SAMBURU, Kenya (AP) — The Vatican is investigating a Kenyan man’s claim that his father is an Italian missionary priest who impregnated his mother when she was 16, a case that highlights how the Catholic Church is reckoning with Africa’s legacy of sexual abuse and priests fathering children.
Gerald Erebon has been an outcast of sorts for all of his 30 years: Tall and light-skinned with wavy hair, Erebon looks nothing like the dark-skinned Kenyan man listed as his father on his birth certificate, or like his black mother and siblings.
Erebon, his family and villagers in remote Archer’s Post, Kenya say that’s because he is the son of the Rev. Mario Lacchin, an 83-year-old Italian priest of the Consolata Missionaries religious order who ministered in Archer’s Post in the 1980s.
“According to my birth certificate, it is like I am living a wrong life, a lie,” Erebon told The Associated Press in a series of interviews in Nairobi and Archer’s Post. “I just want to have my identity, my history.”
Lacchin denies he is Erebon’s father, and has refused to take a paternity test. His religious superiors haven’t forced him, but arranged a series of three meetings this year between Erebon and Lacchin in hopes of establishing a dialogue between them.
The Vatican stepped in and opened an investigation after Erebon’s claim was brought to its attention in May by an advocate for children of priests, Vincent Doyle.
Doyle did so after obtaining the birth certificates of Erebon and his late mother, Sabina Losirkale, which showed she had just turned 16 when she conceived in 1988. In Kenya, the legal age of consent was and is 18.
Amid the torrent of sex abuse accusations that have rocked the Catholic priesthood, little attention has been paid to the pregnancies resulting from those illicit acts. And nowhere is this a more glaring issue than in Africa, where the flouting of celibacy by priests is a known, long-standing problem.
The continent has long lagged behind the United States, Europe and Australia in confronting the problem of priests having sex with children, given the church’s priorities here have focused on fighting poverty, conflict and traffickers who sell children off to war or work.
Recently, East African bishops established regional child protection standards and guidelines to prevent child sexual abuse. And in parts of Francophone West Africa, the Catholic Church has launched safeguarding programs for society at large.
Those initiatives, though, are relatively new, scattershot and underfunded.
Lacchin encountered Sabina Losirkale when she was a student at the Gir Gir Primary School in Archer’s Post, a dusty town on the highway to Ethiopia.
Growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, the Losirkale girls and two cousins were often left on their own; their parents were poor shepherds and spent days away from home, seeking pasture in the bush for their animals.
Starting about a year before she turned 16, Sabina skipped afterschool sports to go to the priests’ quarters to do housework, cooking and cleaning for the parish priests.
Her sister, Scolastica Losirkale, recalls she would sometimes see Sabina and Lacchin hugging as they said goodbye.
Other times, Scolastica said, Sabina would come home from Lacchin’s house crying and asking for Scolastica to fetch water so she could bathe. Some nights she didn’t come home at all.
At the time, the priest was in his early 50s.
“I think Father Mario was taking advantage of my sister,” said the 45-year-old widow, looking through family photos in her one-bedroom, mud-brick home. “He bribed her with gifts, food, clothes. He was even buying us books. My sister used to come with books, pens, all we needed.”
One night, Sabina vomited. It was the first indication that she was pregnant.
Lacchin was quietly transferred to a nearby mission; his driver and a catechist at Archer’s Post, Benjamin Ekwam, was chosen to marry Sabina.
Nevertheless, people talked.
“The people of Archer’s knew it was Father Mario. The people knew that the priest was responsible. Because even the boy — he resembled the priest when he was born,” said Alfred-Edukan Loote, who taught Erebon in primary school.
In mid-2013, Erebon reached out to Lacchin, sending him a series of emails over the span of two months, hoping to establish a relationship following his mother’s death. By now, the two men looked strikingly alike — tall and lanky with sharp cheekbones.
After Erebon received no response, he said he tried to meet Lacchin in person in Marsabit, where Lacchin was working as a church administrator. Erebon said Lacchin brushed off his overture. Told by the priest to take his complaint to the bishop, he did not.
Five years later, Erebon reached out to Doyle, the Irish psychotherapist behind Coping International, which advocates for children of priests.
Doyle immediately contacted the Rome-based Consolata order, which sent a top official to investigate, the Rev. James Lengarin.
In an interview in Rome, Lengarin said the order felt it could not compel Lacchin to take the DNA test, and that a slow process of reconciliation was the best course.
“We didn’t feel that he should be constrained by obedience, by force of obedience, to do it,” Lengarin said, noting that Lacchin is now 83.
Lengarin said the order had planned to continue its investigation and hoped Lacchin would be persuaded to accept a paternity test, but is now awaiting orders from the Vatican office that handles religious orders on how to proceed.
The Vatican confirmed the office is investigating the case, but declined further comment.
There are no known criminal proceedings against Lacchin in Kenya as a result of Doyle’s report to Interpol.
Efforts to reach Lacchin for comment were unsuccessful. He didn’t respond to email, text message and phone calls. After witnessing him celebrate Mass at his Resurrection Gardens parish in Nairobi in July, AP went back to the church and was told this week that he was visiting a sick sister in France and would take a period of leave at least through the end of October.
Erebon said he wants Lacchin’s help to obtain Italian citizenship for himself and his two children. But more than that, he wants a life that is based on the truth.
“I just want to have my identity, my history, so that my children can also have what they really are: their heritage, history and everything,” he said.
Nicole Winfield reported from Rome. AP producer Khaled Kazziha contributed from Nairobi.