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August 15, 2001

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    Vatican, bishop's wife battle for his loyalties

       
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    By Tom Hundley
    Tribune foreign correspondent
    Published August 15, 2001

    VATICAN CITY -- Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, a charismatic African cleric, hasn't been seen in public for more than a week. According to the Vatican, he is engaged in "prayer and reflection."

    According to his wife, the archbishop is being held prisoner in the papal apartments. She began a hunger strike Tuesday and promised to "fast to the death" unless she is allowed to see him.

    She also announced that she might be pregnant with the archbishop's baby.

    For the Vatican, the Milingo affair has blossomed into a bizarre scandal that embarrasses the church and challenges its position on priestly celibacy and the sanctity of the family.

    The scandal also threatens to undermine the Roman Catholic Church's standing among its growing ranks of believers in Africa while embroiling the Vatican in a messy argument with African-American Protestants.

    The Vatican tried to defuse the crisis Tuesday by releasing the text of a letter from Milingo in which he declares his loyalty to the pope, and not to Maria Sung. But the archbishop's wife said she thinks her husband might have been coerced to write the letter under the influence of drugs.

    Milingo, 72, the former Archbishop of Lusaka in Zambia, long has been a controversial figure in the church. He was one of the youngest men in modern times to be consecrated as an archbishop, and he built a large personal following in Africa by combining Catholic spirituality with native African mysticism. His specialties were faith healing and exorcisms.

    But this blending of doctrine with folklore troubled church authorities, and in 1983 he was transferred from Lusaka to a desk job at the Vatican in an apparent attempt to blunt his popularity.

    To the chagrin of church authorities, Milingo continued to perform exorcisms and other exotic rituals in Italy, drawing large and enthusiastic congregations to services that were sometimes held in warehouses.

    Two years ago, the Vatican eased him out of his curial job, and the following year it issued a new set of guidelines dealing with exorcisms and healings that was clearly aimed at reining him in.

    If Milingo's superiors thought this would settle matters with the renegade prelate, they got a rude awakening in May when he took a wife in a group wedding ceremony performed in New York by Rev. Sun Myung Moon, head of the Unification Church.

    Milingo married Maria Sung, a 43-year-old Korean acupuncturist who was chosen to be his bride by Moon. Milingo and Sung did not know each other before the ceremony.

    For this spectacularly public breach of his celibacy vows, the Vatican threatened Milingo with excommunication. He had a private visit with Pope John Paul II on Aug. 7, and last spoke to his wife the following day.

    At a press conference Tuesday morning, Sung said her husband was being kept from her against his will, and that in addition to the hunger strike, she would also stage a daily prayer vigil in St. Peter's Square until she is allowed to see him.

    Wife is possibly pregnant

    "I love Emmanuel Milingo with all my heart and I am ready to give my life to protect him, just as he would do for me. I want to meet my husband face to face, without anyone's control," Sung said, reading from a prepared statement in Italian.

    She also raised the possibility that she may be pregnant, but said she had decided to postpone a pregnancy test until "my husband is at my side."

    For most of the news conference, Sung sat with her eyes shut tight. She was flanked by advisers from the Unification Church and by Rev. Zagery Oliver, a representative of the American Clergy Leadership Conference, a group with ties to Moon that says it represents a broad spectrum of denominations including many African-American ones.

    In a prepared statement, Oliver said that African-American clergymen "are very concerned that [Milingo] could possibly be subject to ill treatment because of his ethnic background."

    Some of Milingo's supporters said they were trying to get Rev. Jesse Jackson to intervene in the case.

    The Vatican "would not treat a European priest this way. You would not hear anyone calling him a `voodoo priest' if he were white," said Rev. Phillip Schanker, a Unification Church clergyman who has been acting as spokesman for Milingo and his wife.

    The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, a powerful office that traces its roots to the Inquisition, issued a terse statement Sunday that said Milingo had decided to fully reconcile with the church.

    On Tuesday, after Sung's news conference, Vatican officials released the text of an Aug. 11 letter from an apparently contrite Milingo to the pope in which Milingo said he was recommitting himself "in the Catholic Church with all my heart [and] renouncing my living together with Maria Sung and my relationship with the Rev. Moon."

    At a hastily called news conference Tuesday evening, Sung contended that the letter had been coerced and that her husband may have been drugged. She also threatened to file a kidnapping complaint with Italian police if the Vatican did not allow her to see her husband.

    A Vatican spokesman denied that Milingo is being held against his will or that he is being "deprogrammed"--a term used to describe the process of weaning a person from psychological dependency on a cult.

    Before he disappeared from public view, Milingo insisted that he had never joined the Unification Church. He said he remained a Catholic believer but rejected the church's teaching on celibacy.

    `Afraid of a schism'

    "They'll never change Milingo's mind [about celibacy]. This has been a very deep thing for him for 30 years," said Schanker.

    At this point, the church appears to be wary of excommunicating Milingo. He has a large following, and his brand of Catholic spirituality mixed with folkloric customs has proved to be a winning formula in Africa, where the church has enjoyed its most significant growth in recent years.

    "They are really afraid of a schism, that if Milingo is excommunicated, he'll go off and do his own thing," said one member of the Vaticanisti, the Italian press corps, which specializes in deciphering the subtle workings of Vatican bureaucracy. "With the healings and spiritualism and his rejection of celibacy, he would represent a very attractive package."

    Copyright 2001, Chicago Tribune


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