NAIROBI, Kenya — After three young men and a boy told police last June an Italian priest had been sexually molesting them for years at a shelter for poor children, the most senior Roman Catholic cleric in Kenya announced the church would investigate thoroughly.
Ten months later, nothing has been investigated by the church, its lawyer says, and the Vatican has not been notified.
The accused priest, the Rev. Renato Kizito Sesana, continues to run the facility along with other shelters on the outskirts of Nairobi.
Kenyan police say they found no evidence and believe Sesana is innocent. Sesana himself has denied the allegations, saying some of his accusers may have been bribed or coerced as part of a plan to seize church assets worth up to $5.3 million.
It is unclear whether the abuse took place or not, but the church's response – or lack of it – has inspired furious debate in Kenya. The case is being closely watched amid questions into the Roman Catholic Church's ability to deal with sexual predators among its clergy around the world following reports that church authorities ignored or covered up allegations against priests in Europe and America.
"The church was not one of the places we paid much attention to when we were looking at issues of children's abuse," said Millie Odhiambo, a director of Cradle, a children's rights group, and a member of parliament. "There was always this presumption that the church is safe. We are now focusing attention even on the church."
Odhiambo is not satisfied with the probe by police, who are widely seen in Kenya as inept and corrupt, and says the church should have carried out an independent inquiry. She says a further official investigation is also needed.
Kenya's attorney general has promised further investigations but it is unclear what, if any, action has been taken.
Sesana, who is currently outside Kenya, did not reply to e-mails or phone calls from The Associated Press seeking comment on the allegations, nor did he respond to a request made through his lawyer.
Sesana won the admiration of many donors through his work for the poor, and after the allegations surfaced several supporters went public to say his help had changed their lives. From 1995 to 2001, the priest wrote a weekly Sunday column called 'Father Kizito's Notebook' in the Sunday Nation, one of East Africa's biggest newspapers.
The case made headlines in June when the four went to police to accuse the priest of molesting them at a shelter where they lived. They said the abuse began when they were aged 11, 13, 14, and 16.
After the allegations triggered public outrage, Cardinal John Njue held a news conference and promised a thorough investigation.
The alleged victims claimed the priest would ask them to stay behind to help wash dishes after his regular Friday dinner for groups of children at his house on the shelter grounds. They said he would then pick one of them to stay behind and molest him.
"After the incident I lost my faith in the Catholic church so I don't attend Mass anymore. I feel it is a waste of time. I am thinking of joining another church," an alleged victim, now 17, told The Associated Press.
He and another alleged victim interviewed by AP asked that their names not be used to protect them from retribution. The other man, now 25, said Sesana began molesting him 10 years ago. He said the abuse stopped in 2008 when Sesana briefly left the country.
Asked why the alleged abuse continued into his adulthood, the young man said he was coerced into having sex because the priest had threatened to stop paying fees for courses he was taking and later threatened to stop paying allowances for mechanical work he was doing at the shelter.
Despite the announcement that the church would investigate, the two said no one from the church has talked to them about their accusations.
Soon after going to the police, three of the four complainants, including the 17-year-old, withdrew the accusations, saying they had been forced to make them by con men planning to take over church property. But the 17-year-old told the AP this month that he recanted only because he and his mother repeatedly received anonymous text messages threatening them with death. He insisted he really had been abused but did not seek to press charges again because he felt no one would believe him.
When asked by the AP recently whether the church had investigated, Cardinal Njue said the probe had been completed. He said he could not remember any of the details and referred inquiries to James Nyiha, a lawyer for the church.
Nyiha told the AP he knows of no church investigation and said the matter was being handled solely by the police.
The Rev. Anthony Mwituria, the procurator of the Nairobi diocese, said the Vatican has not been notified about the accusations and would only become involved if the priest's superiors seek to have him defrocked.
Sesana's lawyer, Kioko Kilukumi, said the police conclusion that the priest is innocent should be enough. He repeats the claims Sesana made on his blog that fraudsters enticed the boys to make the accusations.
But in this country there is little faith in the police, many wonder why the church has not looked into accusations against one of its priests.
"You would think a moral institution like the Catholic church would complement the police investigations with their internal investigations," said civil rights campaigner Mwalimu Mati. "These are very serious allegations."