf, or even for my family: it was more disturbing than that. I realized that with every fresh occurrence, I was simply losing the emotional capacity to respond. Every time I learned of yet another murder, I simply cut off all human feeling.
Fr Lionel Sham was not exactly in that category. I never really knew him personally, although our lives had crossed at many points. He had joined the minor seminary in Boksburg aged 15, and attended a Christian Brothers school – where I was a (younger) pupil for two years. Among his parish appointments were two stints at Johannesburg’s Cathedral of Christ the King, during both of which I was briefly a parishioner. The first of these was when I was first married (a long time ago, and I have no clear memories of any of the large cathedral staff), and the second was in the early eighties, just after I first came out – and not yet ready to return to the Catholic church, so again did not know him personally. However, by the time I had become fully active in the church in various activities, he had become Cathedral administrator, and so his was a name I was constantly hearing, and was well known to many of the people I was closest to in the church.
Then, last March, he was murdered. The trial is currently under way, and this is what breaks my heart: the prosecution case is that the young man who is the accused killed Fr Sham because he was owed money for sex.
Roman Catholic priest Lionel Sham owed his lover and “own son” money for sex – and that is why he was killed.
The State says Phillip Velaphi Malgas, 27, murdered the man he regularly visited because he was “short-changed”. It is the cornerstone of its prosecution.
But Malgas, who had a close relationship with Sham, has denied involvement in the robbery, kidnapping and murder of the priest between March 6 and 7 last year.
Evidence indicates that he spent a weekend prior to the murder at Sham’s single-bedroom house. He also attended two church services with the priest – one at his resident church, the Our Lady of Africa Roman Catholic Church in Mohlakeng, Randfontein, and another at a Catholic church in Toekomsrus, Randfontein, on February 28 last year.
Sham was found murdered a week later, on March 7, by a man patrolling a patch of veld with his dogs in Doornkuil in De Deur, near Vereeniging, while looking for his missing son.
Church caretaker David Mokotsi cried in the Johannesburg High Court on Monday when he recounted the trauma of finding that Sham was missing and his house splattered with blood spots. He also saw a single-blade knife, buttons, empty cash boxes and missing households items.
It was enough proof that something terrible had happened to the priest.
(full report at Iol.co.za)
An obituary for Fr Sham describes his early years, and every step of his clerical career – but not a hint of any emotional life: because, you see, a Catholic priest is expected to embrace celibacy, and reject all possibility of a proper human relationship with any one person. Murder, such as that of Fr Sham, is just one of the possible consequences.